I had run into “moral panic” in British publications, as a term used to debunk traditionalist concerns about various initiatives of the cultural Left, and decided to look it up in Wikipedia:
A moral panic is a mass movement based on the perception that some individual or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. These panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues (although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur), and often include a large element of mass hysteria. A moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality, and usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Though not always, very often moral panics revolve around issues of sex and sexuality. A widely circulated and new-seeming urban legend is frequently involved.
The idea seems to be that you have a moral panic when people are concerned about a moral issue. Then the issue gets dramatized, personalized and made concrete by some particular situation, and there’s a lot of misinformation and tendentious media coverage floating around (as always when people feel strongly about a moral issue). The resulting state of affairs is a “moral panic.”
So it sounds like almost any big social movement that gets media support, feminism, antiracism, opposition to the Viet Nam war or whatever, would involve a series of moral panics. The Matthew Shepard situation would be a moral panic. The complaints about racial profiling or burning of black churches would be moral panics. The problem, of course, is that the expression isn’t used that way. It’s applied only when one doesn’t like the general tendency of the outrage and wants people to shut up. Since it’s social science jargon it’s typically used against people like traditionalists who oppose the institutional interests of social science experts.
But what else is new?