Social Protests vs Moral Panics

The question of what arouses outrage or “moral panics” in societies is a fascinating one. In Jamaica, members of a powerful Evangelical Christian fundamentalist lobby group have decided to rally their troops in a crusade against the University of the West Indies because the contract of one of their members as head of an organisation named CHART (Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Network) has been terminated. The head of this unit, retired Professor Brendan Bain, who happens to be a Christian fundamentalist, had given expert testimony on behalf of churches moving to retain the buggery law in Belize.

This editorial cartoon in the Jamaica Observer of June 12 featuring a schoolboy in a chastity belt responds to the alleged rape of a male jogger that was sensationally reported in a previous issue of the paper. Questions have been raised about the sketchy details available, suggesting the incident might have been staged to fuel the moral panic instigated by the evangelical right in Jamaican society.

Because this action was perceived to be antithetical to the mission statement of CHART—“to continually strengthen the capacity of national healthcare personnel and systems to provide access to quality HIV and AIDS prevention, care, treatment, and support services for all Caribbean people” international stakeholders crucial to funding CHART asked that Professor Bain’s contract be terminated and after lengthy consultations the University complied.  It was felt that by arguing that buggery laws be retained (when there is medical consensus internationally that such laws impede the successful treatment and management of HIV/AIDS) Professor Bain had lost the confidence of CHART’s stakeholders.

Bain’s supporters have turned the situation into a circus about freedom of speech, convening several times a week, dressed in black, with taped mouths, outside the regional headquarters of the University to protest his dismissal. Their contention? That Bain should have been free to give expert evidence based on his “research” and that by rescinding his contract the university had bowed to the dictates of an internationally constituted “gay agenda”.

In India in the last two years much outrage has been expressed at the alarming frequency and ferocity with which women are raped. The government has reacted by strengthening the legal penalties for rape. The straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been the gangrape and subsequent death of young Jyoti Singh in December 2012. Since then an avalanche of rapes has been reported and dwelt on, the most recent being the callous rape-killings of two lower caste women in Budaun, Uttar Pradesh by men of a politically powerful though marginally higher caste. Read at face value the Budaun case highlights the persistence of caste-sanctioned violence in contemporary India despite the existence of strong legislation proscribing such behaviour.

The spectacularity of the violence done to the young women--hanging their violated bodies in a public square for all to see -- suggests that a strong signal was being sent by the perpetrators. Was this a lynching? What had the girls or the communities they came from done to provoke this? Considering the extremely high incidence of reported rape cases recorded in recent years should one label the dominant culture a rape culture? Does this mean Indian culture is synonymous with rape culture? Since the caste system is an integral part of hegemonic Hindu culture and higher castes seem to be signaling their right to rape lower-caste women in instances like this, does that make Hindu culture itself complicit with rape culture?

And what exactly is rape culture for that matter? A concept developed by feminists in the 1970s, rape culture refers to cultures that normalise, excuse, turn a blind eye to or even condone the rape of women. In contrast male rape, especially by other men, is not viewed as casually in such societies. Certainly the comments made by various high level politicians, policemen and priests in India regarding cases of female rape suggest that there is virtually a patriarchal consensus that the rape of women should not be a justiciable crime. Fortunately the founders of the Indian constitution thought otherwise providing legal recourse to rape victims although the enforcement of such laws has proved to be difficult in a culture inclined not to view non-consensual sex as a crime.

To me these two conjunctures illustrate the difference between social outrage and moral panics. The latter sums up the Jamaican situation while the Indian protests are symptomatic of outrage generated by a genuine problem -- that of the vulnerability of women in patriarchal societies where rape culture prevails.

The quasi-hysterical protests in Jamaica show all the classic signs of a moral panic. According to Charles Krinsky considered an authority on the phenomenon “A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.”

Whereas in India the demonstrations have been about existing laws that are inadequately policed and enforced, in Jamaica the highly organised protests are indirectly about the repeal of a law --the buggery law -- which if actualised would be considered a blow to the self-appointed policing of public morality by evangelical Christians and a major defeat on the part of local interests at the hands of an illusory or imaginary enemy -- the so-called globally powerful gay lobby.

The problem with moral panics is that they are seldom about real or actual threats to the social order and they rarely happen in response to much more serious dangers -- that of human trafficking, paedophilia or narco-trafficking for instance -- all of which pose much greater threats to Jamaican society. There are probably good examples of moral panics in Indian society but the recent escalation in anti-rape protests is not one of them. 

About Author

<p>Annie Paul (anniepaulish@yahoo.com) born in Tiruvalla, Kerala, is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies, Mona. &nbsp;Paul is author of the blog Active Voice (anniepaul.net). You can follow her on Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/anniepaul">@anniepaul</a>.</p>
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