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The Center

Halloween Moral Panics, on Both the Left and Right

(Anya Magnuson/Cronkite News)

“Despite the absurd views of evangelical pastors, college diversity officers, and Latin American leftist nationalists, Halloween is unstoppable, and this is for the good of humanity.”

Happy Halloween! This should be an exciting day, full of joy and harmless fun. Unfortunately, it most likely won’t be. Children’s excitement about trick-or-treating will be spoiled by adults’ boring obsessions, as Halloween has become yet another battleground of 21st century culture wars.

The forces of reason and enlightenment have so far won a battle in this culture war, and this is good news. Halloween is the culmen of modern disenchantment. The more children dress up as witches, goblins, and so on, the less they believe that these beings actually exist. Contemporary Halloween celebrations are very much a modern version of Francisco de Goya’s famous depictions of witches. The 19th century Spanish painter, a modernizer to the core, mocked his country’s barbarous past by representing sabbaths and so on, albeit in a very realistic style.

Closer to our times, Church of Satan’s founder Anton LaVey dressed up as a buffoonish devil, again, partly to mock the previous centuries’ religious obsessions. At the time, old-fashioned religious conservatives completely missed the point and accused both Goya and LaVey of mingling with occult themes, when, in fact, they were ridiculing them. Today, haunted houses, trick-or-treating, and so on, are actually a way for children to overcome the unhealthy dark obsessions of the past. In the 1970’s, Bruno Bettelheim famously made a case for the usefulness of fairy tales—as a way for kids to overcome many anxieties typical of childhood. This is basically the same function that Halloween fulfills in our present day. Adults, I beg you: let children have fun, and for Satan’s sake, give them candy when they knock on your door!

For the most part, religious moral panics are a thing of the past. Every once in a while, idiotic claims come to the front, such as apples with razor blades being given to children each Halloween. But, fortunately, the burn-the-witch mentality is finally giving way. Halloween is a major force in this disenchantment process, and I see with joy that even in Muslim countries (an area of the world not precisely known for taking religious affairs lightly), tonight children will wear witch hats.

But, that does not mean that the Halloween moral panics have completely gone away. They have only morphed and have been adapted to a new religion in the 21st Century: identity politics. In recent years, there is an obsession—not with children mingling with the occult but with young adults mingling with the politically incorrect. College “diversity officers” (can there be a more bureaucratic post?) go bananas every Halloween, advising college students not to wear offensive costumes. 

Perhaps, in the same manner that children who dress up as witches are less likely to have the burn-the-witch mentality, wearing stereotypical costumes may actually be a way to make stereotypes less salient.

What, exactly, is an offensive costume? It’s hard to tell. Yes, there have been a few fraternity parties where particular ethnic groups are demeaned in stereotypical garments. I, for one, would not go to a Halloween party wearing a huge sombrero and a fake mustache, all the while screaming, “Arriba, arriba, andale!” Actually, I have done such a thing, and I found out that the Mexicans present at the party do get a kick out of it. Perhaps, in the same manner that children who dress up as witches are less likely to have the burn-the-witch mentality, wearing stereotypical costumes may actually be a way to make stereotypes less salient. If college diversity officers would just cool down, surely ethnic minorities would be desensitized to potentially offensive costumes.

Be that as it may, diversity officers will not stop there. Under the very strange concept of “cultural appropriation,” even if the garment is not stereotypical, it can only be worn by a member of that particular ethnic group. So, if instead of wearing the huge Speedy Gonzalez sombrero, I choose to wear a Maya necklace that was given to me by a dear friend in Chiapas, I am still not off the hook, because—being Venezuelan rather than Mexican—I am not entitled to that honor. And, as the case of Rachel Dolezal seems to prove, in this strange form of progressivism, you are only a member of an ethnic group if you are born into it. Mind you, someone like Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves would be engaging in cultural appropriation on steroids; even though he was ultimately accepted by the Sioux as one of their own, his white skin makes him ineligible to wear the Native garments. Sorry, white girl born in Hawaii; even if you are a great surfer and a master at the ukulele, you cannot wear the Moana outfit for Halloween; that honor can only go to real Hawaiian-looking girls, even if they were born in New York City, do not care about going to sea, and prefer gangsta rap over Lili’uokalani’s songs.

This is basically a form of essentialism. College diversity officers are unaware that this was exactly the same assumption of 19th century racial scientists who believed that no matter how much Western education a Zulu child may receive, he would never be civilized. Somehow, there was something inherent in the biological essence of that child that would make him a Zulu for life, even if he behaved thoroughly as an Englishman. Likewise, there is something inherent in white people’s biology that will forever make them incapable of joining another culture.

In fact, the whole notion of “cultural appropriation” is detrimental to any cultural hybridization. Rudyard Kipling (he, of the infamous “White Man’s Burden” poem) declared in another of his well-known poems that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” He has been rightly castigated by postcolonialist critics who point out that, ever since Homo sapiens left Africa to populate the planet, groups have borrowed things from others (how on Earth could the use of fire become universal, if not for cultural appropriation?). Yet, the same postcolonialist critics and leftist gurus, who should know better, somehow give in to the current Halloween moral panic and eagerly impose (not just advise) college students not to wear anything that is not part of the ethnic group they were born into. Alas, East is East and West is West, and never shall the twain meet.

As usual, of course, there are double standards in all of this. A black guy wearing a Scottish kilt is not guilty of cultural appropriation, because, well, black people cannot be racist. According to this tired old mantra, they cannot be racist because they lack power in our societies, even if Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama would surely get huge preferential treatment over some rural white person at a store. College diversity officers do not care much if ethnic minorities embrace Western habits (such as Halloween parties); their obsession is only with whites embracing non-Western modes.

Interestingly, in some areas of the Third World (but especially in Latin America), the Halloween moral panic is inverse. There, progressives are eager for gringos not just to wear the artisanry made by local Natives—but to consume all sorts of things produced south of the border. This is basically a form of protectionism (the same kind that they hypocritically critique when it comes to the Trump administration) that seeks to increase exports and reduce imports. 

And, as nationalism is alive and well in Latin America, progressives see Halloween as a major threat to the Volksgeist of their nations. They see it as a form of cultural imperialism, and, hence, they obsess over it. In some cases (as in Venezuela during Hugo Chávez’s times), the anti-imperialist left allies itself with the religious right on this issue. In one single speech (as was frequently the case with Chávez), Halloween may be attacked because it represents Third World oppression and it induces children to go down the Dark Path.

After all, Halloween is Irish in origin, even though it may now seem thoroughly American. Latin American leftists miss an important point: as opposed to other forms of imperialism, cultural imperialism is not always bad.

These critics are not wrong about the cultural imperialism part. But, even the gringos are victims of this imperialism. After all, Halloween is Irish in origin, even though it may now seem thoroughly American. Latin American leftists miss an important point: as opposed to other forms of imperialism, cultural imperialism is not always bad. If a good thing becomes globalized, and one culture renounces its local habits to embrace the more universalist habits, what is the harm? This is exactly what Americans did by embracing Hallowing from Ireland—and making it as American as Apple Pie (English in origin, needless to say). In fact, even Latin American leftists do this; they all love soccer and baseball. I suppose their hearts will be broken when they are told where those sports come from. Surely, twenty-two Latin American men running behind a ball, or hitting a small ball with a bat, was originally a form of cultural imperialism. But, ultimately, by embracing it, they made soccer and baseball part of Latin culture, to the point that Diego Maradona or Sammy Sosa are huge symbols of pride for Latin American people. 

The fact that Latin American nationalists are happy with soccer and baseball but somehow stubbornly reject Halloween seems to prove that—as happens north of the Rio Grande—this particular holiday is embedded with irrational moral panics that may morph but never truly go away. Yet, I remain optimistic; despite the absurd views of evangelical pastors, college diversity officers, and Latin American leftist nationalists, Halloween is unstoppable, and this is for the good of humanity.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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