EP95: Identifying Moral Panic

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Elizabeth LaMotte:
From the National Association of Social Workers, this is Social Work Talks, and I'm your host, Elizabeth LaMotte.

Today we are going to be speaking with Dr. Michael Eversman about his very interesting new book, Identifying Moral Panic. I'm holding it up for our viewers. Dr. Eversman is an associate professor at the Department of Social Work of Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. His areas of research interest include substance abuse, illicit drug policies, alternatives to the war on drugs, and all things social work education. In addition, Dr. Eversman has more than 10 years of experience as a licensed independent clinical social worker providing mental health and substance abuse services to a variety of client populations.

So Dr. Eversman, welcome to Social Work Talks. Thank you for joining us today.

Michael Eversman:
Thank you.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
I thought that we would start off identifying and defining moral panic for our listeners and our viewers. And if you could also tell us about how you came to write this very interesting book, which I really enjoyed.

Michael Eversman:
Sure. So, we talk about a moral panic as a societal reaction to a social problem, a social condition of concern. Sometimes it can be the mere presence of an individual. But the reaction to the problem is out of whack with the true threat of the problem. But the problem often represents something very symbolic, something very important to people in a certain sense.

And so, it gets blown out of whack. The media covers the problem in a way that's highly sensationalized, highly stylized. A sort of consensus begins to happen, that something has to be done. Oftentimes something is done. For my purpose, writing this book was talking about social policies that are enacted during these periods.

The policies that are enacted don't necessarily address the problem, because the problem really doesn't exist. It exists, but it's kind of untrue. And then the problem just goes away. The flurry of reaction, the overreaction to this condition just fades away and we move on.

But the concern for when they do happen is that they leave, in their wake, a legacy of policies that often don't address the problem and often create its own kind of social justice issues, which is another important aspect of moral panic.

I feel the gist of it in a sense. There's a little more to it than that, but...

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Well, we're going to get into the more to it. But as a social worker and an associate professor of social work, how did you become interested in this topic?

Michael Eversman:
My colleague, Dr. Jason Bird, he had actually been familiar with Moral Panic Theory. And so, being in his office and seeing the books I think is really how it happened.

We were both teaching Contemporary Policy class here, and it just became clear to me and clear to us, because we would eventually collaborate, that there were a lot of uses for this theory. Bringing it to social work, bringing it to how we understand and teach about social problem and social policy.

So we just kind of devised it from there. I think we did a presentation. Then we eventually co-authored an article that was published in social work that kind of brought it to social work, moral panic. And then from that article I wrote this book. So it was kind of a culmination of a series of things.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
And in the book, you very early on mentioned Stan Cohen's book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which was published in 1972. Can you talk a bit about that book, and also how our understanding of moral panic has evolved and changed since the term really became known or coined in the seventies?

Michael Eversman:
Sure. Stan Cohen was a criminologist, a sociologist in the UK. And he wrote that book, he really sort of fleshed out and formalized our understanding of moral panic. And he was using case study of youth subcultures that were happening in post World War II England youth subcultures. But his work is obviously a cornerstone. He also, the work of Jack Young and later on Stewart Hall and colleagues, this is all in the seventies. They really sort of formalized this theory.

Yeah. Wait, so second question. How has it changed?

I think the biggest change in the 50 years, really, since this theory has been formalized is the information landscape that we live in today. I mean, back then, to get out the news story, there were only so many channels. Especially with television. Only so many channels that could be carried out on. So it was easier to have a consensus viewpoint, or not that many divergent viewpoints, on a particular issue.

Today, the media landscape being what it is today, I don't even think they could have envisioned it 50 years ago. So it's really hard to sustain people's attention, to worry about one thing. Let alone have a consensus viewpoint that it's even a problem, really.

And this is sort of the world we live in now with that. So that would be the biggest thing. But I have to say, other than that, I do think the theory itself has aged well. I like to say it's timeless and it's timely.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
I agree with you. And as you mention the media, the book is very well thought out and very well organized. And I believe chapter three focuses on media itself.

And so I was hoping that you could speak to how the media and media literacy is a factor in understanding moral panic, and really what our listeners should be thinking about to that end.

Michael Eversman:
Yeah. I mean the media literacy concerns about it is really sort of an outgrowth of studying moral panics, and seeing how they work. Because much of it is based on false information and flat out untruths. So it's just crucial.

I wrote that chapter in the media a year-and-a-half ago or so, and it feels like with each day it becomes more and more out of date. Because the media are so, it's such an evolving, fast-moving thing. I don't think it's out of date just yet, but you get my point. There's so much that moves with it.

And then media literacy is just, it's a tough one. Because it almost goes against, I think, where a lot of us aren't right now with things. Which is just kind of confirmation bias, binding what we want to believe to be true rather than willing to subject ourselves to the possibility that we're wrong. Or even just hearing or tolerating a point of view that differs from ours.

That really is where I would start with media literacy. And then having, being exposed to various different viewpoints. But I think that's a tough one. And I honestly, I think it's, I don't want to overstate it.

But anyway, media literacy, extremely important. And we see it played out now in our political system for sure. We saw...

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Echo chambers

Michael Eversman:
A coup, right, based on false information. And so I don't know that that's going anywhere. And then you start to get into issues of free speech. And what speech should we ban, should we not tolerate?

And then we have a long history of being all over with that. We would agree that hate speech is bad, and we should ban it. But who's to say what hate speech is, except in the very clearest of circumstances?

Elizabeth LaMotte:
That's an interesting topic for social workers. And of course, many of our listeners are social workers. And it leads me to how you concluded chapter three. I want to read a quotation from the end of chapter three that has really stayed with me.

You write, "Social workers must attempt to counter harmful dynamics by redirecting a critical focus on the social forces that cause and contribute to the divisiveness. Furthermore, social workers must, in a responsible manner, utilize the power of the internet, and its many platforms, as a tool of advocacy and a true megaphone for the masses. Because only in this way can the promises of the internet be truly fulfilled."

So I would say that's a very well said called to action for us social workers. And I'd like you to elaborate on that, even with some ideas of how we can most effectively do that.

Michael Eversman:
Well, that I think there's two parts to my response. The first one is the divisiveness. And I think that goes beyond us as professionals. I'm sure most all of us have someone in our personal lives, maybe even a family member, whose political viewpoints or even just their viewpoints toward reality are different from ours, distorted from ours.

Many, many people have lost relationships, particularly really since the 2016 election. And we say, we thought we knew this person, and they think that they believe that, well then I just don't know you.

I mean, I think it's beyond the professional. It gets there too, but it certainly, I think begins with us personally. And that is a division. As Abe Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself, it cannot stand."

And how do we, maybe we hate the message, but if we want to also hate the messenger, where are we going to end up in this country, in this time of polarization? Unless we turn down the heat. So that really, in whatever way we can turn down the temperature on the rhetoric.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
So is part of really breaking down moral panic, attempting to, as you say, turn down the temperature by collecting clearer facts and having deeper media literacy then? Is that what you mean?

Michael Eversman:
Yeah. I mean, turning down the temperature on the heated rhetoric, trying to remember the things that we have in common. Trying to remember the things that bond us. And trying to forge a pathway where maybe our political system can be a little bit more functional. Our legislators will actually do the work that we need to do.

Interesting thing about moral panic is that, it holds that a social problem is exaggerated. But that's not to say that the social problem doesn't occur, isn't real. And I think that the key point there is the kernel of truth issue.

So there are very, very real problems, social problems that we need to address. But we just have so much to function there. And the book is just a litany of these historic examples where the problem has been blown out of proportion. That's the gist of the panic.

And yeah, it sort of focuses our direction away from things that we should be worried about. And then surprisingly, we end up living with things. We end up living with things that we should be worried about. So we focus too much on things that really aren't that threatening.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
I really like the way you're describing this, Dr. Eversman. And it leads me to confess to you that I think I do have, as a mom, a moral panic about guns. And specifically guns in schools.

And this comes up in your book, but I still think I have that moral panic. And I'm just wondering if you can help me with that, as a part of this conversation. Help me out here. Because I am morally panicked. Maybe I'm morally outraged, not morally panicked, but it feels like moral panic.

Michael Eversman:
I would never tell a parent not to worry about their child. I would never tell a parent that they're wrong to worry about their child. So I certainly can't and won't do that. And I think also when we're talking about something like our feelings toward a child, rationality goes out the window.

And so these sorts of discussions operate in the rational plane, but that's not where you as a concerned mother is coming from. You're not coming from there. You're coming from ... So yeah, that's the first thing I would say to you. But here we go.

Statistically, let me just first say it. It's hard to say that gun violence, is to say school shootings, that they're immoral panic when they happen. It's very hard to tell because they're extremely tragic, scary for parents with children.

It's extremely scary. Just robs us of so much of things that we take for granted as far as safety. The schools of all places, elementary schools. I mean, we're talking about babies here, for goodness sake, getting slaughtered with weapons of the [inaudible 00:14:04]

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Provide any explanation at all?

Michael Eversman:
Well, yeah, right, that too. But the fact of the matter is, and people don't know this, but a shooting is the least likely way, believe it or not, that a student is to die at school.

The statistically, historically, they're more likely to die in an auto-related accident than they are to be shot in a mass shooting incident. Again, that's of cold comfort to worried parents. But this isn't on the rational plane.

On the rational plane we know that schools, apples to apples, are the safest places for a child to be during the day, than even at home. And most threats to the welfare and wellbeing of children come from the home, come from people that they know.

So the chances of that kind of a thing happening are small, are still small, thankfully. But it doesn't feel that way when they happen. It certainly doesn't feel that way, even if it doesn't happen to you directly, to watch these news stories and to read about these tragedies.

So it's just important to say these two things really kind of coexist. I think policy should be made based on rational. That's just my opinion. Often, it isn't. But other than that, Elizabeth, I really don't know what I could say to you or what I would even try to say to you being a parent of a child.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
I think you're explaining it. I think you're saying, if I'm following, that two things can be true at the same time, and that I need to educate myself. I need to be an advocate. And at the same time, I need to be morally outraged rather than morally panicked.

Michael Eversman:
Sure. The solution to the issue with guns is the guns themselves. That came up twice in my book. A, we're talking about youth school shootings. And then, B, when we talk about mental illness and the mentally ill, which is in the news again now, certainly in New York. And with crime being up, a fear.

And so who should be able to get a gun in this country who should not be able to get a gun? How do guns keep us safe? Do they keep us safe?

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Michael Eversman:
The strongest correlate of mass shooting is availability of cause.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
And some of what you're describing goes back to a term that you use in the book that we haven't touched on yet. But I'd like you to describe for our listeners and our viewers, which is the importance of claims making, and claims makers, as it relates to moral panic. Can you speak to that?

Michael Eversman:
Claims making would relate to how the social problem is being talked about, and how the social problem is being understood.

And when you couple that with this new media environment that we live in where almost anything goes, it makes the idea of claims making even more important. And so, some people with higher visibility, high-name recognition, their claims are more likely to get attention versus someone who's not.

But we've seen any numerous examples of blatantly, patently false claims being accepted as truth. And I think that one of the most scary things about this, when we drill down into moral panic and understanding what it says about social problem and claims making, is that it's not the validity of a claim that's so significant as whether or not that claim is believed with or without validity.

And we've seen this all the time, obviously. And so when you couple that with the social media, in particular, landscape that we're living now, it's extremely important. Which goes back by the way to media literacy, and just on trying to understand what we're hearing and what we're believing.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
And of course, this was a question mark and a big topic during the Covid-19 pandemic. Which, depending on who you ask, is still very much a factor. Your book was published this year, so I'm assuming you wrote it in part during the pandemic and during the lockdown. Is that correct?

Michael Eversman:
Actually, yes. But the end of the pandemic hadn't yet been written. As you say, the process being written at that time. So I don't know to what extent I really delved into it too much in the book.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Do you think that the issues swirling around the pandemic are connected to a moral panic? Or how would you, or would you not connect to them?

Michael Eversman:
Certainly, I think that the way it was covered in the media was sensationalized. Some would even say alarmist, relative to its true threat.

Some would say, and they'd be right, that some of the reactions were overkill with just shutting everything down. The economy, the school's in particular. I think even the policy makers that took Covid seriously now after the fact have sort of admitted, well, maybe we could have done some things differently.

So it did have, in that sense, certain elements of it. We've also, by the way, saw hostility during Covid. Which is an important attribute of moral panic, with the anti-Asian hysteria. The violence that we saw toward Asians, blame being heaped upon the Asian community. It being referred to as Kung-flu by the former president.

So we have those certain things in place that we would say, okay, well sure, Covid. But again, with moral panic, we're talking about a social problem with a kernel of truth. A million dead due to Covid is definitely more than a kernel of truth in my book.

So I would not characterize it as moral panic. It doesn't matter. Someone else would say, well, yes it is. And they could argue that it's. I wouldn't. But anytime you've got the media sensationalizing things, you're always going to think, okay, is this moral panic? Are they really being honest? Is this exaggeration? That makes it more difficult to say either way.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Another topic, and one of the, I really enjoyed the whole book, but a chapter that I found very compelling was the chapter on immigration. And I would like to read a quotation from that chapter that has really stayed with me. It's page 74 of your book, in case you're curious.

You write, "Indeed, the great irony of US Immigration Policy that is usually overlooked in the public and political debates is that truly restricting immigration, even the undocumented, would threaten our economy and weaken our innovative edge. Because undocumented men fill a disproportionate share of jobs in key consumer service industries and sectors. And foreign stem workers drive a large share of our new patents, emerging technologies, and entrepreneurial startups."

So let's just for a moment touch on chapter six and immigration in the lens of identifying moral panic.

Michael Eversman:
Sure. I mean, the whole story of immigration is really the story of us as a country. And then from there, who is a true American? Who's worthy of being a true American? Who belongs, who doesn't belong. But we also see with that story that immigration has often been used as a tool, a political tool, all the way back to the Alien and Sedition acts of the Federalists back in the 1801 the election.

So it's always been there. And it's unfortunate that the history of many of our federal immigration, well obviously they're all federal immigration policies, have been one of exclusion and one sort of cloaked in racial superiority.

The most blatant was the one, the Immigration International Act of 1924, which it created the quota system, which is based on admitting people to ensure the demographics would stay the way they were based on the 1890 census. So on and so forth. There's just so much though, about immigration.

And we see it today. Still, immigrants are very, very easily labeled, folk deviled, blamed for social problems. And immigration does pose real policy problems. We haven't had any kind of comprehensive immigration reform in this country since the Reagan administration. And it's a bipartisan issue that neither party really seems to want to touch.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
You mentioned that immigrants are folk deviled, and that's an interesting concept that comes from Stan Cohen's book. Can you define folk devils for our listeners and our viewers please?

Michael Eversman:
Yeah. Well, I just want to clarify. Immigrants are prone to being folk devils, some of them.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Thank you. Thank you for that clarification. Yeah.

Michael Eversman:
I mean, we love the story of this successful outsider, successful newcomer, the successful immigrant.

But the folk devils are basically the groups that get blamed for the social problem of the moral panic. So either, it's usually a behavior that they're engaging in, or maybe just the presence of them, themselves. But the folk devils are the group that gets blamed, and they're the threatening group. And this is, again, an important legacy that panics even then awaken. Because it makes these folk deviled groups who are already marginalized historically, even more so.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
As we zoom back a bit, I want to mention that many of our listeners are social workers. Many of them are also members of NASW. Those who aren't I invite you to join NASW. And NASW members have the option of joining specialty practice sections. So I come to this podcast as a member of the private practice specialty practice section.

Where I'm very focused not just on private practice, but on clinical current topics and issues. So it's meaningful to me that you are both an associate professor, you're an author, and you're an experienced LICSW clinician.

And I was hoping you could speak to our listeners about how your experience in private practice informed your writing the book, and perhaps also how moral panic comes up when practicing social work as a private practitioner or as a clinician.

Michael Eversman:
So I mean, the time in my life when I was still working in private practice was years before. So the evolution of moral panic in my career came later. So I couldn't tell you that I really kind of can relate it to practice.

With my students, moral panic and social policy in general relate to how they understand the macro-level dynamics, the environments, social environments, social context in which our clients often exist. And often face in terms of unjust systems, for example. And how that is can be a presenting problem, clinically.

But I really don't think I talk too much about moral panic in my, I teach methods and policy. So I really, teaching wise, have a hand in both, well, all three really, micro, meso, and macro.

But this moral pani, I basically keep in the policy discussions class. I've never really thought about it. It's not to say it's not, and I'm sure something has been written about it, but it's not really something that I apply in my teachings about practice.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Maybe that could be your next book. Because I think there's something there, I do. And I'll be thinking about it. And I hope that you'll be thinking about it as well. I do think it comes up, and I think it is related to different angles, helping our clients in how they distinguish between anxiety, moral outrage, and moral panic.

And I'll say as a clinician, that the media is affecting my clients. And it's affecting the clients of my supervisees. And I think maybe you have another book here, I'm just going to toss that out there.

Michael Eversman:
I'm sure people who teach policy practice address some of these things. People who teach social psychology would get into some of these things. Anything that's going to try to help understand the madness of clouds, if you will, who teach. So I'm sure it's already being done. Maybe they're just calling it something else.

But yeah, it's in terms of how the media make us feel and how social media impact people, that seems to be the condition of the world that we live in today. I mean, I sit in classes with students who I love, but I see I'm competing against a device which I really can't compete against.

And my classes are good. That has nothing to do with it. It's just a different environment in many, many, many ways. And the research is, this is being studied, obviously. Because we don't know the long term impact. Certainly all the early returns say that it's not good. Certainly social media for young girls in particular, we know that they're targeted. I mean, the Wall Street Journal did a whole series about that.

So it getting people's eyes glued to their devices. It's part of the business model. It's a feature. It's not a bug.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
It is designed. The devices are designed to be that way, and we are all competing with them. As a clinician, I compete with them with my clients. I'll text my daughters because they're college students and they'll text me back and say, "I'm in class. Can I answer later?" And I think, why are you answering at all?

So Dr. Eversman, what would you say is the most important message that you would like readers to take from your book?

Michael Eversman:

Well, I guess basically that any discussion about social problems and social policies is not just about that problem or a policy solution. It's often about, like we've been talking today, emotions. Things that are symbolically important to us, and just some sort of larger, almost intangible aspect. That's certainly one.

It's certainly that these periods of panic, they happen. Certainly as we discussed, it's different now than when it was first devised, but it happened. It will happen again. Right now, I think we could see a moral panic when it comes to issues of transgenderism.

And it's a reminder that people like simplicity. There's nothing more simple than the gender binary. And when you start to talk about something like that in ways that's not either or, it's difficult for people. And they kind of lash out, and you start to see these kinds of policies that are happening across the country.

So I guess the message would be, as I said earlier, it is timely and it's timeless in the sense. A lot of history that we could understand just by looking at things like this.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
So I thank you for writing the book. And I want to call attention to the dedication at the beginning of your book.

In the beginning of the book you write, "This book is dedicated to those among us who consider themselves to be late bloomers, underdogs, or those who have simply been doubted dismissed and told we couldn't achieve something. That I have written and completed this book is proof that we all have an unexpected accomplishment within us, so don't give up on yours."

That's beautiful. Could you just share some of the backstory of that for our listeners and our viewers, please?

Michael Eversman:
Yeah, just that growing up, I was one of those people who was kind of told that they couldn't or they wouldn't or whatever.

So for me it was about trying to maybe prove a certain thing, and prove some people wrong. Here it is. There were certainly people I think who, and I think a lot of us have that in our lives. I don't think I'm any different than anybody else in that sense. But perhaps for me, I mean, it's just something that kind of stuck with me.

And so for anybody, that's how I mean it. Don't give up. I guess it's my way of saying, if I can write this book, you know, you can do whatever it is you're struggling to do too. That you want to do, too. That that's really what I meant by that. But thank you for picking that out of all the things to discuss in the book. I don't think I saw that one coming, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Well, I was very taken with it. And I do think that social work is such an important profession, and people go into it for very deliberate reasons, many times with deep, deep professional integrity.

So for people to get to read your book and start out with that message, and then challenge themselves through the experience of the different topics of the chapters, it's just a very valuable and enlightening experience.

Is there anything else you want to share? We are almost out of time, but is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners?

Michael Eversman:
Interestingly, along as long in my acknowledgement section, I included my pets in there who I consider family.

This book is definitely written in a social work voice. And your closing words I think are important. But no, I mean, I think we covered a lot.

Elizabeth LaMotte:
Yes. Well, thank you for joining Social Work Talks. I want to mention that there is more information about Dr. Eversman and about how to purchase his book, and how to read his book and take a test in order to have CEUs through NASW. That's in the show notes section of our website.

And again, Dr. Eversman, thank you for joining us today.

You have been listening to NASW Social Work Talks, a production of the National Association of Social Workers. We encourage you to visit NASW'S website for more information about our efforts to enhance the professional growth and development of our members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies. You can learn more www.social workers.org.

And don't forget to subscribe to NSW Social Work Talks wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks again for joining us. We look forward to seeing you next episode.