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.