Carry on panicking

Image of Simon Kuper

Easter 1964 was cold in the English seaside town of Clacton. Bored young visitors – some of them Mods, others Rockers, in the fashion parlance of the day – began to misbehave. Stones were thrown. “Those on bikes roared up and down, windows were broken, some beach huts were wrecked and one boy fired a starting pistol in the air,” wrote the young sociologist Stanley Cohen in his classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics in 1972.

The disturbances in Clacton sparked a national “moral panic”. The story led most British newspapers, and the media began monitoring young people visiting seaside resorts. Whenever any trouble happened, or didn’t happen, it was reported hysterically. One Brighton newspaper called the various seaside incidents “without parallel in English history”. The forces of order cracked down on Mods and Rockers.

Stan Cohen, a family friend, died last month aged 70. His book remains one of the most influential in sociology. His phrase “moral panics” has entered the language. Hardly anybody now remembers Mods and Rockers, but Stan prefigured all moral panics of the last 40 years. In Britain alone, the “folk devils” demonised in these panics have ranged from satanic child abusers to Muslims and “hoodies”. Anyone living in a country with mass media could compile his own list of national folk devils. Moral panics may never cease, but if you read Stan’s book, at least you will understand each time what is going on.

Often, the moral panic is set off by a genuine, if manageable problem: usually, young working-class people behaving badly. The mass media then exaggerates the problem. It depicts the chosen “folk devils” as a grave, new, organised threat to the social order. “Mods and Rockers Strike Again”, shout the headlines, or on days when absolutely nothing happens, “Thugs Stay Away From N.E. Essex.” As Stan wrote in 1972, “It would have been perfectly simple for anyone who had studied the Mods and Rockers coverage to predict with some accuracy the reports of all later variations on the theme of depraved youth: skinheads, football hooligans, hippies, drug-takers, pop festivals, the Oz trial.”

The moral panic spreads from the media. Experts pontificate about the supposed problem, the public is made anxious, police are given more powers, and everyone goes hunting for Mods and Rockers (or whoever is the folk devil du jour). Deep down, society is panicking about something else: in Stan’s study, not about a few Mods breaking deckchairs, but about the rise of a relatively affluent, assertive and simply different younger generation.

In this panic, some bewildered young people are told that they are bad “Mods” or “Rockers”. Others, searching for a role, decide they want to be bad “Mods” or Rockers” as depicted by the media. In short, the reporting helps create the folk devils. They are then identified and punished. Eventually the panic fades, but is soon replaced by a different panic – in Stan’s phrase, “Carry on panicking”. The Daily Mail, in particular, exists largely to engender moral panics.

Moral panics serve to express the desired social order: brave policemen good, independent young people bad. Crucially, though, the panic is also a device to hand more power and bigger budgets to the forces of control. In the case of Mods and Rockers, police flooded seaside towns; police and courts suspended civil liberties, for instance by barring youths on scooters from entering beach resorts, confiscating their belts to humiliate them, or keeping them locked up too long without trial; police informers infiltrated young people’s clubs and coffee bars; and parliament passed a punitive Malicious Damage Act. Mods and Rockers provided an alibi for a crackdown. So, in later years, did supposed football hooligans or Islamic fundamentalists. Suitable folk devils, Stan noted, tend to be “both highly visible and structurally weak”.

The authorities can use folk devils for all sorts of purposes. Twenty years ago, the folk devil of the feckless single mother pumping out children in order to get state benefits was a brilliant excuse for the UK’s government to cut welfare. Later a new folk devil, the “bogus asylum seeker” exploiting “Soft Touch Britain”, fulfilled the same role. Meanwhile the moral panics that Stan always hoped would erupt – over genocides, or torture – never do. Studying moral panics, he wrote, helps us see “the ways we are manipulated into taking some things too seriously and other things not seriously enough.”

I’ll always remember the chat I had with Stan at my wedding, in 2004. He said some typically kind things, then remarked, “You know, I look at my own wedding photos and it’s amazing: everyone in them is dead.” That summed up his life in latter years, which was like something out of the Book of Job. In the 1990s he developed Parkinson’s disease, and then his wife died too young. He wrote another classic of sociology – States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2001) – but I’m not sure it was much consolation.

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