Public Fears of the Past and Present
A Rare Instance of Me Putting My Academic Background to Good Use
*Two of my criminology professors, James Williams and Anita Lam, inspired me to write this post, and I learned all this from them. Thank you both for being such quality educators and for playing a vital role in my growth as a writer.
It comes as no surprise that media influences virtually every aspect of our everyday lives. What is interesting are the different ways in which media has impacted the public’s reactions and perceptions toward various forms of deviance in the last several decades.
When I was a criminology student, I studied how the media constructs and reinforces moral panics, scapegoats, folk devils, and of course, health scares. Here are definitions for some of these terms* before we continue on.
Moral panic: When the public reacts irrationally to insignificant events that they consider threatening to societal values and norms. This fear is rooted in ideas of what is right and wrong imposed on people by certain political ideologies.
Scapegoat: A person or subject that is hostilely received by the public. Such hostility is underpinned by politicians, who intentionally single out individuals as the cause for any given societal issue, in order to take attention away from the actual problems caused by their political agendas.
Folk devil: A person who serves as a visible and symbolic example of what other people shouldn’t be. Folk devils are produced as a result of the media’s need to define deviant individuals in a stereotypical and stylized manner. This is common practice in news and entertainment.
Now, we’re going to dip our toes into some history, with all this terminology in tow, by overviewing notable time periods* with which these social constructs resonate.
The 1920s to 30s: Mexicans and Marijuana
Mexican workers immigrated to the US during the Great Depression because of their usefulness in the labor force. Americans soon became concerned that the Mexicans were taking all their jobs, and wanted to find a legal solution to deport them. When Americans found out that the Mexican workers grew and smoked marijuana, the drug got mixed in with the policy implications for immigration problems and deportation. Since marijuana was widely seen as a dangerous gateway drug at the time, the government decided that the way to officially criminalize it was to place tax tabs with horrid property descriptions of it on its distribution, use, and sale.
This made way for advertisements that deemed marijuana as the cause for criminal behavior, even though this was a myth. Marijuana became propagated against even further when there was no evidence presented to suggest that criminal offenses were being committed without the drug’s influence. None of this had anything to do with marijuana itself, but rather the group of people it was associated with and the strategies taken to criminalize that group in order to maintain a budget and society’s interests.
The 1960s: Mods and Rockers
These were two UK-based youth gangs, who each expressed their own normative and stylistic differences. The British media took advantage of the gangs’ minor disputes and fabricated major conflicts between them, which stigmatized and demonized all members from both parties. Frequent reporting on this exaggerated incidence eventually caused a moral panic, because parents started perceiving them as a prime example of problematic youth in general. Gang members were stereotyped as affluent rebels when in reality the majority of them weren’t even brought up in wealthy families.
This case demonstrated how giving a subculture too much unnecessary attention and escalating the severity of their actions can turn a public concern into a moral panic. It also produces inaccurate stereotypes and labels of subcultures, which directly influence how they are treated in the justice system and its overall orientation. Lawmakers end up creating criminals rather than dealing with the broader societal issues they are situated in.
The 1980s: Crack Cocaine Epidemic
The dangerousness of crack cocaine is socially constructed, primarily through media representations and images. While our Criminal Code doesn’t distinguish between the different types of crack cocaine, America certainly does. The US crack cocaine epidemic was rooted in the perception that users are inner city folk who are predisposed to violent and criminal behavior. This all goes back to the notion that the drug itself is considered dangerous and highly addictive. Female addicts, in particular, were the biggest concern, because their addiction was perceived as pathological and could, therefore, be passed on to their children. Newborn infants of these “crack mothers” were called “crack babies,” who were said to experience withdrawal symptoms from cocaine such as weakness and shivering.
Funnily enough, it was all a myth. As it turns out, the infants were born normal and healthy. It wasn’t pathology that made crack addicts potential criminals, but rather the deviant labels given to them by the law and media. Lawmakers especially feel pressured to respond to events like this, and their responses usually take the form of highly severe punishments that justify the moral panic. The action taken in this case involved the American Federal Sentencing Guidelines in 1986, which determined mandatory sentences using the crack cocaine to powder cocaine possession ratio. This ratio was used in courts on the basis that crack cocaine was considered more addictive than powder cocaine.
Today: Video Games
Violent ones, in particular, are a recurring scapegoat for politicians who claim that they cause aggression in players. Game franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt are considered “murder simulators” that motivate players to commit violent acts. While the argument can be made that violent video games stimulate short-term aggression in younger players, there hasn’t really been concrete evidence suggesting that they produce any long-term effects.
One main problem revolving around this scapegoat is that people mistake correlations for causes. Video games can certainly be taken into account as one factor for any deviant behavior, but broader socioeconomic factors that wholly affect the players’ lives cannot be ignored.
The other major issue is that aggression and criminality are used to describe behavior interchangeably when really they need to be evaluated separately. Aggression is a psychological assessment, while crime is a legal assessment. Not only is criminal activity a social construct, but it also can’t explain the underlying cause for behavior on its own. As well, crime isn’t always rooted in aggression, where video games are said to play a role.