Moral Panic: The Act of Hitting the Panic Button Too Many Times

This post delves into academic theory and may stretch a little long; apologies for the wordiness. It’s an occupational hazard.

Headline reads "AMK Hub Incident: Woman Snatches Child" (Image courtesy of Dad Working From Home)

We’ve all probably heard of the the recent alleged attempted kidnapping incident at AMK Hub, which caused a flurry of online reactions from concerned parents around the island, not to mention quite a few additional accounts of similar experiences being shared.

As the mainstream media covers the story, one particular article from CNA has ruffled the feathers of some parents whose already disturbed by the incident itself.

The article carried a statement from the police “urging the public not to circulate unsubstantiated information as this may cause unnecessary alarm.

It’s an oxymoronic statement, to be sure, seeing as the media itself has been perpetrating the alarming story with such titles as you see on the left. But the police, and the media reporting their statement, have good reason for this particular “urging”.

It’s a concept called moral panic, a term first coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen, but a social phenomenon that has existed for centuries. A moral panic occurs when “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”

The Ikea Incident

To fully understand the cause and effect process of moral panic, we need to go back 8 years, to an incident that happened at the Alexandra Road Ikea. In late 2004, a mother circulated an e-mail providing a detailed account of how a Chinese woman estimated to be in her late 30s to early 40s tried to lead her son away, except in this case, the boy’s mother was watching the entire time. The e-mail, subsequent replies verifying the story as well as the news reports are documented in their entirety in the SGCollect.com forum.

Typically, a parent’s reactions from reading the story unfold from beginning to end would go something like this. First, shock that such an incident would occur in a place as safe as Singapore. Then panic, as you relate the circumstances in your own capacity as a parent who frequently spends time with your children outdoors and in public places. Finally, a call-to-action as your gut instinct pushes you to warn other parents in your community about the impending danger, as well as take steps to ensure the safety of your children.

But what if you had read the chain of events in the Ikea incident from end to beginning?

A few posts down on the second page of the thread, the user keeping track of the story has posted a final CNA report on the incident stating, “The alleged kidnapping attempt of a two-year-old boy at Ikea has turned out to be a misunderstanding“, and that the Chinese woman involved, who turned out to be “a Chinese Singaporean woman in her fifties”, had gone to the police station with her husband to clarify the matter after seeing the media reports and her image on the CCTV footage.

By the time the news of the misunderstanding had been verified and published, however, the idea of the incident being an “attempted abduction”, supplemented by preliminary conclusions drawn by the droves of commenters in multiple online social networks including local online forums, had already burned its image into our minds, to the point where the words that are supposed to matter, words like “alleged” and “misunderstanding” no longer hold any meaning.

Imagine if the mother in the story got wind of the Chinese woman’s name, and put it in her e-mail; wouldn’t the woman remained marked for years to come, if not the rest of her life, even though she came forward to clear her name?

What Do You Mean, “Unnecessary Alarm”?

The local mainstream media tries to be very careful with what they report, as do the local authorities, because they have, on occasion, made the mistake of putting out too much information for public consumption, only to find what they reported not only wasn’t verified, it would adversely impact the lives of the people involved. Such is the power of media, and the reason why mass communications courses everywhere dedicate entire semesters teaching its students responsible journalism.

What the media and authorities cannot control, however, lies with us, the community. Our concerns, fears, opinions and sharing capabilities combined (particularly with the boom in the development and popularity of social media), make for a highly volatile community spirit that civil authorities in a democratic society does not quite know how to quell without offending public conscience.

As parents it is only natural for our alarm bells to ring when we encounter incidents such as those which happened at Ikea in 2004 or at AMK Hub in 2012. In an online discussion with a fellow parent over the issue, I remarked that this is more than just human nature at play; it is maternal (or in our case, paternal) instinct kicking in to guard your cubs in the face of impending danger. It’s this very instinct that shows the amount of love that a mother will give to a child, and really, that is already a phenomenal display of parental love. So by all means, panic. It’s only natural. But watch where you take that panic; the consequences of moral panic can potentially extend beyond the confines of our family dynamics into the fabric of society; such is the power of the people, and the reason why we need to understand how to use the information we absorb or are given responsibly. More importantly, where information is unsubstantiated, even if shared by a witness to the events, there is a very real danger of the information actually doing harm to someone who could turn out to be an innocent party.

Being Careful, All the Time

On the other hand, we do take for granted that Singapore is a safe country with a low crime rate, and that we are free to roam the streets at night without fear of a mugging or a drive-by shooting; this is the signature of the Singaporean lifestyle, and also what draws many foreigners from around the world to work and live here. But the truth is, things do happen, whether it be a maid killing her employer on a psychotic streak, arson on motorcycles in carparks, or people going missing for one reason or another (it happens more often than you think).

To this, it is prudent to give attention to the advice given by the same people that told you not to panic in the first place, saying, “as a general preventive measure, parents are reminded to arrange for their young children to be accompanied at all times.

Fellow blogfather Andy Lee says, “Unfortunately, we need this type of news every now and then to jolt us to wake up to the real world… Personally, with regards to child safety, I would prefer to err on the side of caution. End of the day, parents are always “accountable” for their kids… but from a broader perspective, we should ask why (do) parents need another incidence to remind ourselves about safety?”

We don’t need to wait for something to happen before we tell ourselves to be vigilant for our child’s safety; for as long as we are fathers and mothers, and regardless of what others say, we have to be vigilant all the time.

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