The news brought word that former Baylor football player Shawn Oakman was acquitted of second-degree felony sexual assault by a Texas jury. He was one of three players charged in the sexual assault panic that gripped Baylor University in 2016. That scandal resulted in mass firings, including the president of the university, Ken Starr. A law firm was hired to investigate the claims and their super-secret report led the board to purge the university of just about anyone connected to the football program.
Despite the rumors and over-heated press accounts, there was never much in the way of details to assess. In addition to Oakman, two other players were charged with crimes related to the panic. One player, Tevin Elliot, was sent away for twenty years, while the other player, Sam Ukwuachu, got 180 days for sexual assault. The case against Elliot was strong, even if a bit exaggerated. The case against Ukwuachu was the more familiar story of foggy memories, questionable claims and female regret.
There were some serious crimes committed by at least one player, so the affair was not without some merit. It’s that the hysteria was always way out of proportion, relative to what actually happened. The final result is one player who did some very bad things. One player who probably used poor judgement and another player who was accused, but acquitted. That hardly warrants dozens of firings, millions of dollars in tribunals and tens of millions in settlements to the people fired from their jobs.
Many of the allegations were so ridiculous, it’s hard to understand how anyone took them seriously. This one is reminiscent of the Virginia rape hoax. On the other hand, this seems to be a part of these sorts of panics. The adults dismiss the crazy talk and then there is a real crime. At that point every coed with a grievance shows up to testify about her night of torment and passion at the hands of some brute. The people in charge convene a tribunal where spectral evidence is presented from a parade of young women.
It is an interesting dynamic. The adults who initially dismiss the vivid claims are not wrong to be skeptical. Probably 95% of these tales are imaginary. Maybe more. On the other hand, the people panicking when a real crime occurs are not unreasonable. Colleges are the safest places on earth, so a real violent predator is like a fox in a hen house. The real victims are perfectly justified in pursuing their claims, even if it sets off a panic. In the moment, everyone is acting in what they think is their best interest.
That said, the aftermath of these panics also follows a pattern. Once everyone has virtue signaled on the issue, the show closes, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. Then years later we learn that pretty much none of what was reported was true. Maybe a few items were close to right, but most were completely false. That was the case with a similar panic at the University of Colorado in 2001. A co-ed named Lisa Simpson made wild accusations. A panic ensued. Years later, none of it turned out to be true.
These panics are not confined to women having read too many bodice rippers. The hysteria over daycare in the 80’s and 90’s was mostly driven by mothers and quacks in the child psychology rackets. There were a few incidents of actual abuse, but most of the claims were completely absurd. That seems to be a common thread with these panics and hoaxes. The claims need to be salacious and wildly implausible. Simply complaining about a plausible and provable crime is not enough to start a panic.
Of course, the frequency of moral panics, going back to the witch trials, suggests they are a feature of human society, rather than a bug. Even in this age, when we can quickly call back to half a dozen prior panics that look like the one unfolding, there’s no heading these things off once they start. They have to burn themselves out. In fact, efforts to prevent the panic from fully blossoming, simply confirms the fears of the people involved. The lack of proof and the denials of the accused are proof that evils spirits are present.
It would be interesting to see if panics are more or less common in societies with well-defined public rituals and a common culture. It’s possible that panics are an ad hoc adaptation to the lack of public ritual that reinforces a core set of public morals. People in every society need to be reassured that the universe cares for them and they are in good standing with it. Public ritual is a ceremony to capture the spirit of the commonly held beliefs. Mass participation binds the community in those shared beliefs.
In a deracinated society like America, with so much diversity that everyone feels like a stranger, panics could serve as a placeholder for the public ritual. They don’t actually bring society together, but they fill that void, at least temporarily. Right now, the community of people who rule over us are ritualistically demanding the politicians condemn the Somali women for her blasphemy. What she actually said is not the point. What matters is everyone link arms and condemn the bad, in order to celebrate the good.
Another angle to the panic is that they are common at end of cycle times. The Great Fear swept France just before the French Revolution. The old system was falling away, but it was not clear what would replace it. Perhaps the proliferation of hate hoaxes and moral panics we are seeing in America is due to something similar. As old white America passes into history, what comes next is not exactly clear. What new civic religion will bind strangers from strange lands together? No one knows, so everyone is on edge.