Moral Panic

Tim Burke has been blogging on moral panics in the context of oral sex, rape, and children’s television. Reading his stuff I was struck by the most famous case of Moral Panic in Chinese history, the sorcery scare of 1768, as studied by Phillip Kuhn.

The actual case was one of sorcerers perhaps cutting off the queues of Chinese men and using them to take control of their souls. Kuhn points out that it is not clear if queue cutting happened at all, and it was in any case not as widespread as the emperor feared it was. The Qianlong emperor took it seriously, however, in part because the queue was seen as a locus of self-ness and his subjects took their loss seriously. More importantly, the queue was a symbol of loyalty to the Manchu dynasty, and anything involving cutting it off smacked of sedition.

Kuhn suggests that there was another cause for the scope of the campaign, the Emperor’s desire to break out of the confines of regular bureaucratic politics. The problem of Chinese emperors being constrained by their bureaucracies is not a new concept in scholarship and was not new to the emperors, who had been struggling with this problem for a long time. As Kuhn points out, “bureaucratic monarchy” is an oxymoron. To the extent that the state is bureaucratic what room is there for a monarch? Qianlong took advantage of the sorcery crisis to force his officials out of their ordinary routines and break out of the confines of the normal bureaucratic relationship.

One significant difference between this and the panics Burke talks about is agency. The Chinese case was not created by “mass media” or “fear of social change” but by the Qianlong emperor. More significant is the way that Kuhn emphasizes the value of moral panic in breaking out of normal politics or political debate. It strikes me that many of the moral panics Burke talks about are exactly the type of things that American elites would be inclined not to worry about much, or at least not as much as other Americans might think they should. Moral Panic is democratizing. You don’t need a study from the Centers for Disease Control to tell you something is wrong with kids today, panic restores agency to “us” and our “common sense.” It really does too, since action will come of panic in a democratic or popular state. One recent local case is the dropping of a plan to build a Turkish Cultural Center here in Pittsburgh. The plan was dropped due to local fears that the place would be a nest of terrorists. An ignorant and embarrassing reaction to be sure, but one that got results. Kuhn is trying to fit moral panic as a violation of normal politics into a new, broader definition, which might work for the modern ones as well.

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