Since the election of the Rudd government in Australia there has been a series of moral panics or outrages over a range of issues. Coming in successive waves, these moral fits from both government and media, with large sections of popular opinion following, range from alcohol consumption, to petrol prices, to the environment.

The ABC’s Four Corners program had an hour long program on ‘binge drinking’. Of the practice of heavy drinking of mostly hard liquor. Concerns over binge drinking have sparked a moral outrage in the media and million dollar policy responses by the government. The targets of the panic are those worrisome ‘youths’, out of control, reckless and needing an authority’s guidance. Along with this youthful target, sweet- soda like ‘alco-pops’ or mixed spirit drinks, have come under fire. In doing so distinguishing it from those drinks that adults can continue to consume without moral concern- beer, wine, a fine scotch etc.

Shifting to another vital liquid of modern life, there has been heated debate, rage, and political rhetoric on the cost of petrol. The usual explanation is given- the rising cost of oil thus pushes the cost of fuel and the cost of living skyward. Such costs do make it even tougher on those struggling to cover costs, however what’s problematic about the moral outrage on petrol prices, like binge drinking or the destruction of the environment, is the limits of the debate, of the stir by media and politicians.

In Australia, the furor over rising petrol costs largely revolves around the political point scoring of whether taxes on petrol could be removed, reducing costs by a few cents a litre, a relatively useless gesture as the costs of fuel looks to continue to rise for the foreseeable future. The government has now started to talk about hybrid cars and is to introduce a ‘fuel watch program’ that monitors fuel prices, indicating the cheapest providers for consumers.

Like petrol, the environment is being dealt with in similar ways- buy energy saving bulbs, use less water, recycle more, etc. While these are all useful efforts, what’s problematic with all these debates, and the moral panics around these issues, is that they all are limited to and revolve around relatively inconsequential changes to consumption practices.

The ABC program’s ‘indepth’ examination into the what’s fueling the ‘binge-drinking epidemic’ focuses on such drinking practices as a problem with consumers only, with the best way to deal with such problems, real or not, is to only address consumer practices. Again, while this can be a powerful tool for change- a boycott for example is a radical change of consumer practices-the moral outrage around the issue seeks to place the blame for such behaviour at the feet of consumers alone. Framing the debate from the beginning within acceptable boundaries of youthful drinkers needing to be protected by scare tatic public health campaigns, and reduced bar opening hours. What’s lacking from the debate is not only the role and influence of those who profit from such drinking (which I feel includes the government), but more importantly- ‘why do people need to drink themselves stupid?’ Surface responses to such questions usually elicit an flabbergasted response, even from the Prime Minister, of ‘I wish I knew?’ or ‘I just don’t understand it’

I would argue that if we looked more deeply at such issues that it might have something to do with the disillusionment and underlying futility that can be found in much of society, including youth culture. I feel that its the same for the working class in many respects. If you face a world at the brink of environmental collapse, commercially driven mall culture, war and terrorism (however defined), on top of unfulfilling work to be conducted till you die, who wouldn’t want to drink themselves into a alcoholic bliss/oblivion every weekend to have a sense of release from such reality?

With petrol costs, the debate is framed not to examine whether rising fuel prices should begin a public transport revolution, of real discussions on how to start changing our society to accommodate life with out oil, without having to travel hours to get to a job, on whether we need to radically change our patterns of consumption and behaviour, along with the numerous other issues associated with the worldwide oil dependency. Instead the moral outrage limits debate to ways governments and companies have eased our fuel costs. This frames the issue not as one that presents fundamental challenges to the current structure of society and economy. It’s almost like a junkie who can’t afford their fix anymore due to supply issues, screaming with withdrawal.  The moral outrage limits or removes discussion from what really need to change fundamentally, but rather places it within the safe realm of consumer costs. It prevents the critique and sensible examination of the logic and structure of the systems that create the need and demand for oil, and then the wars and rising costs of the products. Likewise for the environment,  ‘rest easy! save the world by  changing your light bulb’.

The moral panics and outrages have been very successful in framing the public conception and debate of the issues. Limiting responses to address the effects disconnected from the causes. A bandaid for the scratches to distract from the fact we’re dying from internal bleeding. It seems likely that as the variety of crisises deepen around the world, politicians who are either complicit or powerless, will rely ever more on moral panics and outrage along with bandaids to draw our attention towards the inconsequential rather than look at the whole heaving thing and ask ‘What’s Going on?’ What’s needed is to seek to voice important perspectives outside the dominant framing, which smashes the facades and refocuses people’s concerns towards the inherently flawed systemic processes and the need for radical change.


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