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Critical thinking: Conspiracy theories, urban legends, and moral panics

If you’re teaching critical thinking and looking for timely and engaging material, why not try a conspiracy theory?

What's a moral panic?

It depends on who you ask. The term was coined by Stanley Cohen in his 1973 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Others refer to it as mass hysteria.

In the introduction to the 3rd edition (pp. viii-xxi), Cohen lists 7 archetypal moral panic subjects. Although he was writing in the United Kingdom of the early 2000s, the list is equally applicable to the current U.S.  with very few modifications (parenthetical comments are mine).

  1. Young, working class, violent males
  2. School violence: bullying and shoot-outs
  3. Wrong drugs: Used by the wrong people at wrong places
  4. Child abuse, Satanic rituals, and pedophile registers
  5. Sex, violence, and blaming the media
  6. Welfare cheats and single mothers (absent fathers).
  7. Refugees and asylum seekers (immigrants): Flooding our country, swamping our services

Classic American moral panics include the Salem witch trials, the Red Scare of the 1950s, and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Children, new technology, Satan, drugs, and race/immigration are all frequent components in American moral panics.

The term "moral panic" has changed since Cohen coined it and is now more loosely used to describe a particular kind of social phenomenon in which something has (or has not) happened and the reaction to it is disproportionate to the (supposed) event. There's an inherent value judgment made when applying either moral panic or mass hysteria to a situation and some scholars have begun to question the usefulness of the terms.

Moral panics, urban legends, and conspiracy theories can overlap and any or all of them can be fake news. How to distinguish among them and which term  applies to any given movement would make excellent paper topics.