Social panics – when the stupid becomes the normal

I am always intrigued by the way that, every so often, western society is seized with a ‘social panic’ in which some recent and usually small-scale event becomes evidence of a supposedly deep-seated problem that is going to bring society crashing down in ruin.

The archetype, for me, is New Zealand’s Elbe Milk Bar scandal of 1954. The story broke around a report by a teenage girl who had been spending time with a so-called ‘Milk Bar Gang’. This group, she told police, met for sexual purposes at the Elbe Milk Bar in Lower Hutt. An investigation discovered evidence of sexual misconduct among 17 girls and 42 boys, all teenagers (five were over 18). Police then laid 107 charges.

What happened? Suddenly every teenager in New Zealand was suspected of being sex-crazed, every milkbar tagged as a potential venue for illicit assignations. Was New Zealand’s safe, conservative society about to be undermined by the wandering morals of its youth? Government was so concerned it they commissioned a high court judge, Oswald Mazengarb, to look into it. He and his associates soberly concluded that teenage delinquency was on the rise, sexual misconduct was on the rise, and it was a national issue.

All this, incredibly, came out of what a handful of kids were doing at a milk bar in a relatively small town. To give it proportion, there were some 3,000 teenagers at the time in Lower Hutt’s high schools and over 8,750 in the greater Wellington area. And that was quite apart from the numbers across the rest of New Zealand. How many were involved in the scandal? All of them? Most of them?

No. Fifty seven of them. Just under half a percent of the Wellington region alone.

Today we can look back and laugh, and (as the Mazengarb report noted) many adults laughed then, too. No statistics were available to prove that juvenile immorality was on the rise (also noted in the report). But this did not stop Mazengarb thundering on about failures of upbringing, moral laxity, failures in family values and a whole raft of supposed issues that, apparently, applied to the whole country. Government underscored the point by circulating his report to every household.

The outcome underscores how a relatively small-scale event can seize the attention of an entire nation – and swing social perceptions. All is usually clothed in sober rational logic, but the scale of the issue is often negligible.

Did anything else erupt from that milk bar? Of course not. (Threats to society? They didn’t even speak Nadsat.) In fact, the teenagers of 1954 grew up to be the conservative stalwarts of 1960s and 1970s society.

Upper Hutt milk bar
Milk bar life, 1956 style. These are patrons outside the Upper Hutt Milk Bar, Fergusson Drive, Upper Hutt – note the advertisements for Elbe’s ice cream. (Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1956/0175-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22639933)

I mention the New Zealand incident, but it’s true of many societies – both historically and today. Arthur Miller pivoted an entire play around the behaviours associated with the ‘reds under the bed’ social panic of the early Cold War. What’s going on? It’s clearly the way humans behave en masse. Part of the issue, I suspect, is that much of what is taken as a credible threat to society is also invisible. It’s to do with what people might be doing out of sight – with what they might be thinking. That leads imaginations in others to work, fuelling fears – and…. Wham!

If you add to this the fact that society – particularly urban city society – is a world of effective strangers, in that people usually don’t know more than their immediate circle – you can see how it becomes credible to suppose ‘they’ are behaving as the latest social fear dictates. You know you’re not, of course, but it’s all too easy to interpret whatever you see ‘them’ doing as proof of their supposed guilt.

This is not to deny that such panics are often triggered by a specific and perhaps genuine issue – one that needs dealing with. But what I am getting at is the way in which often relatively small matters drive a wider social panic that renders us suspicious of everybody else, and which is well disproportionate to the true problem.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

3 thoughts on “Social panics – when the stupid becomes the normal

  1. I wonder if these social panic events are like escape valves? Let ‘er rip for a while and then the pressure eases. Not suggesting it’s a good thing, but in an individual it might be likened to ‘having a good cry’. Apologies for the sexist tone of that analogy. :/

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