Moral panics used to afflict those of a conservative disposition. They would typically protest displays of modern art, music and literature deemed offensive to religious feelings and traditional moral values. When James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922, an article in the Quarterly Review stated: ‘From any Christian point of view this book must be proclaimed anathema, simply because it tries to pour ridicule on the most sacred themes and characters in what has been the religion of Europe for nearly two thousand years. And this is the book which ignorant French critics hail as the proof of Ireland’s re-entry into European literature!’
But over the past couple of decades, the nature of moral panics has changed. We are now in the era of Moral Panic 2.0. It’s no longer concerned social conservatives doing the moral panicking — it’s progressive liberals. A prime example of progressive liberal outrage was the anti-racist protest against Exhibit B at the Barbican Centre in London at the end of last year. Moral panic also prompted the authorities in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, to remove a Banksy mural depicting pigeons waving anti-immigrant placards at a lone swallow. Of course, just as Exhibit B was critical rather than supportive of racism, so the Banksy mural mocked rather than supported anti-immigrant sentiments — not that that stopped the progressive censors.
Unfortunately, outbreaks of Moral Panic 2.0 are not limited to the UK. Last August, Danish performance-art group Global Stories was scheduled to perform Through Different Eyes at the Malmö Festival in Sweden. The central idea of Through Different Eyes is to invite members of the public to change their ethnicity, race or gender using make-up and then to experience the reactions from other people. While the idea behind it was to ‘celebrate diversity’ and ‘combat discrimination’, more than 200 Swedes were so offended by the idea that they successfully petitioned the festival to cancel the performance.
The demand from non-state actors to censor offensive art is the tragicomic enactment of a cartoon by Wiley Miller, entitled ‘The politically correct school for comprehending the arts’. This fictional school is based on three principles: ‘Step one: Misinterpret; step two: Proclaim offence; step three: Get it banned.’ This is precisely the logic that has allowed Moral Panic 2.0 to move from activism into the courtroom. In 2012, for example, a Congolese man asked Belgian courts, albeit unsuccessfully, to ban the cartoon book Tintin in the Congo on account of its racist and stereotypical presentation of the black Congolese population.
While this Belgian activist failed to solicit the law to his cause, Swedish anti-racist activists were more successful. In July 2014, Swedish police raided an art gallery, seized several offensive artworks and arrested the artist — notorious provocateur Dan Park — as well as the gallery owner, and charged them with defamation and violating Sweden’s hate-speech laws. On 19 August, Park was sentenced to six months in prison, while the gallery owner received a suspended prison sentence. Just for good measure, the court also ordered the offending artworks to be destroyed. The court said that Park ‘had an obligation to avoid being gratuitously offensive to others’. Clearly thinking Park’s incarceration was insufficiently punitive, on New Year’s Day a group of masked men, alleged to be ‘anti-fascists’, beat him up. The attack on Park shows that, all too often, today’s insistence on ‘tolerance’ is really a rallying cry for intolerance.