Would You Wish Your Servant To Read This? The Elitism Of Moral Panics

The class war raging behind every call for ‘something to be done’ about the dubious pleasures of the great unwashed.

There has always been a fear of the new. Change is scary for anyone – just look at how many people want to return to exactly how things were before the pandemic, even the shitty parts than have been forcibly altered. Advances in technology have always been looked at with suspicion, especially by those who fear that these advances will enable the working classes. In the Victorian age, the advance of the railways was met with fears about the lower orders suddenly having the means to travel up and down the country murdering and robbing their betters, and the idea that any woman travelling alone would be subjected to sexual unpleasantness – from harassment to rape – was widely promoted by the press. The arrival of the cheap paperback suddenly saw an expansion in obscenity prosecutions – after all, as prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously said in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of 1960, this racy book might be fine for upstanding fellows like yourself, but “is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”. In the 1960s and 1970s, the heads of the BBFC encouraged film distributors to submit their films to the Greater London Council for a London-only certificate or to have a club-only release, even as they banned the movies from showing to the oiks in the rest of the country – the paternalists of the BBFC have long fretted over the effect on the little people’ – the “car worker in Birmingham”, as James Ferman infamously let slip at a National Film Theatre screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We don’t need to go into horror comics, how the Video Nasties panic arose as VCRs made their way into most households in the country, or the fretting about video games, violent and sexual popular music (but never, funnily enough, violent and sexual opera), cheap booze or – as we see increasingly now – the myriad dangers of the internet.

The connecting point of all these things, and more, is a terror of the popular. Like political populism, there is an elitist fear that the great unwashed don’t know what is good or bad for them, that they will be attracted like flies to shit towards the latter and so will be somehow corrupted by it in ways that don’t affect the more educated and wealthy. Elitism runs rampant across all social and political issues – from climate change to the foods we eat to the vicarious pleasures we enjoy, there will be someone more important than us telling us not only that we are wrong, but that we need to be protected from ourselves. There is perhaps some virtue to this: left to their own devices, people may indulge in selfishness and wallow in ignorance to the detriment of others. Nutritional information, health warnings and reminders that porn is not real life do no harm. But at the heart of all this is not a genuine desire to protect people from their own worst instincts, but to keep a grip on the reigns of power and control. It is in the interests of powerful bodies – be they media, manufacturing or government – to present new freedoms as a threat to society. Which of course they are, because as new advancements take hold, they change the way we live entirely; society has been altered. Mass transport, mass communication, mass anything will render our world unrecognisable from one generation to another, and we can all argue about how good or bad that is on a case-by-case basis. One thing, however, is certain – for every change, there will be people desperate to hold it back, or – failing that – to control it. Not for themselves, of course, but for others.

It’s no surprise that governments around the world are continually attempting to claw back their stranglehold on power and information from the internet. Unfettered global communication is terrifying, even for the most democratic and liberal of governments; it takes away the control that they have over what their citizens can see and hear. What’s the point in a British court injunction banning the naming of a misbehaving celebrity when we can just look up the salacious story on an international news site or find out the juicy details of social media? What purpose in having the BBFC laboriously censoring and banning films when we can watch the uncut version online with ease? The world has long existed with a myriad of different local laws controlling what materials we can access, and the internet blew all that out of the window. No wonder that as soon as being online became widespread and broadband was in practically every home, governments began to desperately push through law after law to claw back control, backed by legacy media like newspapers and television broadcasters who were equally aghast at having their stranglehold on information blown apart. Always be suspicious of mainstream media campaigns against some aspect of the online world, especially when several different outlets all start talking about the same dangers within a week or two of each other – chances are, it’s a coordinated scare tactic to justify some new legislation that will close another loophole. Sure, there will always be the people who will use VPNs and such to get around the restrictions – but just like the readers of expensive hardcover copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1950s, they won’t be the masses and so can be ignored – at least until VPN access becomes standard. Then we can expect a coordinated campaign against the dangers of VPNs, and legislation to follow.

As I write, the current campaign of fear is about Bitcoin. Bitcoin is something that most people still see as being somewhere between quantum physics and witchcraft in terms of how it all works, but it is a currency that continues to grow in popularity. It might not be long before it fully cracks the mainstream, especially if someone works out how to simplify its use enough to appeal to everyone. It’s no surprise, therefore, that we have shifted from excited news stories about Bitcoin surges and vast profits to horror stories and demands for control. Bitcoin, like the internet as a whole, is a nightmare for governments – a global, unregulated currency that takes control away from treasuries, banks and other gatekeepers. For some years, we’ve had the suggestion that it is just for criminals – always the very worst sort of criminals, operating on the Dark Web – and crime syndicates. This week, we have seen a new twist, as politicians and the press have decided to gang up on Bitcoin over its environmental costs. It’s a smart move because nothing pricks a middle-class conscience more than climate change. To be fair the energy costs involved in Bitcoin mining do seem huge – though there also seems no way of knowing just how accurate the estimated figures are. I imagine a fair chunk of energy is consumed globally doing equally useless things, often by the very governments and news sources currently fueling dissent. What’s the carbon footprint of The One Show, I wonder? Is that necessary?

Let’s not beat around the bush here – lots of governments would love to take Bitcoin and its alternatives down, because what could be a bigger nightmare for them than everyone using a new form of currency that they have no control over? I’m still a tad suspicious of Bitcoin – like cloud storage and media that you subscribe to rather than own, there seems every chance that you could wake up one day and find that it has all gone, or become worthless. But I’m even more suspicious of organised attacks on something by the press and the authorities. It feels suspiciously like “would you wish your servant to trade Bitcoin?”, frankly.

Look, I get it: the future is a scary place for everyone, especially once you pass a certain age and nothing makes sense any more. But we should always be very suspicious when some new advancement is demonised and calls go up for something to be done about it. This usually means that it has become popular with the wrong sort of people – the grubby masses rather than the social elites. Once that happens, then there will be a concerted effort to convince you that the very liberties that you have started to enjoy are bad for you, and must be controlled at all costs. Remember, though: if it is okay for them, it’s okay for you. Don’t be fooled into believing that your pleasures have become dangerous by virtue of you, rather than just some well-heeled big wheel, having access to them.


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