Folk Devils, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo: societal development through moral panic

“We live in a time of permanent moral panic”, says Abdessamad Bouabid, Assistant Professor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, in an opinion piece in Sociale Vraagstukken. For years, the stability and clarity of work, family relations and the dominant morale created a societal backstop. Since the end of the previous century, this has changed. But what is moral panic? And should we fear this concept or embrace it?

The increasing individualism, cultural globalisation and international flows of migration cause decreasing social-economic stability. “This is experienced amidst a 24-hour-economy, an over flexible labour market, a wild west housing market and a bureaucratic social backstop”, explains Bouabid. This uncertainty consequently leads to moral panic, creating an ‘us’ against ‘them’ view.

Folk devils

These panic reactions are reflected in events like 9/11, the murder of Van Gogh and the riots in Culemborg. “Moroccans and Muslims were pinpointed as folk devils in these cases”, Bouabid says. “In other words, the embodiment of ‘them’. This moral panic continued playing a part in the return of people who went to fight for ISIS in Syria and the coming of a new refugee centre.

“It is mainly the media, politicians and opinion-makers that link these groups to social issues, like crime, disruption, extremism and radicalisation”, explains Bouabid. “They often look for causes in the culture and religion of ‘the others”.


There is also a positive development noticeable, according to the Assistant Professor. “Folk devils and other marginalised groups in The Netherlands increasingly manage to instigate moral panic, thanks to mediatisation”, says Bouabid. “Movements like Kick Out Zwarte Piet, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo have triggered energetic and irrational overreactions, aimed at symbols of discrimination and racism and groups within the majority culture.”

“They show that moral panic can be a powerful tool for minorities to break the normalisation of stigmatising, racism and sexism, " concludes Bouabid. “I look forward to a time of permanent ‘positive’ moral panic, in which several types of hidden and negated injustice are finally dealt with.”

Assistant professor
More information

Read the entire opinion piece here (in Dutch).

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