As many of the citizens of Whanganui continue to think up ways to ban Murray Wilson from public places in their city, a
Canterbury University sociologist has come up with a diagnosis for their condition: ‘Moral panic.’
Professor Greg Newbold says ‘exaggerated fears of a person theatrically labelled ‘the Beast of Blenheim,’ have thrown local citizens into a frenzy.’ Here’s his report in full:
Demonising the social outcastsBy Professor Greg Newbold
In 1972 a social scientist called Stan Cohen coined the term ‘moral panic’ to characterise the tendency of society to demonise social outcasts.
During this process, outsiders are portrayed as hostile and dangerous, presenting a threat that is imminent and grave. Forever on the lookout for an angle, ambitious power-brokers seize on these fears through hyperbole and hoopla, before transforming themselves into saviours who have a solution.
There are many historical examples. When disease and famine weakened the power of the Renaissance churches, the European clergy blamed the evil of witches and promised to redeem society with mass burnings.
Hitler’s conspiracy theory
In the 1920s Hitler attributed Germany’s turmoil to a conspiracy of the Jews, and then pledged to restore the Reich by gassing them.
In the United States after the War, Senator Joe McCarthy terrified Americans with the myth of a communist conspiracy and vowed to deliver the country by purging it of ‘un-American’ defectors.
This is pretty much what we’re seeing in Whanganui. Here, local citizens have been whipped into into frenzy.
Spurred by emotive rhetoric from local politicians and public figures, terrified members of the Whanganui community have joined a crusade to exorcise the city of an imaginary fiend which lives under constant guard, 20 kilometres away.
To the historically astute, the process is familiar. A folk-devil has been created. The people have been driven into panic. All semblances of fairness, balance, reason and perspective have been lost.
Now they see a monster on their doorsteps, when all they really have is a lonely, frightened old man in the countryside who wants to get on with his life.