The key thing to remember about any and every moral panic is that they are about misdirection. Misdirection is not, in itself, a terrible thing – just like sex, what makes misdirection good or bad is a matter of why you’re doing it. If you’re doing conjuring tricks of any kind, getting your audience to look in the wrong direction is what allows you to pull off the trick, and your purpose is to entertain them, which is fine. Same goes for any mystery story, especially the writing of an unreliable narrator: you’re playing a game which is intended to be fun for all concerned. If you do it badly, people get bored, annoyed or disappointed, but they won’t suffer any lasting harm.
Misdirection via moral panic is altogether less ethical and more dangerous. Not only are you supposed to fear and denounce the targeted ‘them’ (drug users, sex workers, singers of rude songs, specific ethnic groups, people who won’t wear a poppy in the autumn, benefit claimants… you can insert your own examples at your leisure), but you’re supposed to be so busy bawling and shitting yourself over THEM that you miss something far more sinister that’s approaching.
Over the past year, we have been subjected to an enormous amount of moral panic and misdirection, particularly in the UK. To point out that the ‘covidiot’ is the new folk devil (sadly alongside, rather than replacing, the migrant, the trans person or the left-wing activist) is not to say that the pandemic is a myth or that Covid-19 is not as dangerous as is claimed. It’s a matter of understanding that the awful death toll in the UK has absolutely fuck all to do with public disobedience, and that the pre-existing conditions which killed so many people have been made worse by the measures that were supposed to ‘save lives’.
No, that’s not about ‘pre-existing health conditions’ as a reason to write off elderly, sick or disabled people. Not exactly. The point is that poor health and reduced life expectancy were increasing in the UK before Covid-19 and the reason is poverty and inequality. And that the measures taken to ‘save lives’ by reducing Covid-19 transmission have increased poverty and inequality enormously, but you’re not supposed to have noticed that. Because that was a feature, not a bug: the UK government were intending to increase poverty and inequality before Covid-19 and it was a golden opportunity to do so, along with consolidating power and stripping away rights. This is why all the noise and most of the narrative has been about compliance, virtue-signalling and self-martyrdom rather than about practical public health behaviours: caging the majority of the population and conditioning them to accept captivity is far more desirable – and much cheaper than introducing adequate sick pay or requiring business premises to be properly ventilated. The obsessive focus on ‘essential’ activities rather than relatively safe ones has been a big part of it: keep the public squabbling about the definition of what is permissible rather than what is harmless and you keep them too busy to notice that you’re picking their pockets. And if they do start to notice, it’s time for further moral panics – statues! Healthcare for trans kids! Censorious students banning free speech! Anything that pits people against one another is useful to the most dangerous UK government in living memory and moral panic is one of their favourite weapons. Keep that in mind the next time some Awful Example is being showcased, won’t you?
Yes, this is all very depressing. Maybe you might like to escape into some naughty books.