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Panic – moral and otherwise

Our local newspaper ran an end of year series last week concentrating on the past decade and characterizing its predominant tenor or dominant undercurrent as that of “moral panic”.  We could nitpick, noting that the decade, century and millennium really began at the beginning of 1999 and therefore ended at the start of 2009. Nevertheless, I’d tend to agree with the author that the really birth of the decade was in September 2001 just as the sixties really only became recognizable with the 1963 Kennedy assassination.

I would save my argument for the term “moral panic” which I find ambivalent although I certainly understand the phenomenon it is intended to describe. My point would be that the panic of the decade surfaces only intermittently during crises or disasters, but that confusion or anxiety are more persistent markers. I would also suggest that this panic is more visceral than moral.

Morality is naturally questioned whenever individuals or communities are directly threatened, so in that sense panic has moral implications even if only temporary. However, this is really just another form of internal conflict that we all recognize as a normal part of the human condition. When panic and morality cohabit the same space we are in a conflict of interest between our animal and social selves, but hardly an abnormal or philosophically exalted state.

From a strategic viewpoint panic induced moral confusion is unpleasant but offers no excuse to become catatonic like the over invoked deer in the headlights. To the receptive, both panic and moral turmoil offer windows to wisdom. Of course, mastering such impulses requires courage and focus. The past decade (approximately) has been very trying for our society and is distinguished only by moments of individual heroism. The panic as I suggest, has risen and fallen, while society as a whole has largely failed to respond to its challenges.

If anything, as disaster experts tell us, we fail to panic enough or question the morality of generally inadequate responses. We do not respond as we ought by anticipating the unexpected nor by properly containing the fallout. Resilience calls us to that task, yet few of us seem to be listening.

Time to wake up!

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