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Moral panic is sown to make us scaredy-cats – that’s nothing new

In our era – like others – outrage and hyperbole seem to be par for the course. jenny downing

Moral panic is sown to make us scaredy-cats – that’s nothing new

In the last week of June, the US Supreme Court made landmark rulings on Obamacare and gay marriage. That Friday, June 26, Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz announced:

Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.

As some bloggers quickly pointed out, that claim would rank the Court’s rulings up there with Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and JFK’s assassination. And perhaps the day in 1991 that Nirvana released Nevermind.

In our era of 24-hour news, such outrage and hyperbole seem to be par for the course. There are apparently lots of “worst ever” events and “existential” threats we need to worry about. The hyperbole especially flares in worries about the younger generation.

Chill pills and “fact-check” services, such as provided by The Conversation, are antidotes. But immediate impact seems to be the aim, and frequently by the time the fact-check is complete the media circus has moved on.

Such announcements actually have a long track record. In a paper I presented on Friday to a history research conference at Melbourne University, I analysed an example from almost a hundred years ago.

Photograph of Sir John Madden taken February 1, 1893, shortly after his appointment as Chief Justice of Victoria. Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday August 29, 1909, Victorian Chief Justice Sir John Madden addressed the Australian Church in Melbourne. He was clearly no fan of teen spirit – his topic was the declining standards of youth morality, which he termed “the Gravest Peril”.

In an attitude common at the time, Madden acknowledged that “Australians had achieved wonderful things in their country”. He also joined many in seeing this as a good foundation to tackle further a range of moral evils.

From our perspective, knowing 1909 was five years before the start of the carnage of the first world war, we might think there were graver perils around.

Not in Sir John’s mind. He stressed in his speech, which was published by The Argus newspaper on August 31 1909:

the vital importance which the purity, chastity, and honor of a nation’s women were to that nation. If women were indisposed to regard virtue and purity as being of great importance … then the results were so far reaching and disastrous that war, famine, and pestilence were incomparably milder afflictions.

The Chief Justice listed a number of causes, many of which have echoed in subsequent concerns over the decline of the “youth of today”.

Foremost was a lessening of parental control, followed by “the evil literature that was a pestilence, and in the preaching of a doctrine of liberty for young people”. Not far behind was “the manifest decay of the religious sense […] a great buttress of the moral character”.

Madden’s speech attracted a wide range of comment and support. Many leapt eagerly on his message, seeing it as ample support for some of their favoured social remedies, without actually checking the details too closely.

A week later, “Mother of Six” wrote to The Argus, asserting:

For amongst all classes the moral tone is on the down grade. The young, especially, seem to have lost all the innocent simplicity noticeable in the youth of 30 years ago.

She blamed the mixing of sexes in the state education system – “Familiarity breeds contempt”.

The Ballarat Presbytery passed a unanimous motion applauding:

the courage and fine sanity of the Chief Justice’s timely words on what is acknowledged to be our gravest peril. [They hoped that] such weighty words will awaken a deeper interest in the watchful care of youth on the part of parents, and that such united action may be taken by church and State as will mitigate if not eradicate an evil that must imperil our whole social system.

Methodist Reverend Worrall, preaching in South Melbourne on Sunday September 12, 1909, welcomed Madden’s “disclosure of a national leprosy”.

He blamed a number of vices:

The greed of gambling, the intoxication of sport, the vice of intemperance, the inordinate love of dress and gaiety, the reckless and even blasphemous utterances of politicians, and the impurity of the lives of some of Australia’s public men, have all contributed something towards lowering the nation’s moral sentiment.

A different take came from socialist firebrand Tom Mann, addressing a crowded Bijou Theatre on September 5, 1909. The meeting unanimously deplored “the fact that unbecoming and even lewd relationships existed among the young people of Victoria”.

But it differed from the Chief Justice and the non-conformist churches on the causes:

The whole of these conditions arose as the direct outcome of the capitalist system of society.

The cure for the evil, they contended, was to be found “in the immediate provision of adequate educational facilities, and the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system”.

It is unlikely that conservative John Madden saw merit in the overthrow of the capitalist system. He suggested rather different remedies. First:

a curfew bell for those children, particularly girls, who hung about the streets at night […] they should only be allowed out with their fathers, mothers or brothers.

Second, the closing of public parks at 7pm. And third, the reversal of proof in paternity cases. A young man who “had been misconducting himself with” the mother would have to prove he was not the father.

The Argus, in an editorial on the same day as his speech was published – August 31, 1909 – welcomed Madden’s comments, “marked by even more than his usual earnestness and public spirit”. But it was sceptical of the proposed remedies. It was concerned at the legal implications of shifting the burden of proof in court. And it joined Tom Mann in opposing the curfew:

It would be nothing short of cruelty to shut boys and girls within the four walls of small, uncomfortable cottages on summer evenings […] likely in the long run to aggravate the evil it was meant to cure.

But, for all the agreement on the declining moral tone, or “national leprosy”, there was little checking of Madden’s evidence. His primary evidence was the number of teenage mothers. He cited figures from the Women’s Hospital. In the year to June 30, 1909, 137 women under the age of 18 years gave birth. Of these, 90 were single, and 19 were between the ages of 14 and 16.

But the number of teenage mothers in one year does not prove any decline in juvenile morality. Proof needs to show an increase in this number from previous generations. This Madden did not do.

Columnist “Edson” in Punch magazine on September 9, 1909, would have been more sympathetic to pleas of “Here we are now, entertain us”.

An article in Punch magazine on September 9, 1909, ironically titled That Awful Australienne, disputed Madden’s arguments:

It is not a fact that the world grows more wicked, not true that young people have less regard for the moral code than in years past …

Edson’s point is supported in recent research, for example by historian Tanya Evans in her 2015 book Fractured Families.

Sir John Madden’s “gravest peril” speech caused a brief flurry of excitement in 1909. And some useful ammunition for several already existing agendas.

The episode reminds us of the importance of checking the facts behind dire warnings. And of questioning the agendas of proponents.