I think I know what a metaphor is. It’s where you use a word or phrase that is symbolic of a situation, but isn’t literally a description. It is a comparison of one thing with another thing. You can use a metaphor to relate something abstract or unfamiliar to a concept a person is more comfortable with; hence the too-frequent comparison of the genome to a blueprint. From that example, you can see that a metaphor isn’t necessarily true, and can be misleading.
Another use of the metaphor is for exaggeration. For instance, if a student failed my genetics class, they could make the excuse “The prof was slaughtering students left and right! It was a Holocaust in there!” Perhaps it would be used for comic effect, but even at that, it’s dangerous: the student has both exaggerated the consequences of the course, and has seriously minimized the outcomes of the actual Holocaust. I trust most of you would be conscious of error in making that comparison. The result would not be to think the student is amusing, or to think that I was actually a brutal, unfeeling teacher, but to think that the student was a privileged young asshole. (None of my students have ever said such a thing — this is a purely hypothetical example.)
So what are we to think of the phrase “witch hunt”? There were real witch hunts, although there have never been any people with Satanic powers. As many as a hundred thousand innocent people in early modern Europe and America were falsely accused, tortured, and murdered in horrific ways. People still get accused of witchcraft, the Bible is still used to justify killing people for consorting with the Devil (who does not exist), and there are still benighted parts of the world where people are brutalized and killed for an imaginary crime. Every time you use the phrase “witch hunt” to describe an activity that has no chance of a victim ending up hanged or on fire, you’re diminishing the horror and desensitizing people to an openly evil history and an ongoing crime.
Yet for some reason it has become the first resort in any argument about merely academic dissent. Here’s a fantastic example: an academic wrote an article comparing “transracialism” to “transgenderism”. This is a bad, misleading metaphor, rather like comparing DNA to a blueprint, and people objected. I think it’s fair that sloppy scholarship ought to be vigorously criticized. So a letter was written.
While it is not the aim of this letter to provide an exhaustive list of problems that this article exhibits or to provide a critical response, we would like to note a few points that are indicative of the larger issues. We believe that this article falls short of scholarly standards in various areas:
1. It uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields; for example, the author uses the language of “transgenderism” and engages in deadnaming a trans woman;
2. It mischaracterizes various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion; for example, the author gives an off-hand example about conversion to Judaism;
3. It misrepresents leading accounts of belonging to a racial group; for example, the author incorrectly cites Charles Mills as a defender of voluntary racial identification;
4. It fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of “transracialism”. We endorse Hypatia’s stated commitment to “actively reflect and engage the diversity within feminism, the diverse experiences and situations of women, and the diverse forms that gender takes around the globe,” and we find that this submission was published without being held to that commitment.
Savage! Vicious! In an academic way, anyway. It never quite rises to the level of suggesting the rack, thumbscrews, or drawing and quartering, though. And yet, in an article titled
This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like, it’s bluntly stated that…
This is a witch hunt.
It sort of takes one’s breath away. I guess you can call me Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-finder General, since I sometimes write strongly worded, angry criticisms of bad politics and stupid science, which is now apparently completely equivalent to the torture-murder of innocent women. We’re supposed to completely ignore the fact that poor scholarship of the sort being criticized actually does real harm to people, people who are often already marginalized and oppressed.
At least there’s one funny bit here. These same people who like to fling about the phrase “witch hunter” with indiscriminate abandon, and casually minimize the suffering of accused “witches”, are sensitive to another word: go ahead, call them “transphobic” and watch them squawk. How dare you insult them?