Let’s talk about witch hunts

Matt Bates /
Nov 6, 2017 / Opinion

It’s a ‘Witch Hunt’, they said; be it, Salem (1692), Woody Allen (2017), @realDONALDTRUMP (2017), two as of yet un-named, UK MPs (2017).

To hunt a witch, per se, is to accuse someone of something which is not popular with the majority, often simply because of their opinions and not actually because they have done anything wrong.

In the ironically literal sense, the Salem Witch Trials provide the most explicit example of what the term means, where women were accused, hunted and trialled under suspicion of witchcraft. The ‘hunt’ would often have been hysterical or fuelled by a sense of mania. And, while the history of the phrase stretches back much further than Massachusetts – Exodus 22:18 states “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – it’s seen a slight revival in the Hallow month of October.

Woody Allen described the potential issue of a, “witch hunt atmosphere… where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself”.

Meanwhile, the Robert Mueller-led investigation into the potential relationship between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia saw substantial developments. Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign manager, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy and business associate, were both indicted of 12 counts, all of which they pleaded not guilty to. Naturally, President Trump responded, tweeting: “The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the [Republicans] are now fighting back like never before.”A Senior White House was reported to have said that Trump is worried that the investigation will “hamstring” his ability to reach agreements with other world leaders.

Meanwhile, in Westminster, Labour MP Jess Phillips has said that she “overheard two male colleagues walking through the halls wittering about a witch hunt that was going on in Parliament”, the day of a debate about sexual harassment allegations in the political centre. The irony of two male colleagues fearing themselves subject to a witch hunt shouldn’t need be stated too explicitly.

Here, a transnational appropriation of a word – previously held in the highest regard for women about to be burnt at the stake – is at play.

“It’s a Witch Hunt” they said, about investigations into political collusion and illegal and potentially impactful involvement from outside authorities, or: about serious and necessary conversations about sexual harassment and assault, or: and most accurately, about powerful, authoritative figures who have caricatured themselves, or those alike, as the witches of 2017’s Halloween.

The insinuation is clear: that the villains of these conversations, all authoritative, powerful individuals nonetheless, are being unfairly targeted on the basis of presupposition and ill-thought. They are being hounded for personal or political gain, while not actually having done anything wrong. This has momentary, very, very short relevance: fake allegations are entirely unfair and potentially devastating – but this is so much more than a common attempt to undercut a majority of concerns, in the name of a minimal few.

The present Witch Hunts are not accurately described. For Trump, it’s a more intelligent, subtle and emotional rendition of ‘fake news’, wherein Democrats, the media, All Who Oppose Trump, are bundled into a basket of pitchfork-wielding irrational protesters. In Westminster, it’s a very specific attempt to blur a very definite power relationship, where the alleged perpetrators become innocent witches, undeservedly hunted.

While, on the surface, it may seem an issue of semantics, it represents a much broader potential issue. Whereby, those who are being investigated, criticised, or called to account are guising themselves as more innocent-type-folk, not worthy of such critique. Those who then argue are ‘too politically correct’ or emotionally driven by ideology.

Then, for those who sit somewhere between political and/or social disengagement and full-blown support for those being criticised, there is a very clear suggestion that the critique is irrational, that it’s dismissible. The powerful are suddenly even harder to reach and the problems they cause harder to tackle.

But then again, a whole other Witch Hunt, which has been slowly burning, long before and long after those in Salem. Though, what might upset such self-identifying Witches, is that this hunt has been forced/stepped onto a new, emboldened centre-stage. And this time around, it’s the actual Witches who are going to be doing the Hunting.

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Words by Matt Bates

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