The Hiv/Aids Moral Panic.

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The HIV/AIDS moral panic.

In human societies there will always be issues or problems that occur which cause some form of reaction from those who feel that their values or societal equilibrium is being threatened. Stanley Cohen and Jock Young led the way in explaining the notion of moral panics and how they are formed and their consequences on society. There have been numerous of these moral phenomena over the years, which have gripped society in a vice lock of terror and more often than not, ignorance. This essay will discuss the concept of the moral panic and look at the case of HIV/AIDS which caused a huge conflict of morality within society. This essay will also analyse the failings of health organisations, politicians, and the media and to give an understanding of the causes of this particular moral panic and the effects on society.

The phrase ‘moral panic’ was first described by the English sociologist Stanley Cohen when he investigated the Mods and the Rockers in the 1960’s and the reaction of society toward a perceived threat of violence. His explanation of a moral panic is ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons who become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’. (Cohen, 1987:9) Cohen also asserts the influence of the media and how they portray an event by exaggerating or manipulating facts to cause mass hysteria for their own agenda and how this is a major factor in the formation of moral panics. This perceived threat to a given societies values causes fear, anxiety and hostility towards the perpetrators of the offences against society. A moral crusade to ‘have something done’ about the threat ensues and a scapegoat or ‘folk devil’ must be established to offload blame. The concept of the ‘folk devil’ was coined by Stanley Cohen to describe the deviant or enemy who’s behaviour has caused threat to the values of society. Howard Becker refers to these folk devils as ‘outsiders’ who have been labelled as deviant by those whose rules have been infracted. (Becker, H. 1963) there are several characteristics which define a moral panic according to Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda in their book Moral Panics the Social Construction of Deviance; these include a ‘heightened level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group or category and the consequences that that behaviour presumably causes for one or more sectors of society’. Consensus, which is the widespread agreement that the perceived threat is ‘real, serious, and caused by the wrongdoing group members and their behaviour.' Disproportion, meaning the exaggeration of the number of individuals engaging in the deviant behaviour and the actual harm the behaviour is causing. Volatility, which describes the nature of the moral panic as they sometimes ‘erupt fairly suddenly and, nearly as suddenly, subside.’ There is usually underlying prejudices and political motivation when a moral panic occurs and is directed at specific groups in society which appear deviant according to the ruling majority. These groups include youth culture, illegal drugs, pornography, paedophilia, violence on television, immigration and HIV and AIDS.

One of the major ‘Moral Panics’ of the 20th century was the emergence of a mystery virus which occurred in the early 1980’s, although cases had appeared during the 1970’s and a case has been traced back to 1959. Cases of the aggressive cancer Kaposi’s Sarcoma had been identified in young gay males in New York in 1981, this was unusual as the less aggressive strain of the cancer was usually restricted to older people. There was also an increase in cases of Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP) in Los Angeles. It was noted that these symptoms seemed to only occur in homosexual males and all were suffering from an infection which defied any treatment. This observation is paramount in the events which moulded the reaction of society and has been the backbone of subsequent stereotyping and...
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