Stanley Cohen (February, 1942 – January 2013)

cohen blog

Sociologist, criminologist, passionate human rights activist, foe of willful blindness to human suffering and atrocities, and first scholar to fully develop  the concept of “moral panic.” 

I somehow missed the fact that, in January of this year, British criminologist and sociologist of media and culture Stanley Cohen, passed away. Close to two decades ago, in the acknowledgements section of my dissertation, I thanked Stan profusely for serving as one of my primary mentors, even though I had never met him and, sadly, never did. I did have a brilliant, warm, and infinitely supportive “in person” mentor, the distinguished sociologist, criminologist and student of news media, Mark Fishman.

No exaggeration: Stan’s work on moral panic – those periods of lunacy and fear when society, feeling threatened by some group or individual, irrationally lashes out with rage and hate at a perceived threat — was not only more influential on my own work than that of any other scholar, it was the core, the soul, the very foundation of how I came to understand the ebb and flow of passions, fears, and anxieties in the public sphere.

While I had always planned to make a point of meeting him — it never happened. We did have several brief email exchanges that were indispensable.

The inspiration over the years for a slew of creative and insightful scholars,  Cohen’s original work remains the most simply elegant formulation we have ever had explaining why and how, with all the democratic institutions and civil society we’ve created, we are still so prone — and will probably always be prone — to losing our way and going off the rails into thickets of fear, repression, racism, sexism, homophobia, and scapegoating. How sad that Chris Hedges – discussing the same impulse we have to join together in convulsions of loathing — may have been absolutely on target when he suggested that “war is a force that gives us meaning.”

Later in his career, Stan turned to human rights, with a special interest in how tragically easy it is for us to deny the reality of human rights violations and atrocities that are right in our midst. I have placed some memorable quotes from his work below.

It will be strange feeling the loss — really missing — someone I was never able to meet.

“…. any dimming of compassion, any decreased concern about distant others, is just what the individual spirit of the global market wants to encourage. The message is: get real, wise up and toughen up; the lesson is that nothing, nothing after all, can be done about problems like these or people like this.”

 “Historical skeletons are put in cupboards because of the political need to be innocent of a troubling recognition; they remain hidden because of the political absence of an inquiring mind.”

 “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

 – Stanley Cohen in States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Polity Press, 2001.

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