The term “witch hunt” was initially coined to describe injustices such as the Salem Witch Trials, in which twenty people were executed after being accused of witchcraft. However, its gross misuse by those in power to manipulate public opinion allows America to not only misremember this dark stain on its past, but allow for darker stains into the future.
It is widely agreed that, if not caused by prejudice, the Salem Witch Trials were largely fueled by it. 75% of those executed in the trials were women, and many more were social outcasts in one way or another. Leaders’ fear-mongering of said outcasts allowed for justification in the slaughter.
Since these events, “witch hunt” was coined as synonymous for the baseless persecution of those deviating from societal norms, often those determined as the traits of those in power.
In recent news, the term “witch hunt” pops most often in two places: political speeches referring to lawful investigations and in descriptions of the #MeToo movement. More often than not, it is being said by white men in positions of power.
The problems with both of these bastardizations are far deeper than an incorrect definition.
Firstly, in the case of politicians, witch hunts are the comparison for lawful, reasonably backed investigations. Whether the allegations are true or not, those who are targeted have the complete ability to defend themselves.
Witch hunts differed in that those who did not have the backing of public opinion to defend them were most often the victims. Women, people of color, and social outcasts were most often the victims of said trials, rather than the white men bastardizing the term now to portray their opposition as hysterical.
Ironically, those claiming to be the victims of said witch hunts are a mirror image of those who fanned the flames of the Salem Witch Trials. They convince their supporters that those who disagree with them are dangerous outsiders. This fear of difference is bred into hate.
Additionally, the comparison of the #MeToo movement to a witch hunt has a far darker connotation.
Though it is ignorant to act as if women are the only victims of sexual assault, women make up the vast majority due to America’s long history of oppressive gender relations. This is the same reason 75% of the Salem Witch Trials’ victims were women.
Similar to the political misrepresentation of witch hunts, people opposing the #MeToo movement use the term to discredit victims and sway public opinion.
Perpetrators of sexual assault are not victimized, as often proven in a court of law. However, by portraying themselves as the “hunted,” they warp the perception of the #MeToo movement from an uprising of victims to hysterical mob-mentality.
As much as this new use of the term “witch hunt” is a clear instance of attempted public manipulation, the bigger picture cannot be forgotten.
The Salem Witch Trials were fueled by fear and allowed by prejudice. When politicians separate these events from their causes, we can forget that we are the same public who put twenty of their friends and neighbors to death, and that they are the same leaders who bred the hatred that justified it.