Sociologists define a moral panic as a feeling of fear shared by a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. The recent clown panic that has emerged from the belief that that murderous clowns have surfaced throughout the country to terrorize schools –including college campuses — says more about the state of our society and our own feelings of vulnerability, than it does about the preposterous possibility that covens of killer clowns are on a rampage to kidnap and kill.
“Inside Higher Ed” has reported that creepy-looking clowns are now stalking “dozens” of college campuses. Students have reported seeing clowns at the Universities of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Miami, Missouri, New Hampshire and Texas at Austin. Students have also claimed to have seen clowns at Bloomsburg, Butler, Sacred Heart, Merrimack, Texas A & M and Syracuse as well as Western Carolina, Mississippi and York Colleges.
When police received concerns about clowns at Auburn, officials sent a campus-wide email telling students to resist the urge to track down the clowns on their own and avoid wearing clown attire. At Penn State — where the panic surrounding the sexual abuse of minors by Jerry Sandusky continues to haunt the campus — university police reported that between 500 to 1,000 students formed a mob that was “screaming and running through the streets” on campus in an attempt to “hunt the clown down.”
If the World Seems Precarious
Moral panics emerge when rapid social change threatens the status quo and society’s norms and values are changing so quickly that people cannot easily adjust to new societal demands. In the face of such precipitous social change, people begin to feel a sense of anomie—or normlessness as Durkheim called it — as the norms and values of the past no longer have meaning, and the world becomes a precarious place.
Anomie describes societies like our own that are characterized by disintegration and deregulation. It emerges when there is a generalized perception of a breakdown in social fabric—an erosion of moral standards, and a decline in leadership and legitimacy. Undifferentiated fears surface and vague feelings of unease develop resulting in confusion, distrust, and suspicions about the motivations and behaviors of others.
Throughout history, America has had its share of moral panics—and all of them can be understood as struggles for cultural power in the midst of rapid social change. The Salem witch trials in 1692 followed continued fears about a smallpox epidemic in the colony and coalesced around fears of attacks from neighboring Native American tribes.
There was also hostility related to emerging class differences and a rivalry with a more affluent neighboring community. Residents’ suspicions and fears of outsiders—fears of otherness—combined with a changing culture surrounding the role of women, fueling the belief that Satan was operating in Salem by endowing witches with demonic power to act against the Puritans. It is noteworthy that the first woman accused of witchcraft in the Massachusetts colony was Tituba, the ultimate outsider, a Caribbean slave who was executed for “bewitching” young women into service for Satan.
Clowns in White Vans
The 1980s clown panic emerged at a time that is very similar to our current era of rapid social change and threats from external enemies. While today we have fears of ISIS, domestic terrorism, school shootings, urban rioting, racial divisions, and an extremely contentious presidential election season, the 1980s was similarly filled with fears of AIDS, the cocaine panic over “crack babies,” the Iranian threats, and the frightening assassination attempts against President Reagan, St. Pope John Paul II, and Anwar Sadat. And, although Reagan and the Pope survived the attempt, Sadat was killed, creating further fears of violent extremism from the Middle East.
Today’s clown panic on college campuses parallels yet another moral panic on campus surrounding fears of campus assault. Women are told when they arrive on campus that they have a one in four chance of being sexually assaulted. Undeterred by data debunking the notion that college campuses have become what Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has called havens for rape and sexual assault, the Obama administration is now investigating nearly 100 colleges and universities for possible alleged sexual violence. Suggesting that “women are at a great risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus,” Senator Gillibrand introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, and all colleges and universities receiving federal aid have had to implement mandatory sexual abuse prevention training for all campus employees.
The only problem is that much of what has been reported about the “epidemic of campus sexual assault” is itself a myth. A study last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that the rate of rape and other sexual assaults over the past two decades was 1.2 times higher for non-students of college age than for students on college campuses. In fact, campus sexual assault has actually declined from 9.2 per 1,000 college students in 1997 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013. Far from being a site of violence, the study found that female college students are safer from sexual assault while in college than at any other time in their lives.
But data mean little in the middle of a moral panic. Driven by irrational fears, panics like these emerge quickly, garner much media attention, and then, disappear as quickly as they began.
Eventually, the creepy clown moral panic and the panicked response to the belief that college campuses are a site of rape and violence will pass as we begin to substitute new fears. In the meantime, it is helpful to look closely at them as an opportunity to begin to understand what we are really afraid of—the very real fears that we are likely too afraid to even discuss.
The heightened levels of fear that we are seeing on college campuses is best understood when viewed through the lens provided by NYU Social Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt in an interview here. Haidt believes that college campuses have been places fraught with fear for students. Part of this is due to the dramatic changes in child-rearing that happened in America in the 1980s: “With the rise in crime amplified by the rise of cable TV, we saw much more protective fearful parenting.” Parental fears over the previous panics surrounding child abductions, crack houses, crack babies, gang violence, and day care abuse by mythic satanic day-care workers have changed the ways in which parents protect their children.
Haidt believes that “Children have been raised very differently —protected as fragile. The key psychological idea which should be mentioned in everything written about this is Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility.” This theory states that “children are anti-fragile. Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break. Bone needs to get banged around to toughen up. And so do children.” Haidt believes we have treated our children as “too fragile” – not allowing them to ever suffer any discomfort in their lives. When they reach college, they can be terrified of everything.
Toughening up our college age children will take a generation. But, in the meantime, it is helpful to look closely at these kinds of panics as an opportunity to begin to understand what we are really afraid of—the very real fears that we are likely too afraid to even talk about.