A belief driving witch-hunts and moral panics

I watched a documentary about the infamous “video nasties” that were the center of a lot of controversy and media scandal in the UK, and the characteristically British problem of how the furor surrounding them always leads to media hysteria and the erosion of freedom of expression. For those who may not be aware, the term “video nasties” refers to low-budget horror movies which were released on home video in the UK and were typically highly graphic in their violent content.

In the documentary (which is ironically titled Ban the Sadist Videos), I learned a little something about what I feel drove the moral panic surrounding it, or rather the people whipping it up. There was always this belief that these videos would fall into the hands of children and that the videos would not simply desensitize them to violence, but also compel them to actually commit the brutal acts of violence depicted in the real world. I think this mentality reached its lowest point in 1993, when a boy named James Bulger was beaten to death two other boys and the movie Child’s Play 3 took the fall for it as the supposed cause. But interestingly enough, the documentary showed quite a few interviews conducted by news reporters talking to children who apparently have seen some of these “video nasties” and don’t seem particularly traumatized by it. To them it was nothing more than entertainment, and what’s more it was the kind they clearly weren’t meant to watch, so it had that forbidden fruit angle – the kind that I’m sure today’s youth may be familiar with. Even more interestingly, I think at least one of them that they were unrealistic and silly. But of course, the media was never that concerned about what the children as free agents thought – they were only concerned with children as people that had to be “protected”.

During the 1980’s, one of the key figures in this whole moral panic was one Mary Whitehouse, a woman who I swear her name has become synonymous with prudery, censorship, and moral panic over the years – at least in the UK. She’s also known for being an ally of everyone’s least favorite wicked witch Margaret Thatcher, who helped introduced stricter censorship to the UK and contributed to this country having the strictest censorship in the Western world by the 1990’s. People like her and the British press were keen on promoting the idea that the images they saw on video would directly harm people and through people their social order. In my opinion, this all hinges on a central idea – the idea that human beings are inexorably influenced by forces that they cannot control because they lack the ability to choose whether or not to feel influenced.

This week I caught an article from author Ryan Holiday, and this is probably my favorite part of it:

Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals.

With every crusade against violent and subversive media, there seems to be the belief that the opposite of that comes to effect; that people are ruled by things they cannot drive and will always act at the behest of certain influences because they can’t say no, so they have to be protected by self-declared guardians of public morals. With every crusade against those deemed as “detestable slaves of the devil”, we’re always told be on the lookout for those controlled by supposedly evil forces, who are possessed by demons because they engage in witchcraft and beliefs outside of the Church. Beware the rationale behind all the self-imposed guardians of public morals; they are believers in the notion that we are mindless automaton-like beings.

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