The term witch-hunt has been used throughout history to describe events in America. It has even been recently used to describe the Me Too Movement. However, there are many misconceptions about the Salem Witch Trials. Women suspected of being witches were not burned at the stake nor were they were tied up and thrown into lakes to see if they would sink or float. The mania over witchcraft in Salem Village began because of two young girls, the nine-year-old daughter and 11-year old niece of the town’s Puritan Minister, Samuel Parris. These young girls would suddenly fall into fits where they could not be comforted. During these fits, they would go into catatonic states where they would not move or eat for days or they would writhe in pain. These symptoms then spread to other young girls in town and this group became known as “the afflicted.” The girls then claimed they were seeing the specters [ghosts] of women in town visiting them at night and hurting them (pinching them, biting them, scratching them) and they would scream in pain if those women tried to come near them. It was obvious something was physically happening to these girls, and there are theories that it was epilepsy, poisoning, or some psychological ailment. These girls then claimed the women hurting them were witches. The men in power in Salem believed them and those women they accused were put on trial. The women were guilty until proven innocent. They had to prove they were not witches and the easiest way to get out of being executed was to accuse another person. This is why it became so widespread and over 150 people in that small town were accused. Thus, this is the origin of the term witch-hunt–an unjust persecution of people.
“Witch-hunt” was also used to describe the actions of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, during the Red Scare and the McCarthy Era in the 1940s and 50s. The committee held hearings in which they brought American citizens who were believed to be Communists and grilled them about their political beliefs, trampling on their First Amendment Right to freedom of expression and association. These people were viewed as Communists until proven otherwise. The committee also asked them to name names of other Communists–like the Salem “witches” were told to do–once again widening the pool of suspects. If they refused to answer they were held in contempt and jailed. They could plead the fifth, invoking their right to prevent self-incrimination, but this was just seen as an act of guilt.
Now today, the Me Too Movement is being equated to a witch-hunt by the men in power who are worried about being accused. They categorize it as such because they believe it is an unjust persecution and that the women are lying (because everyone knows accusing a powerful man of sexual assault usually turns out great for your life, just ask Anita Hill or Christine Blasey Ford). The possibility that the women are lying is very unlikely as figures from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that only 35% of all sexual assaults are ever reported and of the few that are reported only 2% are proven to be false. The interesting aspect of this particular “witch-hunt” is that there is a reversal of power between the accused and accusers. During the Salem Witch Trials and HUAC hearings, the accusers held all the power and were immediately believed. The girls who were accusing the women of being witches were never questioned and the people who named other Communists were never questioned. However, now with the Me Too Movement, victims are often not believed, and if they are the people they accuse are often not persecuted. The difference is there is no longer an “other” to alienate and persecute. It was easy to persecute witches and Communists, they were a threat to society and different from everyone else. But powerful (usually white) men, even if they are rapists or abusers, they are not the “other,” they are the ones who run this country (literally, as even our President has been accused by 17 women of sexual misconduct).
Leave a Reply