On Witches and the Hunting Thereof


I’ve been accused of being on a witch hunt before. The same is probably true for pretty much any feminist who ever dares to point out that multiple men have demonstrated bad gendered behavior. Apparently, we’re limited to one observation per lifetime, or something like that.

Memorial to Bridget Bishop, first fatality of the Salem witch trials.

It’s happening again, of course, because I wrote up a post about a dirty little secret that Jen let slip about some powerful men in the atheist community. I somehow managed to shock people at the same time other people were minimizing the problem by pointing out that it’s ubiquitous in society. For that, I get people asking whether anyone has read The Crucible (hint: I went to public schools), and am on the receiving end of utter malicious nonsense. I am, once again, supposedly on a witch hunt. This time, though, I can kind of see their point…

…if their point is that they have no historical knowledge of the topic and fail miserably at the art of analogy.

Let’s start with the balance of power. Who were the persecutors in the actual, historical witch trials? They were the establishment. Witch trials involved government officials going after private citizens. Not just any citizens, either, but the least protected. Individual waves of trials varied, but the bulk of the victims were women, old, frequently poor, and living alone.

If people have read The Crucible and taken away any of the historical lessons of Salem, rather than McCarthyism, they’ll know that the first people accused were a slave, a homeless beggar, and an ill woman who was embroiled in a legal dispute with one of the local powerful families. The first person to be hanged was Bridget Bishop, who was in disrepute as a wanton woman.

Even someone who only took away the lessons of McCarthyism should understand how the balance of power in a metaphorical witch hunt works. Who did McCarthy go after? Those big, powerful…Hollywood actors, directors, and producers, mostly. Union organizers. Teachers too. It was when he went after the press, a set of institutions with some political clout, that the trials came to an abrupt end.

By comparison, what’s the situation I described in my post? A group of men too important to be touched. A group of women who share (and have shared for some time) knowledge privately among themselves because they don’t have the power it would take to protect them if they spoke publicly. A note that event organizers can probably get this information if they want it, but they’ll likely have their wishes overridden on the subject of speaker rosters because money talks louder than fairness.

In other words, this is the opposite of a witch hunt. If you take a witch hunt and turn it upside down, you’ll have a situation that looks something like this.

There are other ways in which this is the opposite of a witch hunt as well. There’s the fact that the people accused are very much not being made a public spectacle. One person, to the best of my knowledge, has publicly named one speaker who did something to her. It happened in a comment thread. Nobody’s jumping up and down to shame or confirm. Nobody else is even narrowing the field (except me; I did laugh at someone who tried to suggest Greg is a popular speaker at atheist conventions).

Then there’s the fact that witchcraft, like American communism in the 1950s, is harmless. Neither one stood any chance of working. There was no persecute even self-proclaimed witches and communists. Harassment, on the other hand, has real-world consequences.

There is one reason that feminists in particular get accused of witch hunts, though. We have Arthur Miller and The Crucible to thank for this one, too. His decision to make Abigail Williams, one of the initial accusers in Salem, a romantically spurned young woman instead of the 11-year-old girl she actually was, has made a deep impression on the collective anti-feminist psyche–or at least on their common language and mythology. The word “hysteria” hasn’t been far from the witch trial narrative since.

So the next time you hear someone saying that a bunch of feminists are engaged in a witch hunt, take a little time to think about what they’re saying. Are they really telling you that the establishment is dominated by women, and that the accused men are in peril because they’re powerless? Or are they just telling you to stop listening to those hysterical women?

I think it’s pretty obvious which is the case here.

Photo credit: “Salem Massachusetts – Bridget Bishop / Hanged June 10th, 1692” by David Paul Ohmer. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. julian says

    Witch-hunt has lost all meaning to me. Between the Catholic Church and Rpublicans (and now certain atheists) abusing it to the point where all it means is “You’ve accused some people of something” the expression has lost all value to me.

  2. Stacy says

    Earlier today I was thinking that SN blog post, and a number of comments coming from the ERV gang that I’ve read over the past year, reminded me a bit of James O’Keefe and the late Andrew Breitbart.

    They take something someone says out of context to attack them with it. Make a Thing out of that, ignoring the bigger picture. Indulge in deceptive rhetoric. And be sure and frame the narrative so as to defend those with the balance of power.

  3. says

    The people bringing up witch hunts, The Crucible, and Joe McCarthy are doing that old poisoning the well fallacy. Apparently extreme skepticism is appropriate to apply to rather ordinary claims.

    You’ll have noticed also some pseudonymous posters circling FTB and posting guesses or rumours. That appears rather more sinister than either the existence of a private, informal network of women who are unable to disclose their experiences of harassment, or the positive step of creating anti-harassment policies for the protection of everyone (men can and do take advantage of the same policies).

    The harassment tends to occur in semi-private or private places where their activities won’t be witnessed by third parties, or if in public in ways where the harasser can plausibly deny hir actions, so it is not surprising evidence is problematic; no one carries around a video recorder constantly filming their interactions with other people. Apparently it is a surprise to some people (I really wonder how skeptical these so-called skeptics are) that harassers know this and have taken advantage of this.

    Instead, the claims of harassment are excused as “mass hysteria”. I read The Crucible at school as well, and this is an evidentiary fail: incubi and succubi do not exist. Claims of sexual harassment? All too ubiquitous.

  4. Drivebyposter says

    suggest Greg is a popular speaker at atheist conventions

    BAhahahaha! Greg?! Everyone hates that guy. He’s not popular anywhere.
    (Just kidding Greg. But that opportunity was too good to ignore)

    Nobody else is even narrowing the field

    But I have seen 2 people who are allegedly on the alleged blacklist named in the comments at FTB. But that was posted by someone who appears to be a troll.

  5. NanceConfer says

    “It happened in a comment thread. Nobody’s jumping up and down to shame or confirm.”

    Because they missed it among the 500+ comments or because the comment is not being taken seriously or because the name is being added to the list behind the scenes, awaiting further vetting, or. . . ? This seems like it would be an important moment. A brave soul stepping forward to tell her story and . . . then . . . nothing? something? Anything useful to future conferees?

  6. julian says

    no one carries around a video recorder constantly filming their interactions with other people.

    Oh yeah. Going off the standard of evidence these people want no action will ever be taken. Which suits them just fine no doubt.

  7. iknklast says

    Of course, Arthur Miller added the romantic angle for the same reason Jerome Lawrence added a romance to Inherit the Wind – because sex sells. Movies, books…and plays.

  8. says

    Drivebyposter, I’m certain those guys (‘Gib’, and ‘Guessing’) are trolls. I think more of a concern is that they are ‘salting’ the blogs of Greta, Stephanie, et al. to allow other trolls (guess who?) to claim that the FTB blog owners are allowing libellous comments to be made on their blogs. I’m of the opinion the names of people in those posts should be redacted, and if the trolls have nothing more constructive to respond with, let ’em feel the sweet taste of the Banhammer.

  9. says

    I’m with Xanthe. The random and liberal guessing of random (but large) names, without any sort of evidence whatsoever by anonymous drive-by trolls is very probably intentional, and very probably to attempt to say that the problem with instituting a harassment policy is the “lack of evidence presented”. They’re both setting the counter-factual narrative, and trying to make it a reality.

  10. says

    I could be over-reacting, for sure. A list of 20 prominent names left by one of the trolls, one of whom is deceased (the Hitch; I doubt there will be any harassment claims being lodged at future conferences about him!), is a quite ridiculous comment to make. OTOH, the pseudonymous troll who claimed to know the two people at the top of the informal list and named them – that does look like legitimate grounds for a complaint from those who were named; since my whole argument in favour of policies like the anti-harassment policy for conventions is to CYA, cover your ass, rather than attempting ad hoc solutions on the run, I’m sure you’ll do what you need to do to stay on top of the situation. :)

  11. says

    “…shame or confirm. Nobody else is even narrowing the field (except me; I did laugh at someone who tried to suggest Greg is a popular speaker at atheist conventions)….”

    Now hold on a second … The one time I did that I was very popular. In fact, my talk is going to be published, it was so popular.

    As one of the named individuals … Named for having done something that could not possibly have happened … Named by individuals who named me for purely malicious reasons … People who reacted to a call to make conferences not welcoming to women by making everyplace more uncomforable for everyone … All I can say is that I’ve been to that spot, where Bridget is memorialized, and the whole witch hunt thing is in this case a stupid distraction.

    Still, I felt strongly from the beginning of this discussion that the prospect of naming names was counterproductive and irresponsible and I’m kinda pissed at anyone who seriously suggested that.

  12. Pteryxx says

    Notably, most of the folks calling for naming names, aren’t pushing for the offenders to be named per se – they want *the victims* to come forward and expose their own identities. And then the victims can publicly call out their assailants. Yeah, that’ll really go over well.

  13. says

    Who did McCarthy go after? Those big, powerful…Hollywood actors, directors, and producers, mostly. Union organizers. Teachers too. It was when he went after the press, a set of institutions with some political clout, that the trials came to an abrupt end.

    He also threw out accusations regarding members of Truman’s State Department; in other words, diplomats, bureaucrats, and people whose expertise was in global politics and foreign affairs. Also pretty easy targets.
    But it was when he went after the army that he really took a nosedive in credibility and popularity. That kerfuffle ended up on TV for at least six weeks, and the country got a look at McCarthy under circumstances he didn’t have control of, unlike the staged announcements his little travelling circus produced.

  14. Robert B. says

    The word “hysteria” hasn’t been far from the witch trial narrative since.

    Crispy crap, but I hate that word. I’m not sure racism and homophobia even have an equivalent for how awful that word is.

  15. Drivebyposter says

    @ Robert B.
    What about

    “Playing the race card”

    and

    “demanding special rights”

    ?

  16. julian says

    @Drivebyposter

    There’s still “playing the sexism card” and demanding special rights applies to every group who’s ever asked for equal rights.

  17. says

    I understood the backlash about Elevatorgate. I overwhelmingly didn’t agree with it, and I was shocked at the level of misogynistic nastiness contained in a lot of the backlash. But I at least understood why people didn’t like what Watson was saying. I’m sure I am not the only man who was able to empathize with Elevator Guy, seeing his actions as not too far removed from something I myself might have done a decade ago. That involves a complex situation in which, due to a perverse incentive structure, perfectly well-intentioned people can wind up doing a lot of harm.

    I do not understand the backlash here. I can only imagine that the people calling this a “witch hunt” have never worked for a company with strong and effective anti-harassment policies. Because it doesn’t actually work out anything like a “witch hunt”.

    I don’t think we’re talking about addressing EG-grade issues here, which are difficult to deal with on a collective level (individually it is easy to point out a million ways Elevator Guy was wrong, but coming up with effective policies to prevent that sort of thing in the future is hard). I mean, for crying out loud, one of the behaviors Jen mentioned is speakers groping attendees. How is it controversial that conference organizers would want to set up a framework for dealing with that????

    I’m also very annoyed at all the people crowing about the evils of “secret lists”, when the entire point of this conversation, it seems to me, was when Jen and others said, “Hey, there’s this secret list, and that’s not really a good solution. What can we do better instead?”

  18. says

    “It happened in a comment thread. Nobody’s jumping up and down to shame or confirm.”

    Because they missed it among the 500+ comments or because the comment is not being taken seriously or because the name is being added to the list behind the scenes, awaiting further vetting, or. . . ? This seems like it would be an important moment. A brave soul stepping forward to tell her story and . . . then . . . nothing? something? Anything useful to future conferees?

    Well no, I think this is exactly the point of why both the “secret list” and “naming names” approaches are ineffectual. We have no freaking way to tell whether the commenter was a “brave soul stepping forward” or just some random troll taking advantage of the recent heat. Granted, even IRL it can come down to he-said/she-said, but the situation is much improved over the Court of Internet Comments.

    This is exactly why it is important for conferences to have an anti-harassment policy and a means of reporting. Even if all that happened here was that the victim reported it, the conference organizers (or some sub-committee) talked to the alleged offender, he denied everything and there were no repercussions… that still provides a strong disincentive for that kind of behavior to continue. TBH, a lot of people will stop as soon as someone in a position of authority steps in and says, “Yeah, you can’t do that anymore.”

  19. says

    It just hit me after sending my last comment another reason why a solid anti-harassment policy is more effective than an actual “witch hunt” or naming names: Because when you “name names”, you turn the accused into a martyr.

    In companies that have serious anti-harassment policies, they don’t go around shaming offenders, egads no! It’s all dealt with very privately. And unless you do something really egregious, it’s not typically a you-get-canned-for-the-first-offense type of thing.

    By having a formal but discrete process for dealing with this sort of thing, you avoid the sensationalism, you avoid disproportionate punishment, and — as I said in the last comment — in my limited experience, a surprising amount of time the bad behavior stops as soon as it’s made clear that you are not supposed to do that.

  20. Emptyell says

    @ James Sweet

    Thanks for the clear, coherent common sense. It seems the comment threads are finally wringing out all the “oh no a witch hunt”, “what about teh menz” and “how is anybody going to get laid” nonsense. As it seems that all this is leading to better policies and awareness at the conferences it’s been pretty quick and effective. Again cheers James and everyone who’s added to the positive voices of reason.

    On a side note: As a conference organizer and speaker myself this has got me thinking. We don’t have any explicit policies at our meetings. Can anyone direct me to some good sources of policies we could use as examples?

  21. Pteryxx says

    @Emptyell: Stephanie Zvan linked to a sample policy in the “Making It Safer in the Meantime” post, here:

    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Conference_anti-harassment/Policy

    Via Sunil D’Monte in comments there, two articles that mention putting harassment policies into practice:

    1. PyCon Australia 2011 –
    http://geekfeminism.org/2011/08/24/more-is-different/
    They had a code of conduct, announced it each morning, and reiterated it when they informed delegates that they had had to enforce it.

    2. A game developer conference with 50% women speakers
    http://geekfeminism.org/2012/05/21/how-i-got-50-women-speakers-at-my-tech-conference/
    Had an anti-harassment policy and train volunteers on enforcing it.

  22. says

    James Sweet @20: not to derail this into Elevatorgate, but the backlash over that event was every bit as deranged and out of proportion. Since nobody said EG was evil, a rapist, a slavering misogynist, or anything else, and the only offense he made was “acting creepy” (e.g. exhibiting predatory behaviour without follow-through), and the “punishment” was being told (without naming names) that “that’s creepy”, the freakout was very nearly, in my mind, identical to this one asking for anti-harassment policies at conventions. The cries of witch-hunt are identical to the cries that people were being unfair to Elevator Guy.

  23. Emptyell says

    Jason,

    Good point. It also seems like the backlash on this one has been just a bit of poo puffery compared to the EG shit storm. Maybe we’re seeing some progress. That would be way cool.

    It seems like this might be so since this one has much bigger, systemic ramifications than just suggesting “hey guys, don’t do that.”

    Of course it could also be that the pathetic, misogynist haters out there find it easier to identify with a random guy doing something creepy than with powerful guys abusing their status. It may also be that they feel more comfortable piling on a single target than taking on the formidable phalanx of fabulous females here at FTB.

    In any case: Three cheers and best wishes to all the great women taking this on! Keep up the great work. I’ll be doing whatever I can to provide support from the men’s auxiliary.

  24. Emptyell says

    @WMDkitty

    Thanks. I have to admit I was pretty pleased when that popped out fully armed from my forehead. Glad you liked it.

  25. says

    The power dynamics in comment threads are very different from what you’re talking about, but that is relevant scenario for understanding what motivates people to claim there is a “witch hunt” going on.

    On Pharyngula, the one espousing the “establishment” position is usually in the minority. Often the regulars gang up on a dissenter to abuse them because they disagree with such and such and didn’t suddenly miraculously change their mind about it after one dismissive reply. Then there is an orgy of piling-on and abuse. On Pharyngula comment threads, I could totally see how someone who didn’t agree with having an explicit harassment policy could perceive that he was being bullied or that a lot of the regular commenters there were on a sort of inquisition to purge the “infidels” from their ranks. There are more huge dicks at Pharyngula than a porn star convention (but I <3 PZ).

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