Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Moral Panic"

Protecting Your Animals in the Face of “Moral Panic”—Taking a Page from the Biker’s Handbook


Margaret Anne Cleek, Ph.D.

A few months ago I attended a meeting in a local community to discuss issues of gang-related crime and attendant problems of graffiti and loitering. As the POP officer (Problem Oriented Policing, designed to be community-friendly and proactively address community concerns) went through his power point presentation, a few red flags went off for me. At one point the officer, who in fact is a smart fellow whom I respect, mentioned some of the actions and procedures being taken to address gang activity in the community. As a 30 year member of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) I thought, “Whoa, what is wrong with this picture?” I asked the officer if it was in fact a violation of certain constitutional rights to take the actions he described to create an uncomfortable environment for the gangs in our community. The response was, yes, but the folks they are dealing with generally do not know this, and are easily intimidated. Subsequent comments clearly revealed that both the police and the public totally supported violation of the rights of “the bad guys”.

The officer went on to comment that this tactic did not work with the outlaw biker gangs. Now these are the real bad folks into heavy-duty stuff like illegal weapon sales, but the officer said they cannot do much about them because they are “older, better organized, and know their rights”. He went on to say that the biker gang members generally have audio and video taping devices always available, and access to contact with a lawyer, and unless they have them dead to rights there is no point in confronting them.

This should give us all pause. Laws are being increasingly made which allow government and law enforcement to invade the private affairs of citizens over trivial issues. Further, the perceptions that such laws are necessary often are based on distorted or erroneous data and cognitive biases created by “truisms” or media coverage. It is almost as if such laws are a way to deflect the public focus away from major problems and highlight minor problems which are more easily controlled, or to target a responsive and responsible population more likely to be intimidated or obey the law, while a more dangerous population continues unabated.

As Cicero (42BC) observed, “When people are willing to give up rights for security, they will, in the end, lose both.” In a society where the media bombards us with horrible stories of gang violence and portrays a society out of control, it is very easy for government to get concessions from frightened citizens which violate the rights of every citizen under the premise that it is only the bad guys who will be impacted. More and more laws are being enacted which erode the rights of US citizens. In spite of the rights afforded by the constitution, we are increasingly seeing the violation of these rights in the name getting the bad guys or for reasons of the greater good. While the events post 9-11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act are the most obvious and glaring examples of the exchange of freedom for perceived security or the greater good, there are numerous additional examples at all levels of government.

Moral panic is a feeling of fear or impending threat shared by part of the population with regard to another group in the population which is seen to threaten the social order or personal or public safety. Stanley Cohen is credited with coining the term, moral panic, and discussed the phenomenon in his book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972). Those who come to be defined as the source of the problem in a moral panic are labeled by Cohen “folk devils”, while those who plant the seeds of the panic and nurture the resulting crop of fear, hatred, and resulting prohibitive legislation are defined as “moral entrepreneurs”. Often these moral entrepreneurs are media savvy and well-funded and not above taking advantage of existing media events. The media has always served the needs of such moral entrepreneurs, even if the media are not intentionally crusading against folk devils. Simply choosing to factually report some news over other news can be sufficient to further a moral panic. The mass media clearly has the power to focus public awareness, maintain public awareness, and shape public opinion.

“Pet-overpopulation” has been raised to the status of a moral panic. Currently, the over-blown concern with pet-overpopulation (when in fact the birthrate for dogs has been below the replacement rate since 2005 and the only dogs out-producing demand are the pit bull and pit bull crosses which stock most shelters), has resulted in the pressure to enact draconian, ineffective, costly and invasive legislation which imposes excessive control over owned pets and severely limits the ability of any owner to maintain an intact pet, whether or not intended for breeding.

Special interest groups such as animal rights activists are accomplished at timing media coverage of raids on large-scale dog breeding facilities, animal agriculture businesses etc. to correspond to pending legislation designed to outlaw practices or enact stricter government controls. Currently, HSUS, the Humane Society of the United States, an animal protection/animal rights organization which is currently supporting increasing controls on dog breeders is highlighting raids on breeding facilities and using its considerable resources to assure media coverage and influence public opinion. Such tactics are typical of organizations with an agenda or ideology and the resources to afford marketing, advertising, and pubic relations to influence public opinion. Since the special agendas of these organizations lack popular support, these entities rely more on media hype for the need for legislation, limits on personal freedoms, and other sanctions to push their personal agenda.

Animal Rights Activists have created a perception of crisis and threat and the public perception that the “folk devils”, all breeders or owners with intact animals, must be acted upon. According to Cohen, this creates a perception of a "deviant" act. While the act may not be criminal, pressure is exerted to have it condemned. Newsworthy information on the issue is reported, but obscure examples which ordinarily would not be noted are now highlighted. What may be statistically low incidences of the behavior are now presented as “the tip of the iceberg”. Naturally it is impossible to prove that such is indeed the case. Real data indicating the fact that the behavior is very uncommon or usually benign is ignored. Thus the problem emerges as significant and the resultant outcomes as common. The public are sensitized and kept informed of all incidents of the events.

Next public concern about the issue typically forces legislators, the police and the whole law enforcement system to focus on the specific deviancy—with a much greater degree of concern than it warrants. Municipalities should enact laws, and pressure is put on them to enact harsh penalties to deal with the threat. Ironically this action only serves to confirm that the contrived threat was in fact legitimate.

Moral panics take on a life of their own when the members of a society come to believe that threats and menaces exist and that “others” will act in ways they consider unacceptable, reject their values, and cause untold harm. Those that would do this are defined as the target for action and legislation and must be stopped.

We are the targets of such moral panic over pet overpopulation and the so-called deviance of owning an intact pet. Those of us who are dedicated breeders need to stand up for our rights and shatter the myth of over population and the perception that breeders are low-life deviants responsible for pet slaughter, government expenditures, and attacks by dogs on children. We need to fight the propaganda and negative stereotyping of the ARs at every opportunity. AKC (the American Kennel Club) and all the breed clubs need to take a more active political role or there will be no sport of purebred dogs. Now is the time to go to the mattresses!

Although we are not outlaws (at least not yet, although that may soon change if we don’t take action now), we need to take a page from the playbook of the outlaw biker. It is the uninformed, the apologetic, and the easily intimidated who are the victims of “go for the show” raids or crackdowns. Those who know their rights, and are proactive in protecting their rights and interests will be the least likely targets for AR controlled ACs and humane societies.

We have all seen the raids on the “unlicensed” puppy mills where the dogs are “confiscated” by the humane society. These facilities are targeted as an easy score and timed for a great media hit before something comes up for a vote in the municipality or state. The places are usually run by an elderly couple who are easily intimidated when told they can either surrender the dogs or face hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation and possible arrest and criminal prosecution. The kennel conditions may not be bad at all, but what senior citizen with a hand-to-mouth existence could face the stress and expense to fight a well-funded organization with a good-guy reputation? The statement that the kennel is “unlicensed” generally makes the public think it is illegal, when in fact it may not be required by law to be licensed.

Each of us has to know our rights and stand up front and center to protect them. Print out “What to do if Animal Control Comes Knocking” , post it on your fridge and if you have children, or occasional workers on your property inform them that they are not to talk to anyone who may wish to question them. Have an audio or video camera on the ready and record any interaction. Have the name of an attorney available. Know the name of your board or council member who represents your area as well as your state senator or representative and mention you have been in touch with them in the past. Register to vote and write letters at every level when animal related legislation is pending. Let your elected officials know that you and many other dog people were apolitical in the past but are now “one issue” voters and that issue is your dogs.

The days of being able to assume that because you have done nothing wrong, and your kennel is in order, you have nothing to fear are long over. Flying under the radar is no longer a viable strategy unless you want your dogs to live like Anne Frank, sequestered in your house so as not to come under the long arm of draconian animal control laws.

While you are in no way an outlaw biker, or a deviant of any kind, it is unfortunately time to take a page from the playbook of the outlaw biker and be proactive with a game plan in action should you be targeted by anyone because you are a breeder. Now you must know how to thwart those who would use propaganda and moral panic to intimidate normally law-abiding citizens such as you, who choose to responsibly breed and own intact dogs.

Copyright M.A. Cleek 2010

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