Folk Devil

moral panic

A folk devil is a person or group of people who are portrayed in folklore or the media as outsiders and deviant, and are blamed for crimes or other sorts of social problems. The pursuit of folk devils frequently intensifies into a mass movement that is called a moral panic. When a moral panic is in full swing, the folk devils are the subject of loosely organized but pervasive campaigns of hostility through gossip and the spreading of urban legends. The concept of the folk devil was introduced by sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972, in his study ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics,’ which analyzed media controversies concerning the Mods and Rockers subcultures in the United Kingdom of the 1960s.

The basic pattern of agitations against folk devils can be seen in the history of witch hunts and similar manias of persecution (Christian Europeans branded adherents of the rival faiths folk devils). Minorities and immigrants have often been seen as folk devils; in the long history of anti-Semitism, which frequently targeted Jews with allegations of dark, murderous practices, such as blood libel; or the Roman persecution of Christians (blaming the military reverses suffered by the Roman Empire on the Christians’ abandonment of paganism). In modern times, political and religious leaders in many nations have sought to present atheists and secularists as deviant outsiders who threaten the social and moral order.

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