America has a rich history of moral panics. This isn’t one.
The #MeToo phenomenon may well be the defining public debate of 2017, and there are no indications that it is losing strength as 2018 approaches. For Hollywood actresses, liberal opinion writers, and government officials as prominent as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), #MeToo is a welcome, long-awaited development, a signal that American society may finally be willing to grapple with the ways men use sexual dominance as a cudgel against the women they work with.
But this enthusiasm has been accompanied by another strain of thinking about #MeToo. Where some see progress toward gender equality in the workplace, others see hysteria and the specter of a sexual witch hunt. They see, in short, a moral panic.
This criticism has emerged across the political spectrum. In the liberal New Yorker, Masha Gessen worried that by ignoring the distinctions between different degrees of sexual misconduct, #MeToo risked “[blurring] the boundaries between rape, nonviolent, sexual coercion, and bad, fumbling, drunken sex. The effect is both to criminalize bad sex and trivialize rape.”
In the further left-leaning Boston Review, Judith Levine also saw the symptoms of a “looming sex panic,” arguing that in their eagerness to see sexual abusers punished, #MeToo’s supporters have forgotten that the criminal justice system is already too punitive by half: “the more we entrust the state to mete out justice for sexual infractions, including harassment,” she wrote, “the more we collude in the manner in which it administers ‘justice.’”
Echoing the idea that things may be going too far, prominent centrist Andrew Sullivan told an interviewer that he thought Sen. Al Franken being forced to resign “was a disproportionate punishment for what seemed to be rather petty, if tawdry and kind of pathetic and not that admirable.” The neoconservative National Reviewhas referred to #MeToo in headlines as both a “trial by mob” and a “train wreck.” The libertarian writer Cathy Young worried that the movement risks “condemning all sexually tinged dynamics in the workplace, stereotyping men as abusers and women as perpetual victims in need of quasi-Victorian protections.”
And in President Donald Trump’s colorful wing of the conservative universe, #MeToo has been greeted with almost universal contempt. AltRight.com described the author of a pro-#MeToo piece as an “insane Jewish feminist.” As for the president himself, sources who recently spoke to Politico said Trump feels the movement is “spinning out of control.”
That all these people share a suspicion of #MeToo should not imply some secret, mutual political affinity that they would rather not acknowledge. Gessen is one of the president’s most ardent critics, and if Sullivan ever returns to full-time blogging, it certainly won’t be for the ethnonationalists over at AltRight.com. But despite their political differences, all of them have come to the idea that #MeToo contains elements of irrational excess, or threatens to turn in that direction.
In a country that teaches the dangers of moral panics in its public school curricula, from the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare, this is a resonant critique. Nobody wants to become a modern-day Joe McCarthy. But this critique is being misapplied today. Moral panics are a recognized historical phenomenon, with common features that appear consistently across different times and places. None of those features can be found today in #MeToo.
What is a “moral panic”?
In the driest sociological sense, a moral panic is defined as “the process of arousing social concern over an issue — usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media.” (That’s from Oxford’s A Dictionary of Sociology.)
But in common usage, the term is never that neutral. To call something a moral panic today is to say that the social concern is in some sense unfounded or misplaced. These moral panics feature a number of characteristics, including implausible allegations, exaggerated victimization, excessive punishment, and especially, in my view, the fear that dark forces are conspiringin secret against a society’s health and well-being. These traits appear repeatedly through American history.
In Salem, the site of the country’s founding experience of social hysteria, there was almost no end to the list of fantastical, unbelievable torments Satan’s forces could inflict upon the city’s anxious Puritans: The purported victims of witches writhed, tumbled, cried out, or felt their skin was being stabbed by invisible needles. Cattle died, barns were disordered, and children barked at one another or flew through the air. In response, 19 people and two dogs were executed for witchcraft.
In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy essentially held the country’s news media hostage — not that the news media minded too much — with tantalizing references to his supposed lists of communist spies, traitors who comprised a network of underground subversives, working to erode the moral foundations of American life. Not content to simply arrest the alleged infiltrators or dismiss them from their government posts, McCarthy made a spectacle out of his Senate subcommittee hearings, dragging anonymous government workers in front of banks of television cameras and berating them with allegations of communist sympathies.
It was only McCarthy’s overreaching attempt to take on the Army, then as now one of the most revered institutions in the country, that tanked his public standing and ended his crusade. This is also characteristic: Most moral panics are ultimately undone by their own excesses.
Moral panics are not just a thing of the past
In our post-Puritan, post–Cold War mindset, it can be easy to think that the age of the moral panic is behind us, but the past few decades have provided plenty of fresh examples. Beginning in the early 1980s, day care workers around the country were accused of committing brutal, grotesque sexual crimes against the children they cared for, with allegations that included group sex, brainwashing, and Satanic ritual worship. These crimes had, in fact, not taken place — but many hundreds of people were investigated over the course of the decade, and nearly 200 had charges brought against them.
In the 1990s, fears about drug abuse and racist anxieties about America’s urban underclass gave rise to the mythological “superpredator,” the child of a drug-addicted welfare mother who supposedly grew up with a chemical predisposition toward crime and violence. This was a mainstream panic, too. Conservative writers at the Weekly Standard and Hillary Clinton alike tried to sound the alarm, enabling draconian youth sentencing laws that are still with us today; it became easier in most states to try juveniles as adults, and penalties for violent crimes committed by juveniles increased dramatically.
Salem looms over our conception of the moral panic to such an extent that it can be easy to assume that nearly all such panics are the product of irrational religious fanaticism (and anti-communism had quasi-religious fanatical aspects of its own). But note that the day care ritual abuse hysteria was driven in part by what its proponents believed were modern and advanced techniques of medical examination and child psychology.
Children to whom nothing had happened were inadvertently coerced by well-intentioned therapists into fabricating elaborate stories of abuse. A preschool in Los Angeles was said to have secret tunnels underneath it. Teachers were said to have flown through the air and celebrated black masses. Life sentences were handed out, and credulous reports on 20/20 and by Geraldo Rivera made sure the panic became a part of the cultural mainstream.
The day care ritual abuse panic centered on sex in part because sexual anxieties were everywhere in American life during the 1980s. The drastic move of women away from the home and into the workplace that occurred in the 1970s seemed to upend the nuclear family, the domestic arrangement on which much of America’s idealized vision of itself was founded. By the 1980s, a pro-family, anti-feminist backlash was brewing; that backlash dovetailed perfectly with the fears upon which the day care panic capitalized. The cases that proliferated during the decade seemed to say, “See what happens, women, when you abandon your children to indulge your professional ambition?”
There also may be something about sex, specifically, that is compatible with a moral panic. Our contemporary, liberated attitudes toward sex notwithstanding, sex is still at the very center of private life, and much of what people do with each other in private, or whom they do it with, remains shrouded in secrecy. So it’s easy to steer the conspiracy-minded structure of a moral panic in a sexual direction.
#MeToo is fundamentally not a moral panic — the phenomenon it’s describing is true
If moral panics themselves follow a relatively consistent pattern, so do the criticisms levied against them. In fact, all of the characteristic critiques of moral panics have been used by the people I quoted earlier against the #MeToo phenomenon.
Someone diagnosing a moral panic may say that those identified as villains have been treated unjustly (Sullivan), or that the so-called victims have exaggerated the harm done to them (AltRight.com). You might admit that the problem exists, but still maintain that the response has been out of proportion to the problem’s severity (Young).
More ingeniously, you might admit that the problem exists and that it is pretty severe, but still argue that that solutions and punishments being proposed are all wrong, that the real, deeper problem lies elsewhere, and that it is going unaddressed in the midst of all the noise, as Gessen and Levine argue.
Or you could go the Trump route and simply say that people are making it up.
But on close examination, #MeToo does not look like a legitimate target for this kind of critique. Moral panics feature implausible or bizarre allegations and enormous, coordinated conspiracies. Those speaking up against the workplace abusers have largely described events that are sadly mundane. Unwanted physical contact, private meetings in an office that made the subordinate uncomfortable, unsolicited late-night sexting: No one who has held a job in their life could deny that the workplace has its share of creeps, or that bosses take advantage of the power they wield.
In fact, one of the most prominent side conversations to emerge in the wake of #MeToo has to do with other employees wrestling with past decisions to remain silent or laugh things off that now, in this new light, make them feel like bystanders.
As for the more egregious allegations of rape and assault, such as those levied against Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and Mario Batali, they have generally been corroborated by multiple women, who independently came forward to describe similar experiences, and those accused have mostly acknowledged that their accusers’ stories are true, whether in explicit statements or with general admissions of vague guilt that leave the particulars conspicuously un-rebutted.
As for excessive punishment, there has been no wave of celebrity chefs, Hollywood producers, or even anonymous upper-management types getting hauled off to jail by SWAT teams. The punishment so far has been that these people are getting fired. Every workplace in the country has policies explicitly prohibiting the kinds of harassment and abuse of which these men have been accused, and to which they have admitted. Firing seems like an appropriate punishment for violating these policies. At the very least, it is not an excessive one.
Of course, incessant media coverage of one’s workplace sex habits is a punishment in its own right, but it’s worth remembering that these are men who consciously chose careers that put them in public view: Getting famous was part of the point. To the extent that coverage of their downfall has been prurient or sensationalist, that’s a problem with the mass media as a whole, not with #MeToo.
None of this is to say that #MeToo should be exempt from criticism. It may well be that in seeing this harassment strictly as a women’s issue, in refusing to think through the problem as a workers’ issue as well, the media is missing some of what makes these abuses possible — namely, the power imbalances that exist between all bosses and all workers, as classes, whether their members are male or female. Judith Levine has written intelligently about just this problem. But thinking through the problems and complexities of #MeToo, which is in many ways an unprecedented event in US history, will require something more than reanimating the ghosts of our past moral panics.
It may well happen that eventually, some prominent man will become the victim of a maliciously false accusation of harassment or assault. It may have happened already — Tavis Smiley or Ryan Lizza or someone else may be completely vindicated. The smart money would have to bet on that happening, at least once, and you can be sure that when it does, the news media will obsess over the story and wonder whether #MeToo as a whole was really worth it.
But even if (when?) this does happen, it will not make #MeToo a moral panic, because moral panics require more than a couple of false allegations. It is hard to go more than a few months without a prominent news magazine running an investigative story on someone who spent years or even decades in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. That doesn’t mean there’s a moral panic in America about murder. (Although, come to think of it, there really have been a lot of different Law & Order spinoffs.) To use a single false allegation to dismiss #MeToo as a whole would be equivalent to dismissing the judiciary as such on the basis of a single false murder conviction.
It’s easy to use “moral panic” as a pejorative description of almost any widespread social phenomenon you don’t like. But to use such a loaded, powerful term without paying careful attention to the specific histories of the country’s very real moral panics is an act of intellectual irresponsibility. Moral panics are very real, but #MeToo doesn’t qualify.
Richard Beck is the author of We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. He writes for the magazine n+1.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at [email protected].