Friday, November 29, 2013

Don't panic!

Before my class in Portugal on Sexuality & Morality, I was thinking of morality with a capital "M," moral-majority-morality, the kind that got me in trouble at Catholic school. After my week of anthropology in warmer climes, I came to accept a kind of provisional anthropology of moralities. From the outside looking in, it's easy to see US morality (of the kind preached by conservatives and liberals alike) as the imperialist enterprise that it is. It is even possible to be swimming in it and be critical of it, but it is much more difficult.

One of the coolest things about being an anthropologist is that you get to learn, deep down in your bones, that there are different manners of living that are meaningful and true. For me, that sense first developed in a real way when I did my MA fieldwork in Belize, in a way that not a hundred ethnographies prepared me for. I was reminded of this in Lisbon, although the stay was shorter and differently aimed. However, most of my radical relocation has been within the United States, so while I'm good at spotting regional differences quickly, I still get stuck in a US frame of mind. Ethnocentrism is a bitch.

Part of what makes me suspicious of morality is not the notion that there is right and there is wrong. It's the totalizing narrative of it, at least in the way I was raised. There is little room for relativism. In practice, people seem to resolve moral dilemmas in ways that recognize that right and wrong shift, but there is no place for that in dogma. That is where morality gets dangerous - it is wielded as a weapon, usually against people who are already marginalized. People preaching morality recognize themselves as agents with the ability to navigate right and wrong, yet they insist that others cannot possibly distinguish between the two unless explicit instructions are tattooed on their foreheads. Of course, they know how those directions should read.

I have been working on a talk about moral panics the last few weeks, specifically how throwing sexuality into any moral argument wipes out rational thought or reasonable debate. Case in point, after my talk, a man shared that he was talking with other men about gun control, which he supported. His acquaintances, to counter his position, immediately jumped to, "What if someone was raping your wife or kids?" Of course. Because that's a defensible position - "Sure, I'd just let them rape away since I don't believe everyone has the right to own an AR-15."

The thing about moral panics is that they require both a folk devil and a group that is perceived to be threatened, which represents a threat to the very moral fabric of society. The folk devil is the person persecuted for the threat. For example, during the White Slavery era at the beginning of the 20th century, there was fear that evil Jewish monopolists were luring innocent women, including their own daughters, into forced prostitution. This popular narrative allowed for the surveillance, restriction, and mistreatment of Jewish people in the United States. Suspicion was also cast on the French, the Chinese, and the Italian (all immigrants). A panic also works to control the population being threatened, in this case women, particularly those who were moving into cities for industrial work.

As I have waxed, poetic or otherwise, about my feelings about the current framing of human trafficking, I'll just point out that (as I learned in my research for this talk) that the Trafficking in Persons Report (2011), authored by the US State Department, cites, with nary a suggestion of irony or critique, tracts from 1910 to support their claim that the sexual traffic in women has a long history in this country.


The ingredients of moral panics can be seen in the Satanic ritual abuse hoopla of the 1980s, the vilification of gay men (for just one example, see the political campaign in Florida in the 1970s-80s), and the McCarthy Era post-WWII.

Lynching in the US at the turn of the 20th century had deadly consequences, unlike what we see in current panics (although as the San Antonio 4 prove, loss of liberty is still an issue) but the same mindset is there - fear of the "other" cast as sexual assault against women or children to justify inequality and distract from other injustices occurring at the same time. Racism and beliefs about the body combined to result in particularly savage behaviors.

I think any anthropology of morality (or -ies) needs to address the outbreak of moral panics. I don't know enough about cross-cultural instances although I suspect rapid globalization is spreading the tendency now, if it was not present before. If you live or work outside of the US, I'd love to hear whether any of this panicking behavior matches up with what you've seen.

I know of a current example in Syria, where the Assad regime (among others) accused the rebels of soliciting sexual jihad from Tunisian girls and women. Der Spiegel and France24 seem convinced that this is a case of panic, while the Huffington Post and the BBC are not so quick to dismiss it out of hand.

On a personal level, I can picture panic being created. I'm from New Orleans. I left the year before Katrina hit. A dear friend, made homeless by the storm, was travelling away from the city. I asked why she didn't go to a shelter rather than risking a long drive with no definite end in sight. She replied, "They're raping babies in the Superdome." This from a college-educated, normally reasonable woman who had just suffered a terrible trauma. No doubt, madness ensued in the wake of that storm. I won't forget that reaction - at her most vulnerable, that is what drove her over the edge. She had no reliable source for this assertion, just what people were saying.

The media thrives on this stuff. When you see salacious photos of victimized women and children, when you hear impossible statistics that rile up your self-righteousness, when the only "good" you can do is to "raise awareness" by parroting the headlines, ask yourself what you are really accomplishing. Is changing your Facebook status going to impact the material living conditions of young women in Tunisia? Are you contributing to a conversation about how to end gendered violence or are you just giving into the joys of gossip and moralism? What social justice issues are being obscured in the name of the panic? Are you ignoring the atrocities of war, economic oppression, mass incarceration, or unending surveillance in order to protect the "safety" of women and children by fomenting heightened passions? Where is the morality in panicking?

My advice to you, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams - "Don't panic."