Moral Panics and Authoritarianism
We create fear out of nothing while refusing to engage with real danger. That's how civilizations decline.
We’re going on a bit of a ride today. I hope you’ll come with me.
But first, just to remind you of why you should read this newsletter: Last week I warned that the midterm environment had shifted. This weekend Nate Silver and the Washington Post ran pieces noting the same thing.
That’s what I’m trying to do here: Help you see around corners.
1. What We Fear
Over the weekend I read a long essay about the epidemic of students hitting teachers because of a challenge that went viral on TikTok. Maybe you remember this?
Anyway, the essay I read this weekend was by Jazilah Salam from the Shorenstein Center and the short version is that there was never any “slap a teacher challenge” on TikTok. You should read the entire thing.
But basically, the “slap a teacher TikTok challenge” was a moral panic that appeared, more or less, out of thin air. A kid in a Fresno school handed his teacher a list of “challenges” that he said were circulating on the internet. One of these challenges was to hit a teacher.
The teacher gave the list to the school superintendent, who passed it around to a bunch of principals—one of whom posted it to a Facebook group. And voila: We had a national panic about a “challenge” circulating on TikTok.
No one has any idea where the initial list came from. It has never been seen except in the form circulated by the grownups who were worried about it. None of this ever appeared on TikTok. No teachers, anywhere in America, were slapped by kids who were doing a TikTok challenge.
This mess closely resembles the furry litter box panic of the last year, which Tim Miller took apart last week. All over the country, grown-ass adults are losing their minds because they think that schools are putting litter boxes into bathrooms so that kids who identify as cats can pee in them.
Even though there is zero—none, zilch, nada—evidence that this has happened. Anywhere. Even once.
These moral panics are completely divorced from reality. They exist only in the imaginations of the adults who believe in them.
The moral panic over trans kids playing high school sports is at least based on the real world. There are some boys who identify as girls and who have competed in girls sports at the high school and college levels. And these cases do create tensions in how we try to achieve fairness and inclusion. But the trans sports debate is a debate about edge cases: The number of kids involved, nationally, can be counted in the dozens.
And yet many states have rushed to pass laws on the subject, as if it were some looming crisis. Hell, Tennessee passed a law banning trans high school athletics even without a single case of a trans athlete in the state.
Point is: For a certain type of person, TikTok challenges and furry litter boxes and trans kids playing girls basketball are clear and present dangers worth getting very upset about and bringing the power of government to bear on.
Here is a thing that many of these same people do not seem not terribly upset about: