British sociologist Stanley Cohen, who in two words coined the description of a society floundering in the face of moral quandary, died last week at the age of 71.
Thirty years ago, he created the term "moral panic," which is used to summarize the disproportional, gripping fear that engulfs a society in the face of a moral dilemma so deep it could upend the social order. Moral panic, Cohen taught us, is the dance of the devil that stirs within us in the face of demonic, demagogic problem.
Sometimes, Cohen claimed, individuals contribute to moral panic in order to benefit personally from the chaos it evokes. These people, he said, could be called "moral entrepreneurs." Those who suffer the most from moral panic tend to be minorities, who find themselves persecuted by the establishment or the masses.
Cohen's terms, and their accompanying theories, help describe phenomena like anti-Semitism, McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials.
Cohen was born in 1942 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He grew up under the apartheid system and was involved politically as an undergraduate at the University of Witwatersrand.
In 1963, he moved to London, where he rode out that turbulent decade. As a doctoral student at the London School of Economics he experienced a period of sit-down strikes, boycotts and struggles. He went on to become a sociology professor at the University of Durham and the University of Essex.
In 1979, he moved with his family to Israel, where he would live for 16 years. He served as director of the criminology institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the founders of the Committee against Torture.
In 1997, he returned to London and served as a professor of criminology at the London School of Economics. During that same period he discovered he had Parkinson's disease, but nevertheless was able to maintain a full and normal life.
A decade later, with his health deteriorating, Cohen retired from his work. He remained involved at the university's center for human rights studies, however, which he had founded.
Cohen was an active leftist, writing important research papers on subjects related to human rights violations. In an article entitled "The Virtual Reality of Israeli Universities," he decried academic institutions that did not rise up against the occupation. He wrote that all Israeli universities are more political than they would want to think of themselves to be.
He was also critical of his former employer, the Hebrew University. He wrote that the Mt. Scopus campus has all the trappings of a normal university – students, courses, syllabi, libraries, departments and faculties – but from time to time he had a dark feeling of paranoia, as if something weren't right.
He described the feeling as being in a film in which every detail was planned, in which there was no occupation, no Intifada, and the university was placed not in Israel but in New Zealand. He recalled a diploma award ceremony in the law faculty, in which the justice minister spoke about the absolute value of the rule of law. As he spoke those hollow words, outside the university one could smell the tear gas and see smoke billowing from the adjacent village of Issawiya.
His wife, Ruth, died in 2003 at the age of 63. Cohen is survived by two daughters and three grandchildren.