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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Stepping Back from the Scaffold When All Hell Breaks Loose

Trust me.

I am as baffled as most of you are about the financial upheaval of the last few weeks. I don’t understand derivatives, cascading effects, and the intricacies of mortgage-backed securities.

But I have spent many years studying what sociologists call moral panic, sudden shocks to a social system in which it seems that the most basic assumptions about right and wrong, about the norms and values we take for granted, suddenly come undone.  The concept was developed by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen, whose work I admire greatly. I have been mostly interested in sudden violence, but any sudden, disorienting shock to a social system can rip away at the social fabric.

For all their seemingly unique horror, so much of what usually follows these events is predictable. Society rushes to the moral barricades. Portraits of evil are drawn so we all can share a collective image of who we are supposed to hate. Heroes are constructed who will save us. And scapegoats – those who brought this evil to our doorsteps — are sought and stigmatized and made to pay.

It’s the scapegoating that’s on my mind.

Social shocks are almost immediately followed by a hunt for the guilty. We need to know who to blame. We find it almost unbearable to live in a state of uncertainty in which a sudden, disturbing event cannot be blamed on a specific person or group. We need to see the face of evil. We need to hear its voice. We need to construct a narrative with a villain who knew what he or she was doing, yet still chose to act in a purposefully venal manner.

And then we need to join together and focus our collective loathing on the group or individual who tried to hurt us. Congressional hearings are wonderful settings in which the guilty are brought to the public scaffold and publicly humiliated. Right and wrong becomes clear during these rituals and we symbolically purge ourselves of those who would do us harm.

Yet this is precisely the point at which we often really screw things up.

Months after the panic has calmed, we almost always look back and see that, in our rush to the scaffold, we settled on the wrong culprit. Or we see how, without even realizing it, we lost the ability to see how an event might have resulted from the complex interaction of multiple culprits, or that even we ourselves might not have been blameless.

I was thinking of this as I watched former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld testify Monday on Capitol Hill. Trust me. You could waterboard me and I still wouldn’t be able to explain the dynamics of this financial collapse or what role Richard Fuld did or did not play. My forever secret math SAT score stands as silent testimony to why no one in their right mind should ever look to me for any economic wisdom.  And I certainly don’t know what Richard Fuld knew and when he knew it.

What I do know, though, is that my panic alarm starts to ring anytime I see someone publicly demonized in the midst of traumatic events. It’s not that they might not turn out to be demons. Or worse. I just wish we were all more aware of just how bad we are at assigning blame at these moments when we are afraid, when we are angry.

To suggest that events and their causes are complex is not what we want to hear right now, especially when we feel like somebody – anybody — has to pay. The question is whether, with all this anger, we can hold fire and struggle to see events in all their complexity before we decide who we should blame.

Fairness is never more important than in those moments when we are most tempted to ignore it.

Any of You Use the Internet for Time Travel? I Do.

I have to ask you a question. 

I have been using the Internet for almost a decade now in sort of a strange project. Very early on, I realized that digital tools could make it very easy to find lost friends, people from many decades in the past who had somehow touched me, and even to locate people who had caused me pain.  It has been an astounding journey, full of surprises and sadness and sublime joy.

And what I wonder is whether any of you have had this same driving desire to use the Internet to find people.  What kinds of discoveries have you made? Have you been knocked for a loop by the unexpected paths taken by people you find?  Have you learned things about people that were unexpected, or maybe even life-changing? 

I have so many stories to tell that a colleague has been suggesting that I write a book. I have come to see my hobby as a kind of time travel or excavation of the past. Sometimes I call it “personal archaeology.”  And some of my “digs” have led to truly jarring discoveries. Others have lead to powerful insights about my own past and present. Is this something any of you do? 

Two quick stories. 

1. I am fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers in my life.  But in 8th grade I had a genuinely abusive teacher who belittled me and demeaned me and caused me great pain. I have always planned that some day I would tell him how he hurt me, but he truly did disappear. Until several months ago.  Now my dilemma is whether I contact an 85 year old man in a nursing home and tell him the deep sadness he caused me. Or is the fact that I am even debating this a sign of my own failure to process and resolve such an old wound? 

2. As a late adolescent, I knew one guy who was revered as a golden boy. He was an athlete and a brilliant student and handsome. Yet he also had another little problem: He viciously and relentlessly sexually harassed young women. If you knew him at all, you despised him. If you saw him from afar or knew him only superficially you were dazzled. Three years ago I decided I needed to know the life path that someone like that took. Did he end up dazzling or disintegrating?

Actually both: Sometime after medical school, in the midst of a successful practice, he was charged and convicted as a sex offender. While I still rage over a society that was so blinded by the light that they enabled or overlooked his violent misogyny, I felt that my early suspicion and loathing was, however belatedly, confirmed. 

Have any of you gone in search of people?