Moral panic for fun & profit

An exercise in evil.

Let’s play a game. I want you to imagine for a while that we are a cabal of evil villains that have decided for nefarious purposes to create a state of moral panic. Not that myself or any other ethical person would ever actually put this into practice. We are only going to take a stroll down the road of hypothesis in order to see where it might lead us.

In order to start this journey, let us take a scary word and see what we can do with it. Rape. We all know the definition of rape and what it entails. It is even a familiar word which causes it to lose some of its shock value. As an aside that will only be important down the line, we need to mention that rape is an act found in nature. Many animals rape, and at least one genus of animal, felis, only reproduces through rape.  All male cats have a barbed penis, and partially paralyze the female by biting her on the back of her neck while mating. The screams heard coming from a female cat during sex is from pain as evidenced by the fight she puts up in trying to escape. If this is not an act of rape, then no act is.

From the mighty lion to the beautiful Himalayan curled up in your lap, every cat is a product of rape.  It can be argued that rape is an evolutionary cheat, a way of reproducing even though an animal might not otherwise be a suitable mate. This is not a defense of rape, but simply an explanation for how it arises and remains in a population of animals. Rape is fairly simple to understand. Yet even with our understanding the very word has a negative effect on our brains.

This is due to what is referred to in psychology as a negativity bias. Basically this means that people will give more attention to a negative event than to a positive one. When considered in terms of survival this makes sense.  The adage ‘Once bitten, twice shy’ remains a cultural phrase in several forms just because it is a useful piece of information to convey. People who have experienced a negative event will require far fewer indicators of danger before they react. This is an evolutionary survival response, where reaction to false danger is more productive than failure to react to actual danger. In other words, our minds and bodies are wired for fight or flight.  But how can this come into play if we have not actually suffered the event?

Words have a direct effect on our brains. Language is a part of how we think, and language is conjoined with emotion. As we are wired to respond directly to negative or dangerous situations, our minds prioritize potential dangers and act accordingly. Likewise, when we hear negatively biased words, we begin to react to them negatively, even if it has not happened to us. An example of this would be the word ‘murdered.’ Not a single one of you reading that word have at this moment been murdered. And yet the negative association triggers minute responses in your body. The word implies threat, even though you are not directly threatened. In this small way the negative association with the word causes a reaction. Still, there is another way that words can work on you as well – emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion seems to be a driving force in mob mentality. It is spread much like a virus throughout concentrations of people. We can convey a lot of information through both physical and verbal cues. When combined with our natural tendency to react to negative events or triggers over positive ones, crowds pick up on negative emotional states or expressions like disgust and fear quickly.

Emotional contagion sounds remarkably similar to Richard Dawkins’ meme theory. A meme is an idea or concept that spreads from person to person throughout a population. Also like viruses, memes can mutate as they spread. Fads can be seen as a form of meme, as can slogans, catch phrases, and various other concepts. We may also take advantage of emotional contagion to spread fear. But in order to take the word rape and make it not just cause a vague sense of unease, but a real force of terror, we need to add a few more ingredients to the cocktail.

We can increase the shock value of the word rape by attaching to it another word that in itself is completely innocent. Perhaps a word that in most cases would be seen as positive. How about the word ‘culture’ for instance? When we think of the word culture, what normally comes to mind, unless you work in a laboratory at least, is the collection of achievements, values, and practices of a civilization. These are wonderful things. We also tend to associate culture with good taste. Culture is a happy word, a word that makes you just a little proud when you think of it.

Ah, but now the word becomes attached to a negative association- rape. “Rape as a culture? How horrific!” one might rightly think. We have just taken a negative word and kicked it up an order of magnitude. Now rape is not something associated with the individual, but with an entire population.  A word that would normally function as a positive bump to the mind has been corrupted through association.

We have done a fairly good job of creating fear so far. We have found a way to take a positive word and attach it to a negative word in order to form a verbal chimera that is considerably more fear inspiring than just the negative word alone. We have also found a method in which to spread this chimera by relying on human’s innate tendency to focus on harmful words. Even were we to leave things as this, we would still have managed to generate a degree of fear. But that would be too short of a hike down this road. We can do a lot better than this if we set our minds to it.  To this end we will continue to exploit biology.

What we need to do next is create a mythology to support our chimera. We can take mundane interactions and attach them to the mythology. We know that friends and associates have a camaraderie that will make them behave in ways that that most would usually consider unethical when it comes to protecting their own in-group. The people in your in-group or clan are to be protected at the expense of outsiders. Naturally there will always be some in these groups that will set aside their moral convictions in order to fabricate an alibi for a member of their in-group. We have seen this behavior all through history. It is ‘us versus them’ mentality, and is a natural extension of evolutionary group survival.  We can exploit this natural trait and co-opt it into the mythology by claiming it as part of rape culture. “See how those frat boys are all covering for their guy? Rape culture!

Good, we have a start here, but there is a lot more work that we can do. Today we have a view of what is attractive and healthy that in many ways is identical to that of ancient Greece. We find well toned individuals and those with clear skin to appear more healthy and attractive than we do people with poor complexions and out of shape. Again, a lot of this is evolutionary biology. Bad complexion can be an indication of disease. Poor physical condition means less ability to bring in food. These are traits we are genetically programmed to look for.  Advertising takes this into consideration and selects models that fit the current ideal of attractive and selects male and female models based on the public perception of beauty. We will disregard the male models that meet our ideal standard with their sculpted forms and rippled abs, and instead point to the females. “You are making her into a sexual object by displaying her. Rape culture!

Splendidly done! Let us continue down this path and see where it leads. We can point to prostitution. Prostitution is observed in penguins with the female trading sexual favors for shiny stones. Some species of hummingbird females trade sex for food, as do numerous insects.  Even female monkeys will prostitute themselves for food. Prostitution is a matter of supply & demand, just like any other service. The female is exchanging her sexual services for something she desires.  It is fairly important that we in the role of evil villains nip this one in the bud, because we are trying to use rape to create fear. If people can just pay for sex there will be less rape. This will not do!  Yell it with me now. “You are exploiting that poor woman through your solicitation of prostitution. Rape culture!

We are well on our way now, but we can’t rest yet. In our exploitation of biology, rape of biology if you will, we need to make rape itself even worse. We are very much aware of the fact that rape exists in nature. We can see how it can be used as a reproductive shortcut.  We are still civilized, though, and we understand that rape can have a detrimental effect on society. We also possess empathy which helps the majority of the human race cooperate. Naturally, we criminalize rape. Actually we cannot even take credit for that, as our ancestors etched those laws into clay and stone long eons ago in our dim past. Still though, in our role as evil villains, we need to find some way to make rape seem even more horrendous than it already is.

To do this, let’s take a look at criminals. Crime happens all the time. We are to a degree desensitized to crime because we understand what criminals are doing and how they think. A burglar robs your house because he wants what is in the house and is more concerned with his satisfaction than he is in your security and peace of mind. He will steal your car for the same reason and with the same lack of remorse. In the same manner, the rapist rapes because he or she wants sex. There is nothing surprising about it. There are no political motives. The tiger is not raping because he wants to repress the tigress or because he wants to stifle her political ideology. He is raping because he desires to have sex.

The college student that first asks a girl on a date then tries to sway her with sweet talk and pleasant verbal coercion while touching and fondling until rejected and only then resorts to more coercive tactics is not repressing the girl out of hatred or a desire to control her. He is behaving that way because he wants sex. But let us not forget that we are playing the role of villains, so we need to twist this around. We will do this by taking the natural crime out of rape and claim it is an act of control, not sex. This technique works marvelously, as now when anyone points out the obvious fact that rape is rooted in our biology we can scream “You are a rape apologist. Rape culture!

This is turning out incredibly well for a hypothetical exercise. Next we need to take these tools of evil and begin to apply them. We will need to dig up some statistics first. We will scour various sources for rape figures. When those figures do not add up to enough to convince people, we twist them around, we add different figures together to reach higher numbers. Heck, we are villains, if the figures don’t say what we want them to, we can just make up figures on the spot! This will work, and I will explain why.

We are going to present these figures along with our newly created mythology to congressmen and lawmakers. We are going to petition these same people demanding laws be created to protect us from our construction. We are going to sweetly approach police chiefs and sheriffs and offer to educate their forces free of charge. We will prey on their natural empathy as well as using negative bias & emotional contagion to our advantage. These are horrible things we are telling them. Their first reaction is going to be shock, then horror and outrage. They are going to want to know what they can do to protect their loved ones from this. They are putty in our hands.

College deans will be almost as easy to convince. This is an emotional appeal, granted one that is only backed with shoddy and false information, but their moral character will be seduced by way of negative bias just as the lawmakers were.  We will even create a college rape myth while on campus to better stir the coals of fear.

We keep up the pressure until we get a single law passed in favor of our villainous construction, then point to that law as proof that we are on the right track. Domino effect as more and more people fall victim to this evil scheme. Newspapers pick it up, as does television and radio. We throw the words ‘Rape culture’ like rice at a wedding. The meme spreads, panic ensues. Women everywhere are gripped in a viral moral panic. “What do we do?” they ask “Rape is everywhere around us!

The women begin to take precautions. These are sensible precautions like everyone takes in order to prevent crime. Common sense precautions like removing the keys from their ignition and locking the car doors in order to help prevent their cars from being stolen. We will tolerate none of that! “Why should we have to change the way we act?” becomes our meme. “Teach the bad rapists to stop raping! Rape culture!” is a perfect way to keep the rapes happening.

Of course if you report to the police that your car was stolen and during the course of the investigation he learns that you left the keys in the ignition while you ran into the store, the officer is going to tell you that you had it coming. But as we the hypothetical evil villains have convinced both the officer and the hapless citizen that rape is not like other crimes, he will not even think of taking the woman’s dress, behavior, or location into consideration.

This is exactly what we the villains want, because if fewer rapes happen we are tasked with creating more false statistics. Besides, the real thing is much better for business because then we can exploit the poor rape victim by parading her case around with an air of triumph. Now they will really start to believe the meme of rape culture. And with that belief comes the full blown moral panic that we were looking for.

We have managed to transform an already nasty word into one of terror. We have relied on our own biological nature to make the most of this generated fear. We have rigged the deck to increase rapes by taking more prostitutes out of the picture while convincing women that it is not their duty to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves from rape.

We have even neglected to mention to them that most rapes are perpetrated by close associates, not strangers, making them even more susceptible to being raped. We have capitalized on human nature to spread our fictional creation and have seen how it balloons. Now all that is left is to use the power of fear to being strategically maneuvering the government in whatever direction our criminal minds wish.

Were we actually evil villains, there could be few quicker routes to seizing power than this without resorting to a bloody coup. From the fear and turmoil we could build upon this framework, using it is a springboard for other related fear mongering. We would have our feet in the door and could drop more false statistics on the table to back anything else we desired to push.  Using fear to control the masses, and shame and oppressive laws to silence the lone voices of dissent we could swing laws and milk state & federal funds into any schemes we felt like controlling.  Humans are childishly easy to manipulate once you begin to turn their own biology and psychology against them.

Now this was only a hypothetical exercise. I am confident that none of us are so vile, so evil, so monstrous as to actually put something like this into motion.  No, it would take someone far less ethical that we good fellows to ruthlessly pull the emotional strings of entire nations for fun, profit, or other selfish reasons.


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