Friday, February 6, 2015


Fear, panic, terror: these things arise involuntarily, when the tyger tyger burning bright creeps past the perimeter in the night. I must wonder if they're truly involuntary however.

As far back as I can remember, there's always been some sort of moral panic. I'm not quite old enough to recall firsthand whatever the pearl-clutching du jour of the 70s was (to be fair, dealing with stagflation was probably of legitimate concern), but I do recall panics over: heavy metal music, the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, Satanic worship, drugs, teen sex, vaccines, euthanasia, and on and on and on (remember acid rain?). And now, with Newsweek's latest cover story (h/t/ ENB), it looks like we're reaching the event horizon of sex trafficking. 

Actual humans who earn actual paychecks pay actual money for these easily-debunked, flatulent puff-pastry articles with the actual intent of reading them. I find it difficult to believe that people are so deliberately stupid that they'd be willing to accept with open hearts and minds that rubbish like "kids are sacrificing fatted calves to Lucifer in America's cemeteries at midnight" is even remotely true. I find it difficult (sadly, in the absence of decent evidence) to reject the hypothesis that people buy this tripe with the express intent to raise their dander.

Humanity has slain all the dragons. Child mortality is statistically indistinguishable from zero, at least compared to what it was even as recently as a hundred years ago. Proper bloody war is something that happens far from our shores. Bear attacks are rare. Even the ceaseless owl scourge has waned of late. There is little left in the natural world for ordinary folks to fear. Increasingly, there's little in the world of men for ordinary folks to fear (yes, this is an Anglophonic observation, but living standards are rising even among the bottom billion). So could it be that moral panics like the one pictured above is simply a way for a producer to meet consumer demand? People want to be scared of something once in a while. The wolves at the gate are all dead, so why not just pick some random bullshit with a kernel of truth buried in there really deep? Can't that be a euvoluntary transaction?

I suppose it's a matter of proportionality (#TeamAristotle). Moral panics about genuine problems can divert resources towards reducing genuine harms. By the time my daughter is old enough to learn what mesothelioma is, home asbestos insulation will be something from the history books. Maybe part of the trouble is that it's harder to generate indignant panics about chronic heart disease or inattentive driving the way it is about violence in video games. I am beginning to suspect that harm-reduction isn't actually the relevant margin for collective action. Perhaps the telos is that sweet, sweet hit of imminent danger.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?