Emily Bazelon and the Danger of Bringing "Anti-Bullying" Laws to Campus

Thursday, April 4, 2013

If those of us who defend civil liberties had to name our greatest historical adversary, the leading candidate could be summed up in two words: moral panic. Moral panic is a sudden, powerful, and often highly exaggerated perception within a society that people or their values are facing a dire threat. The concept has been discussed for nearly two centuries, with the classic example being the witch hunts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. But the phenomenon is no stranger to modern times. In the 1950s, Americans rallied against comic books, which were thought to cause all manner of societal evil. In the 1980s, some even claimed that Dungeons & Dragons led to juvenile delinquency and Satanism. Of course, moral panics aren't always based on pure illusions. It is understandable that some Americans panicked when Stalin obtained nuclear weapons, and the attention to child molestation in the 1990s was long overdue. But regardless of the justification, moral panics tend to be so galvanizing that civil liberties and our legal commitment to the presumption of innocence are often marginalized.

One of the latest instances of moral panic is our heightened awareness of bullying. In many ways, we are past due for a pushback against excessive cruelty by children against other children. While bullying has likely been around as long as civilization has, there is no reason not to expect better for current and future generations. But at the same time, the recent outcry against bullying has all the same pitfalls as any other moral panic: the false sense of a new epidemic, the focus on a category of individual who personifies societal evil (and therefore is safe to demonize and despise), an almost irresistible opportunity for grandstanding, and a desire in some circles to eliminate the problem by any means necessary. Add the fact that this moral panic involves children, and you have a concoction that is none too friendly to reasoned, deliberate, and thoughtful debate.

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