I’ve been trying to make sense of the antics on display at the Omaha Public School hearing about making changes to their thirty year old sexuality education program.
It had the hallmarks of a moral panic:
A moral panic is a public panic over an issue deemed to be a threat to, or shocking to, the sensibilities of “proper” society. This is often fanned by sensationalistselective reporting in the media and exaggerated accounts offered by “moral entrepreneur,” a category that includes politicians on the make and activists in search of a cause. Moral panics can result in what is a real phenomenon being blown way out of proportion, or in what is not a real phenomenon in the first place being widely believed to be real. Moral panics often feature a caricatured or stereotypical “folk devil” on which the anxieties of the community are focused, as described by sociologist Stanley Cohen who coined the term in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which examined media coverage of the mod and rocker riots in the 1960s.
Conservatives, motivated by a “Christian” group’s dishonest propaganda, showed up at the meeting ready to rumble. And they did – police had to intervene before the meeting ended 45 minutes early. Most of those opposing the program seemed to have no idea of what was actually in the program. (You can read a first person account of the meeting here.) Having invented a scenario that no one was proposing, conservatives went full straight-jacket in opposing it.
The abstinence-only proponents disrupted the meeting to such an extent that it had to be ended 45 minutes earlier than it was scheduled to be. OPS officials emphasized the fact that students had a choice to opt out of the proposed curriculum. Yet this fact seemed to have no effect on the level of outrage from conservative parents. One woman who was dubbed “puritymom” stood and screamed at OPS educators during the meeting.
“It’s my daughter! My daughter! Who’s going to keep her pure? Nobody! I am! Not OPS! Not OPS!”
Her mindset reflects the general attitude among many in the pro-abstinence movement who believe that sex before marriage will somehow make young people less “pure” or less “good” than they would have been had they waited until marriage. One common lesson in abstinence classes is the “stick of gum” example that compares students (usually female students) who engage in sexual activity to a stick of gum that has been chewed. This type of unscientific tactic has had an especially detrimental effect on victims of rape and sexual abuse.
Objections to the program were based on things not actually in the program:
Another parent, Bernie Garcia, was interviewed by local health advocacy group LiveWellNebraska while he stood outside waving a sign that read, “Say No to Comprehensive Sex Ed.” He claimed during the interview that the new program would teach children different sex positions and how to masturbate, despite having no concrete evidence of this.
Even the superficially “reasonable” opponents (i.e. they weren’t screaming) interviewed by the local news were spewing nonsensical fears about Planned Parenthood and secret agendas. Opponents of the curriculum are convinced that the school board is keeping nefarious and scandalous secrets – that the proposed changes being disclosed are part of a hidden and larger agenda.
Misinformation happens and many of the people who showed up at the meeting were misinformed; more troubling is the fact that they were deliberately misinformed by abstinence-only groups. The FAQs distributed by the school district debunked the myths about which these parents were angry. The opening statements by people involved in drafting the proposed changes actually addressed most of the objections. I’m sure a psychologist somewhere is writing a dissertation on the effects of group dynamics in this meeting and if not they should be. The people who showed up opposed to the curriculum did not want to be informed. The noteworthy hysterics who showed up tipped the meeting in utter chaos. People who arrived hoping for an informed and informative discussion, a rational public hearing, were unprepared for the tide of crazy that was rushing their way.
Why does this one incident matter? In systems theory, you sometimes hear the phrase “The micro reflects the macro.” This one meeting was a microcosm of what is happening and has been happening in the US for years now – conservative citizens perpetually on the verge of some sort of moral panic are deliberately misinformed by conservative organizations and leaders. They show up in hordes at public meetings and disrupt the meetings.
Tea Partiers are notorious for not knowing and not being teachable. They are resolute in their wrong understanding of issues and they reject any and all evidence to the contrary as hopelessly biased. Like the parents in Omaha who were convinced that the school district was keeping secrets, they’re immune to proof because they’ve decided the people providing the proof are also nefariously scheming against them (the parent in the news story asking the school board to come clean is a good example).
Conservatives have retreated, as much as they can, into the bubble of Fox News. They reject information from other sources as hopelessly biased against them. The Republican presidential candidates attacking CNBC, as for example, for being biased against them. The presumption is that anyone outside the bubble cannot trusted and is working against conservatives.
If you look back a few years during the chaotic town hall meetings in 2009, you see the same dynamic at work. Deliberately misinformed by conservative media, conservative voters showed up at town hall meetings in full dudgeon, screaming, shouting, shoving, terrified that the false scenarios they’d been told about were real and immune to every assertion that they weren’t real.
The pieces are in place for these explosions to happen at any time. Conservatives in the US are angry. Religious fundamentalists in the US are angry. They’re angry at a mainstream culture that too often disagrees with them. They’re distrustful and suspicious of government at every level, business, politicians, the media of almost any sort, and even of their neighbors. Trained to see themselves as targets of an alien secular culture, they’re a powderkeg ready to ignite. The chaotic, confused school board meeting is a microcosm. Conservatives are prepared to shriek and shout and meltdown at any moment. Their grab-bag of complaints and resentments can be triggered at any moment by almost anything.
And when all else fails, they’ll blame the media, Planned Parenthood, gay people, and the “government” for what ails them.