A Tale of Moral Panic

Essentially our perception of Chinese workers and their rights within their nation is driven by a classic case of Westerner’s guilt; of moral panic. According to Stanley Cohen, an UK sociologist commenting on the concept of ‘moral panic’, now and then a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. And so, in need of a corporate company to try and take down, we picked Apple.

It seems that this classic episode of moral panic has occurred simply because Apple is an easy target for activism; we see their flawless, gargantuan power bubble and want to pop it; or maybe just deflate it a little, after all, we do love those shiny Apple products don’t we?

The Age newspaper published an article this year that adeptly captures the mood of moral panic that is still sweeping the Internet when it comes to workers’ rights in China. Chris Berg states, ‘’The Foxconn story has had enormous resonance because it fits neatly into a moral tale of Western guilt.’ And the rest of the article is an absolute popping of my own techno-activist bubble (I must admit when it came up on my ‘Get Up!’ weekly email, I jumped at the chance to support the ‘hold Apple accountable’ petition).

The hallmark of moral panic is that someone, or something, is always blamed, and in this case, we blame ourselves for the plight of Chinese workers because we have bought the Apple products, and therefore, plan to boycott these products in the future. But we have to look further beyond this alarmist reaction.  If we plan to boycott Apple products, we must plan to boycott most technology, because Asia produces most of our technological needs.

An online article by the New York Times highlights the dramatic imbalance in distribution of activists’ attention to technology companies. Apple may be using Chinese workers to manufacture their products, but competitors use them too. So why does Apple actually present as a better company in terms of human rights? Well since Apple has come under scrutiny it has shown a significant commitment to increasing its monitoring of factory conditions and rights implementations, and has released detailed reports to show evidence of this e.g. Apple’s Supplier Progress Responsibility Report 2012. However, when asked to give these same figures, or even something remotely close, competitors such as Microsoft, Samsung, Barnes and Noble, and Hewlett-Packard either reply with a woefully inadequate public relations message, or no message at all.

It seems that this particular episode of moral panic, like almost all others, is misplaced. The rights of Chinese workers are violated on a very regular basis, not just at Foxconn. This scandal surrounding Apple almost completely fails to raise awareness of a problem which is much, much bigger than just two companies. As usual, moral panic has obscured the truth of the issue, and righteousness has prevailed.


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