Moral panic in Eastern Europe

While preparing myself for a new research project I came across literature about moral panic. The concept was first coined by Stanley Cohen in early 1970s to describe and analyse the reaction of British media and wider public to the disturbances caused by the members of the youth subcultures. Since than it has been applied to various events in different temporal and spatial context. Nonetheless it is still a subject of scholarly controversy (Goode&Ben-Yeh, pp. 73-88; Critcher, pp. 22-23).

Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yeh define the moral panic as a “scare about a threat or supposed threat from deviants or “folk devils,” a category of people who, presumably, engage in evil practices and are blamed for menacing a society’s culture, way of life, and central values. The word “scare” implies that the concern over, fear of, or hostility toward the folk devil is out of proportion to the actual threat that is claimed.” (Goode&Ben-Yeh, p. 2) Thus we can talk about the moral panic if there is a measurable concern among the winder public about a certain issue, hostility toward the group or category named as threatening, substantial or widespread consensus that the threat is real, serious, and caused by the wrongdoing group members, social reaction has to be disproportional and finally that finally phenomenon is temporally limited (Critcher, pp. 23-24).

What struck me in the conceptualisation of the moral panic is how well it seems to describe the social narration of the “migrant crisis” in Eastern Europe, and in Poland and Hungary in particular. It seems that all the elements named are present in the public discourse on the “immigration problem” in those two countries. Fact that there not everyone subscribe into the dominant narrative and even that there are significant public actors who have been contesting the demonization of the migrants (and asylum seekers in particular) does not undermine the concept, since there seem to be general consensus about the issue as demonstrated by the opinion pools (1). Having said that, latest defeats experienced by PM Orban (2, 3) as well as the fact that the Polish authorities did not turn social mobilization into concrete legislation might suggest that ultimately in both countries the critical phase of the panic has passed already and in fact they can be seen as a abortive attempt to create a model moral panic.

Having said that one can ask why does it matter if the “migration crisis” discourses in both countries constitute (failed) moral panics or not? What does it actually bring to the discussion? I think the biggest advantage of this approach is the possibility to look at the phenomena in broader perspective than simplistic “racist Eastern Europe”. As scholars on the topic notes, moral panic is always about something, it’s always founded on beeper levels of cultural politics. Indeed, as scholars of symbolic politics noted it is impossible to create out of thin air (Bottici, p. 185), it has always to be anchored in existing social structures.

Considering the “migrant crisis” as a moral panic should therefore make us inquire what are the underlining social issues triggered by the possibility of the arrival of the strangers. This requires further studies, but I would like to suggest a few possible lines of inquire.

Firstly, a recurrent theme in the dominating narrative about the “crisis” is the fear that Poland might be flooded by the newcomers. Considering just the numbers there is clearly no evidence that it could actually be the case. One could therefore legitimately ask to what extend those anxieties are not result of the depopulation of those countries as a result of mass emigration of its population to other countries in the EU (primarily UK, Ireland and Germany). In other words, this debate could be possibly much more about the inability of the national governments to foster more equal development throughout the country, demographic decline and loss of young generations who moved abroad. These issues have not been properly dealt with and discussed in the public sphere and it seems that only with the prospect of others coming to Poland they surfaced in the public discourse.

Secondly, the fear of sexual assault on women has been often invoked as a reason for hostility towards the migrants. Police data from Germany, which took by far the greatest number of non-EU foreigners does not support this claims (4), but that has little to no effect on the discussion in Poland. It is thus worth considering if rather this discourse is not fuelled by the anxieties regarding the gender roles in general. The hysteria which engulfed the Catholic Church and its allies regarding the “gender theory” in the last two-three years in an example of such changes and opposition to those developments. Moreover, the LGBTQ groups and activists have been much more clearly visible in the pubic life in the last couple of years, which surely might have added to the sense of concern among the more conservative section of the society.

Last but not least, tightly connected with two previous topics has been the issue of possible “Dechristianisation” of Poland and Europe as a result of arrival of immigrants from the Muslim countries. There are many problems with this assumption, not least because in many parts of Europe Christian majority is simply not true any more (5, 6). Moreover, the discourse on Christian (and Catholic) nature of Polish (and European) society is closely linked to the matters of LGBTQ rights, women’s right (e.g. recent attempt to introduce total ban on abortion in Poland) as well as other issues that the figure of Muslim newcomers symbolise. Previously, it was impossible to discuss the exclusion of atheists in Poland, but this can be verbalised in more acceptable way by talking about Catholic nature of the society that is supposedly incompatible with the existence of non-Catholic inhabitants of the state.

These are three proposition of questions which seems to be worth considering when one considers the moral panic experienced by Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European countries when confronted with the possibility that they might need to accommodate some small number of migrants from non-Christian regions of the world. It is possible that rather than just a single issue it is a combination of the above mentioned and some additional ones which could explain more fully the responses of media, social activists, politicians and wider population to this burning issue of contemporary world.

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zeitgeist and the grand scheme of things

I think it’s not an exaggeration if I say that I took a fair number of courses in history. And yet, I don’t recall a single time a concept of the zeitgeist being discussed. It simply does not seem to fit into categories of the academic [“real”] history. What exactly is zeitgeist and how one would measure and assess such a feeling? These are just a few of many good reasons why one does not confronts students of history with such a fluffy concept and rather stick to more tangible phenomena.

Having said that, I can’t help thinking that we might be missing something very important by not dealing with this vague idea. It recently struck me how much in the so-called West the vast majority of people seem to be avert to any change. It is truly remarkable how often words like “stays”, “remains” and so forth have been used during the ongoing elections in Berlin. Many of the analysis of the Brexit vote point out to the dissatisfaction with the influences of the EU and foreigners on Britain. Trump’s campaigned has been fuelled – to a large degree – by the rejection of changes symbolized by the Obama administration and also by longing for return to a mythical past. These are just a few examples that stand out strongest, but it seems that they all fit into a bigger picture of fear and frustration. It looks as if large sections of the societies in “the West” are motivated by those two feelings, as if we lived in the time (decade?) of angst. This impression is ever stronger if one recalls the 90s when all was about change, about building new world, about overcoming the legacy of the Cold War. The reasons for those shifts are, of course, complex and in each case (probably) different, but nonetheless this seems to be the spirit of the moment, which is of course not shared by everyone.

I honestly doubt, if historians writing in the distant future (providing the mankind will not succeed in wiping out life on Earth) would perceive the second decade of the 21st century through the leans of fear and clinging to the past. If I learned something from history, it is that one only rarely sees the storm of history when one is in the middle of it. And yet, it is precisely that storm that historians watching from the distance of time focus their attention on. In the grand scheme of things out collective paranoia might seem trivial (“a ripple on the surface of time”) and meaningless, but I am convinced that to understand the events in our time, also those which make the difference for the future, it is vital to bear in mind the social climate. And for the same reason, I think it might be worth reflecting on what was the situation in other periods, no matter how insignificant it might seem at first glance. I don’t want to suggest it could change our understanding of history, but rather than without such a background we might be missing a few important puzzle pieces.

History and emotions

A few weeks ago I’ve attended a fascinating conference on emotions and architecture at the The Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Almost all the presentations were really, really good, very informative, well conveyed, nothing really to complain about. I particularly enjoyed Uno Grashoff‘s talk on squatting in the DDR, as he pointed out not only to the uncanny parallels (and contrasts) to the situation in the West, but also, possibly even more importantly, to the margins of freedom in the authoritarian state. It also reminded me of an observation I had some time ago (not being a scholar of the communist regimes) that the late socialist states, in fact, competed against the capitalist ones for their legitimacy in terms of who can provide more/better consumer goods, which seems a bit of a paradox if one thinks about the ideology. Carla Hoetink and Harm Kaal and equally inspiring talk on the architecture of the Dutch parliament and the values behind its design.

Having said that, I could not resist a question, why the organizers decided to label the conference as dealing with emotions and architecture. Admittedly, I did not attend all of the presentations, but these papers which I did listen to, would work just as well if we dropped the “emotion” part. As I said, I think the presentations were well prepared, there was a lot of insight in them, and I genuinely think architecture deserve much more attention from historians and humanities in general. My point is not to bash The Max Plank Institute, the organizers nor scholars presenting, but rather point of to the uncomfortable question: what do those fancy labels actually give us? Apart from funding, of course.

Neither would I discard the importance and relevance of emotions as a historical subject. Not at all, Lucien Febvre‘s works shows very clearly that there is a lot to gain from inquiring into the matter. My concern is rather, that there seem to be a temptation to insert whatever is “hip” at the given moment to all the possible subjects, also those which would do very well without such a package. This critique is not that different from that I wrote about the Digital Humanities. And indeed, to my mind it is the very same phenomenon, namely the urge to “reinvent” history as a discipline, the constant urge to keep it up-to-date. The problem is not new, in the past historians raised questions if, for instance, terms such as the “enlighten absolutism” were not just old wine in new bottles. And some of those discussions have been very fruitful, they have helped scholars to reflect on the validity of the concepts used. After all, history rests on the foundations of words. But there is, am afraid, a very unhelpful and indeed misleading pursuit of modernizing history at any price, with or without making any sense. It seems, that to a large degree it is due to the structural construction of the discipline and the way in which it is funded. However, it is more than just that. Arguably, it has also a lot to do with the contemporary fascination with a constant input, ever-changing content. The criticism of sensationalism in the mass media, the urge to report all the time has been too many to list, but I would assume that the mechanism is not that different (for the philosophical underpinning check Bauman). The very concept that history as a disciple does not change, only the interpretations do, seems to be so much at odds with the current society and its values, that there is a need to rebrand the scholarly enquiries every now and then, even if that has only limited sense. To rephrase Voltaire: if there was no emotional turn, one would have to invent it.

Freud and Historians

All in all, despite the rhetoric in the last years, most historians, just like most scholars in the humanities, are rather wary of genuinely interdisciplinary work. And there are some very good reasons for that, after all Leibniz was the last person to know everything. Franco Moretti put it brutally honest: such a project is often “chancy and random. You have to be lucky as hell because you move blindly.”  Having said that, there seem to be a remarkable exception to aversion to use works from outside of the humanities, namely works of Sigmund Freud. When one takes works on collective memory(ies), social identity and such topics, 8 out of 10 works will have reference to concepts of the Austrian psychoanalyst within the first few pages. This applies to many other scholars from the humanities, not just historians.

Of course there is nothing wrong with using Freud’s work, on the contrary, I totally suppor drawing from various fields and enriching our understanding by including multiple points of view. Where I do have a problem with use of Freud is the selectivity of how it is done. I am confident that, if one would write about nationalism without using literature written after Deutsch, then it would not be deemed as academically sound work. Or if you want to write history of the Wilhelmian period, you can’t just ignore the debate on the Sonderweg. If that is the case, why on Earth do we accept that one can simply ignore everything written in psychology on memory after 1939?!

Yes, getting into psychological research on memory is not easy. One needs guidance, not least to know how psychological article are constructed or what the terminology mean. In practice it means that you need help from a psychologist or a PhD student in psychology. And yes it takes time, a lot of time, but if we expect others to acknowledge research in our field, why should we not be doing the same thing?

It is however more than “just” a matter of professional standards or an ethical question, scholars in humanities would genuinely benefit a lot if they dared to venture into the realm of psychology. Reading Wang, Pennebaker and PáezBarber et al. and others one would for instance know that memory don’t exist “out there”, things don’t remember or do stuff, nor is memory a thing. Being aware of those issues would help so much memory studies, which unfortunately too often are way too fuzzy and lack solid foundations (Hirst and Mannier). That does not mean that one have to or even should discard Freud’s conclusions, rather that one should know at least what is the state of the arts and where the possible weaknesses of one’s approach are. And last but not least, how can one be a social scholar if one discards the knowledge about an individual who makes the said collective?