Panic pandemics

A minor explosion of middle-class parenting angst (I reckon it’s their hormones) has followed the Myerson saga. For instance, families are now being torn apart by the skunk epidemic, according to the Observer. Yes, that was the Observer, not the Daily Mail. I checked. (Disease metaphors for society. Don’t you just love them?)

“It is the end of a taboo: articulate, middle-class parents are speaking out about the nightmare of seeing their children spiral into drug abuse and, all too often, mental illness. Many blame themselves for staying silent, assuming that modern strains of cannabis were little different from the pot that baby boomers smoked at college. The reality is very different” (from the Observer)

I’m going to skip past the embedded semiotics, because it’s boring and pretty blatant. (e.g. “at college” – the politician’s way of trying to imply a merging of excusable youthful folly and underlying respectability; “articulate middle class” as if no one else’s experience counts, and so on.) Basically, some “baby boomers” have grown old, changed their views and some have privileged access to the media. In the way of the world, they have become their parents, but – hopelessly self-indulgent – they don’t want to acknowledge this or accept that they themselves might have ever made mistakes. it was only purely innocent substances they didn’t inhale. So, it’s just the next generation who must be wrong.

A commenter (called ILoveMaxGogarty ) on Anne Perkins’ Guardian article made a sarcastic reference to the “skunk pandemic.” Great phrase.

But that particular moral panic is just one in the pandemic of pandemics that we are apparently facing. Alcohol and obesity are perennial favourites. Barely a day goes by without some hand-wringing and new initiative to deal with these. Both can apparently be addressed by taxing the poor more.

For example, there are plans for a minimum alcohol price and doctors calling for a chocolate tax.

Clearly, if you’re well off enough to pay more for alcohol and sweets, they don’t harm you. But , if you aren’t well off, they are really quite dangerous. I think we should follow this idea to its logical conclusion then. No tax on vintage champagnes or hand-made Swiss chocolates. £1000% taxes on cider and own-brand chocolate-flavour biscuits.

Ignore the complex combination of biological, psychological and social factors that shape our behaviour. Every social ill can be solved by blaming the victims, spending money on advertising and taxing the poor more.

Modern “epidemics” are so strange. These are the only epidemics where you can happily blame the victims, even express contempt for them without anyone thinking that you are morally reprehensible. It seems that we actually eat fewer calories than people did 50 years ago (according to the Office of National Statistics.)

But we can still view “obese” people as ravening gluttons, who deserve to die because of their sinfulness. And see ourselves as “good” because we didn’t take a slice of cake.

If only these medical ideas had been around in the middle ages. If only the rich had just taxed the peasants more heavily, the Black Death could have been eliminated. Ah, I understand now that the feudal landlords have been greatly misunderstood. They were really taxing the peasants on health grounds, to avoid the dangers of millet-related obesity or mead-binges. Throwing recalcitrant peasants off their land probably even qualifies as tough love, even.

Moral panic of the day

China is so often first with its master-class examples of how moral panics can justify social repression. Here’s another one. China has used an imaginary illness (online gaming addiction) as an excuse to remove Internet users’ anonymity, according to the Times.

The system is aimed at combating gaming addiction particularly among the young, according to the Chinese authorities. Gamers have to give their real names when they register as well as the code from their government ID cards. Gamers are still allowed to use their gaming names in the games themselves (wizardlordofall13571) but their account must have the correct information including the gamer’s age.

“… as well as the code from their government ID cards.” 😀 Western governments will be taking notes. “If you’re not doing anything wrong”, and so on.

Some text-book elements of this strategy are:

  • the use of fear. China doesn’t have The War Against Terror, so they have to use “public health”. What kind of anti-social bastard wouldn’t care about public health?
  • concern for the young. Fragile innocents are under attack. You must protect them by forbidding action x.
  • government must always act to protect its people, whether from others or from from themselves.
  • start a war against an abstract noun (“gaming addiction”)

OK, by the standards of moral panics, this is farce rather than tragedy. It doesn’t turn the public against a hated minority group. So, it won’t end in pograms and ethnic cleansing and massacres. A few thousand gamers will have lost some rights and a few companies will be shut down.

(It might also damage the bizarre WOW-related mini-industry that has grown up in China, with urchins spending long shifts grinding WOW levels to earn online gold, in order to get cash from Western players too lazy or busy to play their own characters. )

The first casualty of war is supposed to be the truth. War-against-abstract-nouns has the highest truth-casualty rate. The war has to start by defining its abstract noun as self-evidently evil. So step up, internet addiction, your time has come.

Addiction is a spurious concept, at best. Internet-gaming addiction is off the far edge of any validity it might have. However, according to ars technica (the Times’ source for the story)

The addictive nature of online gaming has been proven, at least anecdotally, time and time again. While not everyone who jumps into the digital realms of World of Warcraft or the various other massively-multiplayer online role-playing games is liable to get endlessly sucked in, those with addictive personalities certainly run the risk.

LOL. “proven, at least anecdotally.” Somebody skipped Epistemology 101.

There is little doubt that the potential for addiction exists with MMORPGs. ….. countless anecdotes from the East have produced horror stories that have gone so far as to end in death from malnourishment.

Well, there’s plenty of doubt from me. Just because you add up a list of anecdotes, they still don’t constitute scientific proof.

China, Korea, and even Japan have had a long and sordid history with online gaming addiction.

(I am momentarily distracted by the “and even Japan” phrase.) All the examples come from the far east, maybe because of some sense that readers will see the far east as so exotic that it might really have “diseases” with which we westerners are unfamiliar. Like bird-flu.

What are the symptoms of this Asian internet-flu? To quote another ars technica story:

If you find yourself using the Internet for more than six hours per day and exhibit at least one of a number of symptoms, you could be addicted. The list of symptoms is about what you would expect, including things like insomnia, difficulty concentrating, mental or physical stress, irritation, and spending time wishing you were online.

Blimey, we’re all doomed. If you work at a PC – which is most of us – you could find yourself well and truly in the “addicted” range without even logging on at home. The symptoms? I suspect they could be called the “human condition”. But if we can all become unstressed, focussed, easy-going people who sleep like logs, just by not playing WoW, most of us should be already there.

Sticks and stones

The Internet has magical powers over the young, or so you would think from the constant drip of demands to stop children using it.

In the past week, the Professional Association of Teachers
called for social networking sites to be closed to prevent bullying,

Teachers in websites closure call
Teachers have called for websites such as YouTube to be shut down as part of efforts to prevent pupils and staff being bullied.

“Odd”, you may think, if you are over 20, “I can’t remember MySpace being involved on the day when 2 girls pulled a knife on me by the swings.” (Maybe that was just me)

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” may be an exaggeration but it’s worth remembering even as an adult. There is a major difference between getting beaten up for your lunch money and someone saying something snide about you on the MySpace.

Adults could even intervene positively to help kids stand up to Internet “bullying”. Teaching kids to defend themselves with words and attitude is much safer when the kid in question is sitting behind a keyboard rather than facing a gang of their tormentors in the park.

The problem is the bullying, not the use of any specific means of self-expression to carry it out.
The deceptive anonymity of the Internet can bring out the worst in anyone, child or adult. If you ever accidentally feel too positive about human nature, a couple of hours on MIRC will wipe that cheery grin from your face.

If some kids are bullies and some kids are fearful of getting picked on, that’s the world we live in. Bullies are usually the most disturbed kids. They certainly pick on those they see as weaker, which is a pretty transparent indicator of their own feelings of weakness. Maybe, professional teachers could start trying to do something to stop them behaving as malevolent scum, before they start thinking banning MySpace is a good idea.

In June , there was a story claiming that:

One third of US online teenagers have been victims of cyber-bullying according to research by the Pew Internet Project.
The most common complaint from teens was about private information being shared rather than direct threats.

So already, the most common bit of Internet bullying is not actually bullying then? This paragraph is followed a list of behaviour that had counted as “bullying”. It included forwarding private emails, and a fair few other things that might constitute teasing at worst. The poor kid nursing a real-life black eye might quarrel with this definition. In fact, a kid who was a real victim of Internet harrassment and threats would probably also quarrel with it.

There’s also a BBC Health contribution to the regular concernfest that is the media’s kneejerk reaction to so-called pro-ana websites.

Pro-anorexia websites offering tips on extreme dieting are nothing new, but their growth on social networking sites is a disturbing new twist and brings them within reach of a wider audience

So girls with a natural relationship to food – i.e. eating when they’re hungry and not eating when they aren’t- are going to become anorexic because they stumble across one of these sites? Pretty far-fetched.

We send conflicting messages to young women. For instance, they are led to believe that they can best attract the father of their future children by being too thin to procreate. You’re considered a little odd if you are female and not on a permanent diet. In fact it’s almost seen as unfeminine not to be obsessed with your own body shape and not to hate yourself for deviating in any way from the skeletal ideal.

Whose fault is this? You can hardly see social networking as responsible. Were there no anorexics before Web 2.0? No bullies? The Internet can be depressingly ugly. At least the virtual mirror world makes us think about things we don’t want to believe exist. Pretending they aren’t there doesn’t make them disappear. Don’t shoot the Messenger.