In Risk and Blame, Anthropologist Mary Douglas describes the cultural basis for witch hunts in traditional societies.
Whether the witch is able to do harm or not, the attribution of a hidden power to hurt is a weapon of attack against them.
A successful accusation is one that has enough credibility for a public outcry to remove the opportunity of repeating the damage. A moral panic starts with an unspeakable tragedy which sparks an attempt to ascribe blame and responsibility. Initially, accusations flow freely but focus on those targets who are already the subject of anxiety. Once one accusation sticks, it becomes easier to pile on charges. Our rush to judgement overwhelms our ability to rationally assess the evidence.
Our need to take action supersedes our ability to anticipate consequences. Moral panic shuts down self-examination at the very moment when real problems demand careful consideration. Several weeks after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the United States Senate Commerce Committee launched a series of hearings, chaired by Sen. Sam Brownback ,on the marketing of violent entertainment to children. Introducing the investigation, Brownback explained, We are not here to point fingers but to identify the causes of cultural pollution and seek solutions.
The phrase, cultural pollution, of course, already presumed a consensus that popular culture was a worthless iritant which was to blame for various social harms. Brownback was prepared to sweep aside constitutional protections: We are having endless debates about First and Second Amendment rights while our children are being killed and traumatized. Brownback focused his ire on forms of popular culture that met youth rather than adult tastes: I am willing to bet that there aren’t many adults who are huge fans of teen slasher movies or the music of Cannibal Corpse and Marilyn Manson. Sen. Orin Hatch declared Manson’s music tremendously offensive to everyone in America who thinks, a category that seemingly does not include a significant number of high school and college students.
William Bennett, former Secretary of Education and self-proclaimed guardian of American virtue, called on Congress to make meaningful distinctions between works that used violence to tell a larger story such as Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, or Clear and Present Danger, and works that gratuitously exploited violence, such as The Basketball Diaries, Cruel Intentions, or Scream. His commonsense distinction was at heart an ideological one, separating works that offered adult perspectives from those which expressed youth concerns. Though they understood the hearings as a ritual humiliation of the entertainment industries, the senators were feeding a cultural war which was more and more focused on teenagers. As a GOP operative Mike Murphy explained in that week’s Time, we need Goth control, not gun control.
Hatch engaged in homophobic banter about whether Manson was a he or a she while Brownback accused members of the Goth subculture of giving themselves over to the dark side. Such comments reinforced bigotry and fear. Adult fears about popular culture were being transfered towards those people who consumed it. The Goths were a relatively small subculture whose members drew inspiration from Romantic literature and constructed their personal identity by borrowing from the iconography of the horror film and S/M pornography.
The group could claim a twenty year history without much public attention because they had previously not been associated with violent crime. However, the Columbine shooters had been mistakingly identified in some early news reports as Goths and as a result, this group had been singled out in the post-Littleton backlash. From the outset, Congress was unlikely to set federal policies to regulate media content, which would not have sustained constitutional scrutiny. They counted on public pressure to intimidate the entertainment industry into voluntarily withdrawing controversial works from circulation. Manson canceled some concerts. MGM stopped selling The Basketball Diaries.
The Warner Brothers Network withheld the airing of the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until midsummer. The biggest impact of the moral panic, however, would be felt in the schools – both public and private – as teachers and administrators increasingly saw their students as threats to public safety and suspected popular culture of turning good kids into brutal monsters. Online journalist Jon Katz’s remarkable series, Voices from the Hellmouth, circulated hundreds .