When the newspapers have got nothing else to talk about, they cut loose on the young. – Kenneth Rexroth
As I’ve written before, all prohibitionism is the same: some object, substance or activity is depicted as intrinsically harmful regardless of context or actual outcome, a connection to children is invented if one does not exist, and the prohibitionists then argue that any abrogation of personal liberty (no matter how invasive) and any expansion of the police state (no matter how destructive, evil and counterproductive) is justified to stop the threat to Our Treasured Way of Life. Moral panics involving young people are basically interchangeable as well: parents discover their (usually biologically adult) offspring doing something unfamiliar; overreact; imagine all sorts of horrible consequences that probably didn’t actually happen; insist that someone else induced their perfect, innocent little angel to do this horrible thing; and then pretend that it’s a “growing problem” because they refuse to believe that Johnny or Suzie might be unusual in any (bad) way. The penultimate item in that list will likely be embraced by the young person in an attempt to eschew responsibility, and the ultimate is amplified by the Law of the Instrument: once the outraged parent is armed with this shiny new hammer, suddenly nails in need of pounding start appearing all over the place. The interesting thing is that it makes no difference whether the behavior might conceivably pose genuine risks or if it’s completely harmless: the parent’s moral outrage, lack of rational thought and unwillingness to accept parental responsibility for the youth’s mistakes are the drivers of the panic, not any genuine assessment of danger.
What made me think of this was the development of two moral panics in the same week and just a few hundred kilometers apart: the one which started in Nova Scotia involved a behavior which could pose real risks, while the one which started in Rhode Island was mere juvenile foolishness, yet the reactions to the two and the development of the panic were essentially interchangeable. Let’s start with the Nova Scotia case:
A Halifax mother is on a quest to stop underage prostitution…after discovering her daughter was appearing on classified sites with near-nude images of herself…A CBC News investigation reveals that the problem of underage prostitution is growing, and police are seeing more girls — some as young as 13 — being exploited…Karen said she learned that there are many girls — at least 40 — in the area selling their bodies for sex…Her daughter says she’s out of it, but that isn’t enough for Karen…Fiona Traynor is chair of the board at Stepping Stone, an outreach organization for sex workers based in Halifax. She said some young girls may be hesitant to come forward because service providers [are legally required]…to report any [underage sex worker to the cops, which] puts a barrier between offering services and being in conflict with the law…
Now, even as a whore who fully supports both a woman’s right to harlotry and a biological adult’s right to do as she pleases with her own body, I can understand a mother getting upset over discovering that her daughter was doing full-fledged sex work with ads and all. We aren’t told how old the girl was (I’m going to guess 16 because if she were any younger the reporter would have been sure to mention it), but it’s pretty clear she was pretty damned careless to use an ad in which she could be recognized by the person who ratted her out to Mom. Anyone that careless isn’t ready for professional-level sex work; she should have stuck to dating college guys she could hit up for cash. Furthermore, given all the prohibitionist disinformation flying about nowadays, it’s unsurprising that the mother had a conniption. But that’s not actually what’s at issue here; the problem is that after resolving the situation with her daughter to her satisfaction, she has taken it upon herself to harass, endanger and sic the cops on other people she does not know, waving her ignorance as a flag while charging wildly across an imaginary battlefield bellowing that oft-heard cri de guerre, “FOR THE CHIIIIILDREEEEEENNNNN!!!!” And the reporter, rather than investigating the facts, reports the whole thing without a trace of skepticism, larding the account with the usual Copspeak and silly dysphemisms.
A middle school in Portsmouth, R.I. recently sent parents an alarming e-mail about kids who are “snorting” or “smoking” Smarties, a silly fad in which kids grind up the tart candy into a fine powder, then blow out the vapor as if they were smoking…Yet everyone is worried. Portsmouth School Committee Chair Dave Croston asserts that the fad “would not be normal behavior” (God forbid!), and raises the “troubling issue of modeling.” That is, kids who pretend to smoke today will become smokers later. The warning sent to parents also cautions that the act may be a “precursor to future cigarette smoking and drug use.” I don’t know of any empirical data to support that contention…in 2009, a Wall Street Journal article on [a previous iteration of] the alleged trend quoted a Mayo Clinic physician who warned that the act could lead to something called nose maggots. That was also mentioned in the warning to Portsmouth parents. Local blogger John McDaid interviewed that doctor, who conceded that he’d never actually seen a case of “nose maggots” from Smarties, only that it was a possibility. Nevertheless, the fallout from these panics has already led to suspensions of students across the country for improper ingestion of a confectionery…
These parents and teachers, their heads full of drug-war propaganda and “social construction” idiocy, go off exactly the same way as the Nova Scotia mother, despite the relative harmlessness of the observed behavior; when McDaid sent the story to CBS, they turned it into a scare story which called it a “dangerous activity” and included an interview with a loon who not only said it could be fatal, but also opined that “children who engage in this behavior may need a mental health evaluation from a medical professional.” I agree that somebody needs a mental health evaluation, but it isn’t kids playing a silly game. Fortunately, because of the internet we are no longer at the mercy of big media corporations selling panic for a fast buck; there are plenty of writers challenging the “sin, fear and crime” mold into which the mainstream outlets try to force any story about behavior which isn’t mind-numbingly conformist. Here’s what a skeptical blogger had to say about the “quest to stop underage prostitution”:
A teenage girl becomes involved in sexual activity that most grownups, regardless of their own sexual behaviour as teens, find shocking and horrific…the distraught…parents construct a frame…[which] invariably posits the existence of a large but hitherto unacknowledged social problem that explains how a good child falls into bad situations…a journalist…[publicizes the] salacious…story…in which digital media are implicated…and…police are interviewed…[they] call for greater resources…and…powers…to deal with the putative trend…In extreme cases, this unholy coalition will propel politicians to pass hastily contrived, ill-thought-out legislation giving authorities over-broad powers to address problems that may or may not exist.
Some say the internet is killing the traditional media, and when I compare the way they handle stories like this to the way alternative sources like bloggers do, I must say that their death isn’t coming quickly enough to suit me.