Several years ago I read – and posted about – a book I quite enjoyed: Roads To Ruin, The Shocking History of Social Reform (1950), by E.S. Turner. (Reasonably inexpensive used copies available from all likely sources.)
It’s basically a survey of forgotten British moral panics of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Predictions of the death of decency and/or fall of Western Civilization meet social reform proposals that sound (to us today) right and proper, or at least reasonable, or at least unlikely to bring about apocalypse.
Daylight savings. Should the ban on marrying your dead wife’s sister be lifted? Should spring guns be banned? Should children be forbidden to buy gin (for their parents, not themselves) in pubs? (You might think that the panic was over a proposal to let children buy gin. But no.)
It’s in the minor nature of these cases that, 30 years on – let alone 150 years – we forget these were hot-button culture war issues. Suppose we were to rewrite Turner’s book today. What cases can you come up with? Now-forgotten moral panics in the face of social reforms enacted in, say, the last 75 years?
No-fault divorce and legalized birth control are good examples. Same-sex marriage is going to grow up to be an example, I’m reasonably sure. But the genius of Turner’s book is that his cases are so minor. Birth-control and easy divorce were big deals, socially. Opponents were right about that much. Letting men marry their dead wive’s sisters, by contrast, was never going to make a big difference. What recent examples can you think of that are more like the latter? I’m looking for cases in which politicians and pundits and and so forth really got into the game. It’s a big hand-wringing public End Is Nigh botheration. And, in retrospect, it’s not just wrong-headed but fantastically silly.
It’s more common, I suppose, to get these sorts of moral panics about some new thing the kids are up to. Dungeons and Dragons is turning children into satanists. (Ah, those were the days.) Let’s try to restrict ourselves to cases in which social reformers, not the kids, are the targets. What have you got for me?