Moral Panic? Replace ‘moral’ and ‘panic’ with what?

October 31, 2021
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Sam Quinones’ recent Atlantic article about methamphetamines came up recently in a conversation with a couple of friends recently.

I hadn’t read it, but one of the friends responded that it had elements of moral panic. This response was consistent with comments I had seen on Twitter.

My impression was that moral panic has been a serious problem in the history of social responses to alcohol and drug problems AND that many of the Twitter commenters were probably insufficiently concerned about the re-emergence of methamphetamines and stimulants as major drugs of misuse.

This provoked some questions for me:

  • Is the problem the moral element? Or the panic element? Or both?
  • What are the traits of a problem that make it hard to determine the right amount of concern?
  • What is the right kind of concern (instead of moral panic) and what traits of problems make them vulnerable to the wrong kinds of concern?

Climate change came to mind as a problem with similar challenges.

I recently heard climate change described as a “hyperobject” by a journalist arguing that the current American political crisis has similar features.

Even now, I struggle to find the adequate word to describe the moment. It makes sense: our 21st century existence is characterized by the repeated confrontation with sprawling, complex, even existential problems without straightforward or easily achievable solutions. Theorist Timothy Morton calls the larger issues undergirding these problems “hyperobjects,” a concept so all-encompassing that it resists specific description. You could make a case that the current state of political polarization and our reality crisis falls into this category. Same for democratic backsliding and the concurrent rise of authoritarian regimes. We understand the contours of the problem, can even articulate and tweet frantically about them, yet we constantly underestimate the likelihood of their consequences. It feels unthinkable that, say, the American political system as we’ve known it will actually  crumble.

Climate change is a perfect example of a hyperobject. The change in degrees of warming feels so small and yet the scale of the destruction is so massive that it’s difficult to comprehend in full. Cause and effect is simple and clear at the macro level: the planet is warming, and weather gets more unpredictable. But on the micro level of weather patterns and events and social/political upheaval, individual cause and effect can feel a bit slippery. If you are a news reporter (as opposed to a meteorologist or scientist) the peer reviewed climate science might feel impenetrable. It’s easiest to adopt a cover-your-ass position of: It’s probably climate change but I don’t know if this particular weather event is climate change.

Hyperobjects scramble all our brains, especially journalists. Journalists don’t want to be wrong. They want to react proportionally to current events and to realistically frame future ones. Too often, these desires mean that they do not explicitly say what their reporting suggest. They just insinuate it. But insinuation is not always legible.

We Are Not Ready by Charlie Warzel

Sprawling, complex, existential, without straightforward or easily achievable solutions? That sounds a lot like alcohol and other drug problems.

An understanding the coutours and frantic statements that still underestimate the consequences? Again, that sounds a lot like alcohol and other drug problems. (If you’re wondering whether we really underestimate the consequences, think about the 93,331 overdose deaths in 2020, add 95,000 alcohol related deaths, and then add 480,000 tobacco related deaths. Then consider all of the non-fatal harms to people who use ATOD — ED visits, accidents, disability, employment problems, housing problems, etc. Then zoom out and think about the effects on family members and communities. Then consider the harms associated with policy decisions, like criminalization.)

We might also wonder if the macro questions are clear, but at least some of them are clear. For example, at the population level, we know that things like outlet density and unit pricing can influence consumption. However, at the individual level, these are not obvious and do not feel true.

The concept of hyperobjects doesn’t map perfectly onto ATOD problems but they share features like being massive, broadly distributed, that “their totality cannot be realized in any particular local (individual) manifestation,” and that the impacts are visible through the interaction of multiple objects.

Bill White recently posted about the complexity related to addiction (which is only one manifestation of ATOD problems):

AOD problems, and substance use disorders as a distinct subset of such problems, do not rise from a singular cause. For most of us who have experienced it, addiction is a story of intricately intertwined threads of personal and environmental vulnerabilities, including vulnerabilities over which we had no control and were beyond our acts of choice. The most severe, complex, and enduring AOD problems rise not from a singular cause but a collision of multiple vulnerabilities. With pre-addiction stories messy and addiction stories even messier, one can find a seed of support for almost any theory of addiction causation.

Recovery is similarly complex and rarely attributable to a single factor, in spite of the passionate anecdotes of addiction survivors or this or that addiction treatment program swearing possession of the one true path to recovery. In short, no single thought, feeling, action, or environmental condition is sufficient in itself to cause addiction in all people, and no single technique, pathway, or style of recovery support is viable and sustainable for all persons experiencing AOD problems.

The Proliferation of Addiction and Recovery Theories

Hyperobjects are a slippery concept and I’m not arguing that the concept should be applied to ATOD problems, but encountering the concept provided an opportunity to step back and consider why we have such difficulty getting our minds around the problem and coming together around shared understandings and responses. It’s a massive problem, with many “objects” interacting in different combinations, different ways, and temporal sequences that cause vast differences in experiences for different people in different places in different times.

(Image: “The 3D visualization of overwhelming data ;-)” by Elif Ayiter/Alpha Auer/…./ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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