Figure 1 provides a graphical representation of our key findings, and the remainder of this section discusses each element in turn. First, we describe the actions and decisions of the events’ organizers, as well as the (planned) involvement of HAMC. Then, we examine the diverging opinions of social audiences and how these relate to their distinct ethical standards. We thereby show that social audiences express evaluations of social actors through the use of simple and recognizable labels. These labels are pushed to negative or positive extremes as part of a labelling contest. We conceptualize this as, respectively, instances of ‘moral panic’ (Cohen, 1972) and ‘moral patronage’. Finally, we discuss when and how power inequalities between social audiences determine whose assessments gain the upper hand. This observation is important since distinct sources of power may be accessed or mobilized in different contexts.
The Two Events
At the December 2012 board meeting, Nordic Light International Festival of Photography in Kristiansund finalized its programme for the April 2013 edition. Among the headliners were Marcel Leliënhof’s photographs of HAMC. To provide a contextualization for these photographs, the programme featured two posts involving members of HAMC. The first was an onstage interview with the HAMC spokesperson, and the second was a debate between HAMC Norway, the chief of the local police district, and a Norwegian professor specializing in white-collar crime.
In January 2013, the outline of Nordic Light’s programme by mistake became known to the local newspaper. Local media reports published in subsequent days document a heated debate between the leader of the festival board, intended guests of the planned debate, and the chief of the local police district (Letter to Editor 1; Botten, 2013a, 2013b; Joakimsen, 2013). The local newspaper strongly opposed the invitation of HAMC, and used its position to steer the debate:
Tidens Krav believed there could be grounds for raising a debate about whether it is wise to invite HAMC to this town. We took that stand, and had that debate. (Editorial, 1 February 2013)
The festival’s planned engagement with HAMC took on extra significance as several HAMC members were just then put on trial in one of Norway’s biggest ever drug cases. This trial featured prominently in national and local media reports (Nilsen, 2013; Pedersen, 2013; Rise, 2013), as well as in entries on public discussion fora:
This trial [in Tromsø] reinforces the strong scepticism and antipathy of ‘most people’ towards HAMC (the undersigned included). (Hesjedal, 2013, readers’ comments)
The controversy forced the organizers to make significant changes to the festival’s programme within days of its initial publication (Rise, 2013). Marcel Leliënhof’s photographs remained on the programme, but the onstage interview and panel debate were cancelled.
Our second event is linked to the official Bicentenary celebrations of the Norwegian Constitution in 2014. On 26 February 2009, the President of the Norwegian Parliament was formally charged with setting up a committee whose remit was to plan these celebrations (Innst. S. nr.162, 2008–2009). The committee subsequently instructed all state institutions to provide a contribution to the jubilee. KHM’s contribution was the exhibition “For the love of freedom”, curated by a resident photographer (henceforth Curator 1 KHM) and a resident professor of archeology (Curator 2 KHM). It opened on 16 May 2014—i.e. the eve of Norway’s Constitution Day—and one of the exhibition rooms was dedicated to Marcel Leliënhof’s HAMC photographs.
As at Nordic Light, the exhibition programme listed additional events involving HAMC members. The highlight was an hour-long public debate on “Freedom and the boundaries of freedom”, featuring the rector of the University, a professor in social anthropology, the spokesperson for HAMC Norway, and Marcel Leliënhof with his co-author. The chief of the Oslo Police District had been invited, but declined. HAMC’s inclusion in this exhibition was once more highly controversial and fiercely debated. Yet, in stark contrast to the situation at Nordic Light, all scheduled events featuring HAMC members went ahead as planned.
Audience Opinions: Negative and Positive Labels
A central aspect of the social evaluation of stigmatized organizations lies in the opinions of social audiences about observed organizational conduct (see Fig. 1). During both events under analysis, a wide range of social audiences—including the events’ organizers, police, journalists, academics, politicians and members of the public—contributed to the public debate about HAMC and its participation. Table A2 in the Online Appendix A provides an overview of statements reflecting the diverging ethical standards of these various audiences. This table illustrates that the position of the police, local media as well as opposing politicians and academics was often linked to maintaining law and order through rules and sanctions [i.e. a ‘legalistic’ ethics; KRIPOS, 2012; Member of Parliament, Dokument nr 15:93 (2013–2014)].
HAMC is a criminal organization that we did not want to become entrenched in the local community by exercising influence over a local motorcycle club.” (Local chief of police, Interview)
A major court case is currently underway in Tromsø, whereby the police have used large resources to stop what they believe is organized criminal activity on the part of the infamous motorcycle club. (News editor Tidens Krav 23.1.2013)
Supporting politicians, as well as representatives of arts and academia, instead predominantly voiced a need to uphold democratic values including open debate, free institutions and freedom of expression (i.e. a ‘democratic’ ethics; Letter to Editor 4; Minister of Research and Education, Dokument nr 15:93 (2013–2014), University of Oslo Rector blog, undated; websites of Nordic Light and KHM, see Online Appendix Table A2).
Our exhibitions challenge and involve visitors; we open our doors and invite visitors to engage in dialogue and participation. (…) We seek new perspectives and challenge established truths. (Website KHM)
Art should stimulate debate, freedom of expression, and democracy, as well as being a source of entertainment. (Local politicians; Letter to Editor 4)
Finally, members of the public manifested a variety of ethical standards. While the participation of HAMC violated the ethical standards of at least part of the Norwegian population, others defended the importance of open and critical debates in a democratic society.
The festival risks being perceived as WANTING these types within their circle, something I definitely believe that 99% of the Norwegian population does NOT. (Hesjedal, 2013, readers’ comments, capitals in original)
[HAMC] must be met with counter-arguments—not boycott—in various open fora and other democratic arenas.” (Båfjord, 2013, readers’ comments)
As illustrated in Table 2, the discursive evocation of these diverging standards is reflected in contrasting depictions of HAMC. In the light of the analytical distinction between ethics and morality (see note 2), we thereby distinguish between positive and negative evaluations with either an ethical basis (top panel of Table 2) or a moral basis (bottom panel of Table 2). Such a separation makes visible how collective values and norms are articulated and activated by references to the boundaries that safeguard the community and its social order. This constitutes the ethical basis for social evaluations. It also stresses how individual, subjective convictions are used to justify one’s statements, actions and assessment of tainted organizations. This constitutes the moral basis for social evaluations. It is clear from Table 2 that statements with ethical as well as moral bases were employed extensively during both events, and we build on both types of accounts in our discussion below.
Table 2 first of all indicates that the opponents of HAMC’s participation displayed substantial overlap in their expressed opinions across both events. Curator 2 at KHM, for instance, told us that “[HAMC] is undoubtedly an organized criminal organization, both internationally and nationally” (Interview), while a Member of Parliament stated in a national newspaper that “reading the judgments against over 70% of HAMC members [paints] a picture with a lot of crime, violence and threats” (cited in Aftenposten, 28.11.2013). Similar statements in Table 2 highlight the extensive and repeated references to HAMC members as ‘criminals’ and ‘violent’ individuals. The organization itself was mostly referred to as a ‘criminal organization’ and an ‘organized criminal network’.
They [HAMC] are a criminal organization. It is directly unwise of Nordic Light to help them gain legitimacy among the people. (Chief of police, cited in Botten, 2013a)
It is reprehensible that Nordic Light invites a criminal organization. (Expert in white-collar crime, cited in Lillegård, 2013)
I think it is documented beyond any doubt that [HAMC] is full of heavy criminals. I think there are people in HAMC who are capable of doing anything—and who have done it. (Board member Nordic Light, Letter to Editor 1)
By imposing the label ‘criminal’ onto HAMC and its members, opposing social audiences portrayed the organization as “synonymous with everything that is wrong” (Marcel Leliënh of, Interview).
This strategic use of labels with strong negative connotations contrasts sharply with the labels brought forward by, for instance, several supporting respondents from academia and the arts. Their accounts offered a neutral categorization of HAMC members (though not necessarily of HAMC itself). Curator 1 at KHM told us that s/he wanted to “relate to them as human beings, not as potential criminals” (Interview). A similar sentiment was brought forward by the spokesperson of Nordic Light who argued that “we are entirely impartial; we only relate to the photographs” (cited in Tidens Krav, 22.01.2013). In keeping with the perceived importance of maintaining impartiality, Table 2 indicates that significant stress was placed on the idea that HAMC members should be treated as individual human beings rather than a homogenous group of criminals:
HAMC is not a homogenous group, it is people who are different. (Rector University of Oslo, public debate at KHM)
They are then legally free people, and should be treated accordingly in a state governed by the rule of law. (Båfjord, 2013, readers’ comments)
Furthermore, the central theme of the Bicentenary (i.e. “the importance of, and challenges for, democracy in our society”; Innst. S. nr.162, 2008–2009) and the topic of KHM’s exhibition (“For the Love of Freedom”) provided a setting where reference could be made to ethical principles embedded in the Norwegian Constitution. The core democratic value of ‘freedom of expression’—as described in §100 of the Norwegian Constitution—was thereby regularly invoked (e.g., Letter to Editor 4; Document no., 1515:93, 2013–2014; Chairman of Nordic Light board, Interview).
The celebration of the Constitution is a celebration of freedom of expression, and I think it is very positive that universities—including their musea—and university colleges participate in this celebration. (Document no., 1515:93, 2013–2014)
Freedom of expression has a central position [in Norwegian society] and it would have been very unfortunate if the university leadership, or, even worse, a ministry or the Parliament, had intervened to stop such an exhibition. (Professor of political science, cited in Sandsmark, 2014)
The notion of ‘freedom’ also triggered references to Easy Rider and Viking stereotypes as labels with positive connotations to describe HAMC members (though, again, not the organization). KHM’s website, for instance, stated that the “stereotypical Easy Rider figure (…) is for many a strong symbol of freedom”, while Curator 1 at KHM argued that “I would call [HAMC members] modern Vikings. They construct their own way of life” (cited in Uniforum, 16.5.2014).
Overall, our findings indicate that audiences use simple and recognizable labels to support their claims about the (in)acceptability of social actors. This reflects the fact that labels are a powerful means to signify membership within a particular category (Ashforth & Humphrey, 1997; Granqvist et al., 2013). They are not only characterized by their explicit meaning, but often also carry an implicit meaning or ‘connotation’ linked to their ethical or moral basis (Becker, 1963). Hence, they represent an opportunity to convey both explicit and implicit understandings, which claims-makers can—and do—exploit to express their opinions about social actors. Yet, importantly, the mere use of labels can have significant ethical implications. Warren and Laufer (2009), for instance, illustrate how the practice of labeling countries as ‘corrupt’ has self-fulfilling effects by reducing others’ willingness to invest there (thus helping to maintain the corrupt status quo). Psychological research likewise suggests that social interactions are affected negatively when a stigmatizing label is attributed to interaction partners (Sibicky & Dovidio, 1986). More recently, Cho (2015) highlights that the reverse may also happen, since positive ‘sustainability’ labeling causes an increase in consumer’s product evaluations. Labels and labelling thus are not innocuous from a business ethics perspective, and can have a major impact on the subsequent actions and statements of social actors (see also below).
We should note at this point that HAMC’s self-presentation as an ‘outlaw’ organization (see above) appears to have influenced how it was perceived, evaluated and described by other audiences. Marcel Leliënhof, for instance, stated that: “HAMC does not want to be perceived as a sewing club, and many of the members have lived hard lives” (cited in Kjentfolk, 21.5.2014), while Curator 2 at KHM stressed that: “they have a different view of law and order in society than most people” (Interview). The same happened during the public debate at KHM: “[HAMC] has chosen to stand on the sidelines of the system” (professor of social anthropology, public debate at KHM). Unfortunately, we are unable to engage in a more in-depth exploration of when, how and why an organization’s self-presentation affects the opinions of other actors. One way to approach this would be by adding at least one case where the involved organization does not embrace transgressive behaviour and celebrate its own stigma. While this was not available to us, such a comparative approach constitutes an important extension to our work in future research.
Labelling Contest: Moral Panic and Moral Patronage
Although differences of opinion are a predictable and uncontroversial observation, our findings show that these opposing evaluations led to a process of contestation between diverse sets of claims-makers (Fig. 1). This ensuing labelling contest was characterized by the calculated and deliberate use of forceful symbols and labels.
Cohen’s (1972) concept of moral panic is of central relevance here. Cohen (1972, p. 9) maintains that moral panic arises when an “episode, condition, person or group of persons (…) [is] defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. This is particularly likely when a person or group is perceived as posing a menace to society in the eyes, and according to the understandings, of influential audiences (such as social and political elites or the media; Cohen, 2002, p. xxvii). Under such conditions, Cohen (cited in Clegg, 2009, p. 319) argues that stakeholders “create stylized and stereotypical representations, raise moral fears and pronounce judgment”. Hence, any episode of moral panic entails a social actor being deprived of individuality by stereotyping, categorization and caricature. Targeted actors are labelled based on negatively evaluated features (e.g., ‘criminal’) that reveal a conflict with the standards and norms of the evaluating audience (Devers et al., 2009; Mishina & Devers, 2012). A moral panic thereby directly exploits the notion that fear—including the fear of negative labelling—triggers “conformity and a cognitive constriction”, which leads to the “reproduction of traditional practices” (Gill & Burrow, 2018, p. 445).
Our analysis indicates that HAMC’s proposed participation in both events induced such moral panic. It triggered claims among media, politicians and police labelling HAMC as a dangerous deviant and a direct threat to public order.
[HAMC maintains] a cynical and anti-social view of society, where fear is used to maintain internal justice in the clubs, violence is used against competing clubs, and crime is used to gain status. (Member of Parliament, Letter to Editor)
In the last two years alone, about 20 members of HAMC have been convicted. The convictions include aggravated violence, rape, serious drug crimes and threats. (Tidens Krav, 24.1.2013)
The essence and core of HAMC is amphetamins and money laundering. (Båfjord, 2013, readers’ comments)
This highlights that the symbols and labels employed during moral panic are pushed to extremes (Ashforth, 2019; Cohen, 2002). In our setting, these included references to “ISIS terrorists” (news editor of the local newspaper, Interview), the Balkan mafia (Letter to Editor 9), or the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Norway on 22 July 2011 (Letter to Editor 5; Båfjord, 2013, readers’ comments). Such extreme labels are intended to draw strong boundaries and justify drastic action (e.g., revoking financial support), leading to a metaphorical demonization of the social actor (Pontikes et al., 2010).
Nonetheless, this moral panic was countered by a discourse of freedom and sovereignty. A professor of social anthropology, for instance, argued during the public debate at KHM that “the Dalai Lama and HAMC are in some sense two sides of the same coin, because they stand up to power without being afraid”. As mentioned previously, Curator 1 at KHM similarly maintained that HAMC members could be viewed as “modern Vikings” since they “construct their own way of life” (cited in Uniforum, 16.5.2014). With symbols and labels thus pushed towards extreme positive depictions, this can be seen as a form of ‘moral patronage’—a mirror-image of moral panic. By linking HAMC to ideal representations of freedom (not just freedom of expression, but freedom in general), moral patronage in our setting appears to elevate HAMC and its members symbolically to the state of near-normality.
People are people. When you get to know people, whether they are a politician, an actor or an HAMC member, most of them are quite ordinary. (Marcel Leliënhof, TV2 God Morgen Norge, 3.12.2012).
They live ordinary A4 lives like the rest of us. (Marcel Leliënhof, cited in Ekeland, 2013)
The idea of a free life outside the established society. (Website KHM)
Although HAMC is still presented as marginalized, and its members as societal outsiders, this is given a positive connotation by linking it to individuality and autonomy. The organization becomes a symbol of freedom rather than a threat to social order.Footnote 6 Such claims reflect the ethical position that deviance must be tolerated in a modern, rational and democratic society. That is, abstract ideals of freedom and justice must include ‘deviants’, and social order can only be preserved through such tolerance. Clearly, moral patronage in this sense still conveys the moral superiority of the bestowing audiences, and thereby shows distinct traces of paternalism.
Both moral panic and moral patronage reflect the “initiative taken by someone within the community or acting upon [its ethical standards]” (Hazard, 1995, p. 457). In other words, they express how social audiences react to specific situations as a function of these audiences’ ethical standards. This is consistent with evidence in the business ethics literature that social actors “primarily view ethical scenarios through their understanding of the provisions of their own standards or codes of ethics” (Claypool et al. 1990, p. 704). We thereby observe that moral panic is triggered when a legalistic ethics dominates, whereas moral patronage arises when a democratic ethics takes centre stage. Indeed, as illustrated in Table A2 in the Online Appendix and elaborated upon in the next section, social audiences with a legalistic ethics were the leading force at Nordic Light, whereas audiences with a democratic ethics commanded proceedings at KHM.
Furthermore, our findings in this section confirm Ashforth’s (2019, pp. 23–24) theoretical proposition that “a sense of moral superiority can fuel (…) over-the-top behavior”, which may “veer to the extremes: good or bad”. While using symbols and labels, by construction, seeks to influence the societal perception of targeted organizations (see above), veering towards extremes will incidentally, but unavoidably, promote a destructive social climate. Our analysis thereby links to a large literature on the relation between moral absolutism—defined as the “tendency to engage in rigid, ‘black-and-white’ moral thinking in terms of others’ behavior” (Moss & O’Connor, 2020, p. 7)—and support for extreme interventions such as violence or castigating opponents as morally decrepit (e.g., Giner-Sorolla et al., 2011; Moss & O’Connor, 2020). From a business ethics perspective, this connection raises important questions on whether—and, if so, when—it can be acceptable to take on extreme inclusionary/exclusionary stances (Bayer, 2008; Pozner, 2008; Warren, 2007). Furthermore, such questions arguably take on increased relevance since going to extremes may have wide-ranging implications beyond the originally targeted organization(s). The rapidly developing literature on stigma-by-association in organizational settings indeed highlights that negative labels have contagious effects (Kulik et al., 2008; Kvåle & Murdoch, 2021), which would encourage the social consequences of extreme stances to spread far and wide.
Despite the general similarity in depictions of HAMC at Nordic Light and KHM, the outcomes were very different in terms of HAMC’s participation (see above). What can explain this difference? What determines the successful development of, or resistance to, instances of moral panic/patronage? Our respondents suggest a prominent role for the power constellation between opposing claims-makers. Marcel Leliënhof, for instance, told us that “the Museum of Cultural History is too powerful an institution to be pressured” (Interview), while a Member of the Nordic Light board argued that boundaries:
are obviously drawn by the police, in alliance with the local newspaper, sponsors and squeamish politicians on several levels (…). There is a lot of power in that square. (Letter to Editor 1)
Hence, the balance of power between social audiences was perceived to be crucial for their ability to take a stand, defend their position, and make it count. Table 3 provides an overview of the symbolic, material and normative sources of power available to representatives of art, state and academia across our two cases. In this section, we discuss how (lack of) access to these sources of power determines the ability of a given audience to authoritatively speak for—or against—a tainted organization (Fig. 1; Shadnam et al. 2020).
Table 3 first of all indicates a broadly-based agreement that Nordic Light and KHM as a matter of principle “must have artistic freedom” (Editorial, Fotografi 12.4.2013). There was formal as well as legal support for the fact that choosing the “content for such an exhibition [at KHM] (…) falls clearly under the university’s authority to assess” (Secretary of State in the Department of Education, cited in Mjaaland & Helsingeng, 2013). This illustrates the strong adherence to the principle of institutional autonomy of arts and academia in Norway, which lends these actors important symbolic and normative sources of power (Table 3). Even so, it does not provide equal power to representatives of the cultural sector throughout Norway. The managing director of Nordic Light, for instance, stated that “in Oslo they would not even bat an eyelid”. The implication is that the power derived from the value of artistic expression is stronger in Oslo (as capital city) compared to small towns such as Kristiansund (confirmed by the creative director of Nordic Light and the chairman of the festival’s board).
Although power deriving from the principle of institutional autonomy is important, our findings show that it is insufficient on its own. Material resources matter too. While KHM has financial security within the university as “a separate faculty and thus its own kingdom” (Director KHM, Interview), Nordic Light’s limited financial and organizational resources left it vulnerable to financial threats from opposing local politicians and sponsors:
As an owner who provides support and grants, you can have expectations. As an owner, the chances of pursuing objectives for the community are stronger. (Chief county administrator, Interview)
Afterwards, it became more difficult to get sponsorship funds for the festival. (Board member Nordic Light, Interview)
In the context of the Constitution Jubilee, normative sources of power embedded in the Constitution further fortified the position of KHM. The Minister of Education and Research, for instance, stated unequivocally that the Constitutional right to freedom of expression precludes interference with KHM’s plans:
It is critical that both politicians and citizens participate in the debate on freedom of expression, and I think that the best starting point for such debates are free institutions and free citizens (Document no., 1515:93, 2013–2014).
Power thus emerges from our analysis as a double-edged sword. In contested situations characterized by diverse sets of claims-makers, it can have both positive and negative implications for the social evaluation of tainted organizations. This observed importance of power inequalities and access to (multiple) sources of power relates to Nietzsche’s view of power as “a capacity to define reality” (Haugaard & Clegg, 2009, p. 2). Nietzsche maintains that a claims-maker with the ability to “define the real and the moral” holds the keys to influence societal perceptions of (un)acceptable organizational practices (Haugaard & Clegg, 2009, p. 2). While the previous section thus highlighted which ethical standards gained the upper hand during each event, power inequalities help explain why particular ethical standards came to dominate the labelling contest in a given context. Nonetheless, since power is often misused and can facilitate bias by impairing individuals’ cognition and judgments, the presence and importance of power inequalities for social evaluations has an important additional ethical dimension. As discussed in Albrecht et al. (2015, p. 807), power can indeed lead to “flawed assessments of others’ interests” or the use of “stereotypes in forming opinions of others” (see also Keltner & Robinson, 1997; Goodwin et al., 1998). Such (mis)uses of power naturally raise critical ethical concerns about the normatively appropriate apportionment of the consequences of (negative) social evaluations (Moberg, 1994; Warren, 2007), as well as the need—and possibilities—to empower weaker stakeholders (Civera et al., 2019; Hess, 2007). We return to this in the next section.
Clearly, there is some risk of circularity when inferring social audiences’ power from their observed influence over social evaluation processes, particularly when power configurations in society depend on the broader social context. In our setting, however, the relative power of the various claims-makers was in large part defined ex ante. The Norwegian Constitution and University of Oslo are much more powerful than a photography festival and artists, with politicians, the police and media located in-between (Table 3).