Abused meme roundup: “Witch Hunts”

In light of the recent furore* over CFI’s bafflingly vacuous response to Ron Lindsay’s behaviour, some prominent members of the freethinking community have decided to pull back their participation in an organization that they see as not adequately representing their values. Some have even gone so far as to encourage others to do the same. This is pretty much boilerplate activist behaviour: someone says or does something unacceptable, you don’t patronize or support them anymore. We applauded it when Chick Fil A’s Dan Cathy made homophobic statements and people stopped buying his chicken. We applauded it when Rush Limbaugh said… well, basically the stuff he always says, but this time we paid attention.

And yeah, maybe boycotts don’t always work, and maybe they’re often impractical what with megacorporate ownership of pretty much everything, but they’re a pretty non-controversial method of expressing displeasure with someone or some entity whose actions you strongly disagree with.

Unless, of course, you’re criticizing CFI and Ron Lindsay, in which case it’s a “witch hunt”.

The image of a witch burning

Now, to be sure, this is not the only circumstance under which I’ve seen this comparison dredged, unwillingly, into a place it doesn’t belong. It is, however, a distressingly common circumstance to see people decry any and all criticisms of or actions taken against someone who is on ‘their team’ as a “witch hunt”. Oftentimes they will invoke the ghost of old Joe McCarthy, and generally bloviate about how innocent people are being dragged through the muck by (fill in the blank).

The substance of the complaint is more or less as follows: anyone who fails to sufficiently toe some line of ideological purity is hounded and has their character assassinated by hardliners who attack the poor, innocent victim for reasons that are entirely political. This is the same kind of persecution once turned against innocent women who were accused of witchcraft.

There are, shockingly, people who don’t immediately recognize how stupid this argument is. And because I am in the business of explaining why stupid arguments are stupid, here is a really simple ‘how-to’ guide for recognizing whether or not something is, in fact, a witch hunt:

  1. Is there a witch?
  2. Is there fire involved?

If you answered ‘no’ to either of those questions, then it’s not a witch hunt.

Let me flesh out a bit what I mean here.

Is there a witch?

The main thing to remember about witch hunts is that witches aren’t real. There are Wiccans, but that’s a different thing, and nobody is talking about Wiccans here, so shut up and let me finish. Witches do not now, nor have they ever existed. The things attributed to witches were, without fail, not actually caused by witches. So when your crops failed, that wasn’t witches. When a baby was born with a deformity, that wasn’t witches. When the priest was caught molesting someone, it wasn’t a witch that had conjured a demon to possess him; he’s just a molesty asshole.

In summary, witches = not real.

The Wicked Witch of the West

Real scary, but not real real

So, every time someone accused someone of being a ‘witch’, they were levelling an accusation that could not possibly be true. 100% of women who were burned at the stake – or drowned or exiled or mutilated or hanged or whatever – were innocent of the crime. By definition. That is what made the witch hunts so bad. It wasn’t just the punishment, it wasn’t just the accusation – it was the fact that all of the accused and all of the convicted were innocent.

If, by way of contrast, people had real and reliable evidence of the existence of witchcraft: people had been observed to ride brooms, people could reliably cast spells, etc. etc., then hunting witches would probably have been reasonable. We, as a society, hunt murderers because murderers exist. We are careful to make sure that we have sufficient proof, or at least we try to, but we recognize that it is reasonable to seek out murderers for punishment because murder is a bad thing. While some countries do still believe in witches, we in North America and most of Europe have done away with that practice because we recognize that witches aren’t real (or, if real, not harmful).

In the Joe McCarthy era, ‘witch’ was replaced by ‘Communist’. People were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers by the United States Congress. Charges were either invented out of thin air, or someone’s name was mentioned by someone else who had been coerced into revealing everyone they’d ever spoken to. The harm inherent in ‘being a Communist’ was never fully fleshed out – it was just asserted that being a Communist was a bad thing and that everyone who was one should be ferreted out punished.

Once again, however, the standard for evidence was ludicrously low. It was not the case, for example, that someone was charged because they had an established membership in The Communist Party, or had given televised speeches about the need for the destruction of capitalism, or had in some way distinguished themselves as a Communist. Instead, being known to Communists was enough to brand you. People were compelled to testify based on little more than innuendo and the paranoia of a man from Wisconsin.

So, in the absence of a ‘witch’, being a person who a) has engaged in activity that is either impossible or whose harm cannot be demonstrated; and b) is so accused based on flimsy or non-existent evidence, something cannot be a witch  hunt. It can be a hunt, to be sure, but the ‘witch’ is the part that makes the hunt unjust.

Is there fire involved?

The second requisite element of a witch hunt is the stake that someone gets burned at. If people hunted for non-existent witches, ‘found’ them, and then said “okay cool, we were just checking”, we would consider witch hunts no more sinister than Easter egg hunts. Women accused of witchcraft were not merely identified as witches – they were murdered or exiled or otherwise had violence leveled against them. There were real, and terrifying, consequences to being identified as a witch, and those consequences were backed by a system of law and the power of the state.

A picture of Joe McCarthy and his list

“I have here in my hand a list of 205 people who have abused this meme in the last 5 minutes”

Again, during the ‘Red Scare’, people weren’t identified as ‘Communists’ for the purposes of the census, or as popular polling. We ask people if they’re members of the Communist Party now. It’s no longer a big deal. And that’s because being a Communist is no longer a punishable offence. You would be tried, blacklisted, have your business bankrupted, and probably do some jail time for being a Communist during the McCarthy era. That was not just due to social disapproval – that was the power of the U.S. government forcing you to testify and punishing you if they didn’t like your defence.

This is different, to return to the ‘murderer’ example, from a jail sentence for having killed someone. Whether you agree with the retributive justice model or not (I’m not a big fan), societies have generally been willing to set some sort of standard of punishment for transgressions that they deem unacceptable. We generally have no problem with this, as long as the charge is fair and there is some sort of due process before we invoke the power of the state. If murder was instead punished by, say, a community-organized boycott of the murderer’s business, we would likely have far less objection if there was no formal trial.

The fire, meaning the presence of some kind of official power to punish the ‘guilty’, is also a necessary component of a ‘witch hunt’. In the absence of the fire, identifying ‘witches’ is not what makes the witch hunt a bad thing.

So when you want to use the “witch hunt” example to describe a thing you object to, you should be able to demonstrate two things: that the subject of the censure is, in fact, being treated like a ‘witch’, and is being threatened with ‘fire’. In the absence of either of those elements, your accusation is specious.

Does loss of reputation qualify as ‘fire’?

I want to take a moment here to discuss the greyest area in the above argument. Many of those who claim that a “witch hunt” is happening point to “smears” or “demonization” as the harm being done to the target/victim. The assertion is that the damage to one’s standing in the community is the ‘fire’, either in and of itself or because it leads to the loss of employment or inclusion.

The easiest way to dispel this meme is to point to the number of times those same critics turn a blind eye to the various “smears” turned against their opponents: the misogynistic language, the accusations of collusion or conspiracy, the outright falsehoods about “doxxing” or “trying to get soandso fired” or whatever is the fashionable nonsense of the time. This is not, to me, a satisfying response. Presumably, there is some perpetually scandalized person out there who thinks that it’s wrong when “both sides” do it, and who is thereby allowed to make as many wild “witch hunt” accusations as ze wants.

A screencap from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Does she weigh more than a duck?

I should also point out, before I delve too deeply into this topic, that my a priori instinct is to answer this question with a simple ‘no’. Loss of reputation does not seem, to me, to be tantamount to having the state take action against you. This is largely a question of degree, rather than of type. I will, however, grant for the moment that there are some forms of harm that can be done to someone’s reputation that makes them suffer meaningfully and unnecessarily. People who, for example, are accused and then acquitted of sexual crimes against children may suffer real and tragic consequences that are unjust. Spreading a rumour that someone is a child molester can have real long-term consequences, and I do not think it is okay to make that kind of scurrilous accusation.

That being said, there is a giant chasm between ‘spreading a rumour that someone has committed a crime’ and ‘criticizing someone for shitty behaviour’. In too many of these “witch hunt” accusations, the ‘victim’ of the “hunt” is being taken to task for something specific that ze has said or done. In the case of Rush Limbaugh, the boycotts were fueled by remarks that were overtly and intentionally misogynistic. In the case of Dan Cathy, his remarks revealed an underlying homophobia. It’s important to note here that Cathy did not say “I hate gay people” – he didn’t have to. People judged both the content of his words and the outcomes of his actions and decided they were unacceptable.

It is worth noting that defenders of both Limbaugh and Cathy decided that they were the victims of a “witch hunt”, rather than simply men who were being made to deal with the social consequences of their statements and actions. For the same reason that most people would deny that the boycott campaign of Chick Fil A or the move to dissuade sponsors from Rush’s shows constitute a “witch hunt”, I am unpersuaded by the attempt to equate any damage done to a person’s reputation as being tantamount to the kind of harm required to qualify as the ‘fire’ element of the “witch hunt” equation.

I have further discussed the differences between ‘labelling someone based on their behaviour’ and ‘smearing someone’ in another post that I encourage you to read.

The irony of “witch hunt” as an anti-feminist meme

Before I bring this post around to the button of the argument, I want to pause for a moment and appreciate the irony of “witch hunt” accusations being used to defend men against accusations of misogynistic behaviour. While it is not true that men were never accused/convicted of witchcraft, the charge does seem to have been predominantly leveled against women. In many contemporary cases, the ‘witches’ that are hunted are women who have the temerity to rebel against the social order or against the patriarchy.

A picture of a burning bra

The bra was probably a witch

Maybe it is putting too literal a spin on it, but I do appreciate the collision of symbolism when it is the same anti-patriarchy behaviour that is now branded as “witch hunting”. I also note that it is often the case that people who push back against the patriarchial aggression of others who are accused of “hunting witches”, a second-tier level of irony that I’ve always found particularly delicious.

The CFI/Ron Lindsay affair as a witch hunt

I do not wish to dwell too long on Mr. Lindsay’s specific behaviour. Those who are more directly impacted than I am have said more (and better) than I could hope to, so there’s no real value in me piling on. What I do wish to do, however, is explain why calling for a boycott of CFI fails to meet either of the requirements of a “witch hunt”.

Ron Lindsay and CFI are not ‘witches’

Mr. Lindsay’s original speech is a matter of public record, as is his reaction to the criticism it engendered. The reasons why people are upset with it have been meticulously explained (although that does not seem to perturb the flood of people claiming that there’s nothing wrong with what he said). The failure to respond adequately to criticism by both Mr. Lindsay and the organization he helms are not imagined or unprovable slights – they’re evident for all to see. The task before those who would label it a “witch hunt” is to refute the argument of the harmfulness of the events, not to simply throw up their hands and say “witch hunt! dogma! groupthink!”

There is no ‘fire’

If we are perfectly happy to accept boycotts against Rush Limbaugh and Dan Cathy (and countless others), there is nothing special about the ‘fire’ that is being directed against CFI or Ron Lindsay – although, to be sure, Limbaugh and Cathy are both far more noxious and harmful than Ron Lindsay’s belligerence or CFI’s careful silence. Even if we are not okay with making that comparison, the fact remains that boycotts are voluntary actions that are only as effective as the community allows them to be.

Neither Skepchick nor FtB nor any blog network has the power to unilaterally force anyone to do anything. Indeed, FtB doesn’t even have the power to unilaterally force its own members to do anything. Despite the hand-wringing over the imagined “party line” that these networks force their members to carry, there is zero evidence to support such a claim. The worst thing that could possibly happen to anyone who published a full-throated defence of CFI is that they would be asked to leave the network**.

The ‘fire’ currently affecting CFI and Mr. Lindsay was started by their own hand, and there are very specific things they could have done (and probably still could do) if they wanted to put it out. None of these remedies would require anything bigger than the swallowing of pride, which is what makes the accusation of “witch hunts” all the more galling. I’ll bet the people on trial would have loved a remedy so simple.

So beyond the specific issue that is currently en vogue, it is important generally to recognize that the idea of a “witch hunt” requires some constituent elements in order to qualify. Namely, there has to be a ‘witch’, and there has to be a ‘fire’. In the absence of those things, what you are complaining about is likely just a normal method by which communities express their displeasure with unacceptable behaviour. It therefore becomes highly suspect when the only time you express outrage at this practice is when it is levelled against a position you support.

There. Now nobody will ever mis-use that expression ever again.

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*Has anyone else noticed that we exist in more or less a permanent state of furore? Kind of good news if you’re in trouble with the freethinking community – you’re only going to be Public Enemy #1 for a few minutes. Well, unless you’re in the crosshairs of the subcommunity of obsessive weirdoes who don’t ever let anything go, whether real or imagined.

**To be sure, I would eat my fucking hat if that ever actually happened, right before I quit FtB and joined up with SkepticInk or something. There really is zero coercion or threat associated with blogging here.