It used to be you knew what to expect with a witch hunt. That was then.
First, they would occur around times of crisis. These crises often developed as a result of drought, pestilence, natural disasters, or war. Take, for instance, crop failures in thirteenth-century Russia, bad weather in sixteenth-century Scotland, and the fear of moral contagion in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, which led to the Salem witch trials.
Think, too, of the patron saint of France, Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in 1431 for witchcraft and heresy.
In these cases, fear led to blame, which led to scapegoating, which brought on mass hysteria. You can find such hysteria throughout recorded history, from Ancient Babylonia to indigenous societies that practice magic today in the form of macumba and voodoo. Interestingly, a minor league baseball club called the Salem Witches played in the New England League until 1930. So our modern witches may be more managers than shamans.
Historians believe that as many as 50,000 people were executed for witchcraft over a 300-year period throughout Europe, the majority of whom were women. Obviously, misogyny and blind superstition played a part in the phenomenon, but there can be little doubt as to what constituted a witch hunt. The condemned were burned alive, hanged, drowned, or even pressed to death with weights. A witch hunt was not something to be taken lightly.
Not so today. People use the word so frequently that there are not enough hats to drop for each instance.
To wit: Rafael Correa, ex-president of Ecuador on trial for a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme connected to the Odebrecht scandal in Brazil; Jacob Zuma, disgraced ex-president of South Africa standing trial for a multibillion-dollar corruption charge involving a French arms dealer; Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, whose crackdown on drug cartels has resulted in more than 20,000 deaths; and Gabriel Matznef, a French novelist who has spent his career chronicling his sexual exploits with children.
In response to criticism from the press and others, these men have all cried: “Witch hunt!” Concerning Matznef, a former book editor at Le Monde wrote, with apparent indignation, “The witch hunt continues!” It reminded me of Émile Zola’s “J’Accuse!” Maybe that was the editor’s intent. One wonders which planet she beamed down from except that Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Roland Barthes all looked kindly upon pedophilia as a “liberating” experience.
The icon of the modern witch hunt, of course, is Donald Trump, who has accused opponents of gunning for him since election night in 2016. Two things complicate the accusation: (1) Trump’s crude characterizations of his opponents, which make anything he says suspicious, and (2) the fact that his opponents have been after him since election night. Can there be any doubt? All one has to do is consider Russia, the Mueller Report, and impeachment. Anyone would be paranoid, not that the king of the late night tweet needs an excuse.
Beyond the political nature of “witch hunt,” what strikes me is how much language has changed in just a few years. It has grown more hyperbolic as our politics have become more strident. The circus of politics has tarnished the beauty of English. Accusations explode like gunfire. Be careful, or you may be labelled a Nazi, Socialist, snowflake, hater, homophobe.
That last one is interesting from a linguistic perspective for the multiplication of phobias in our public discourse. Attaching “phobe” to any noun as a way to denigrate the opposition or an entire group of people has become a sort of cottage industry. We are back at the mass hysteria of medieval witch hunts, which is not exactly comforting.
To quote Nikolai Chernyshevsky (and at the risk of being called a Leninist), I have to ask what is to be done? Unlike Lenin, I don’t want to form another political party. Besides, what would you call it? The Free Linguists? As much as I admire Noam Chomsky, I wouldn’t go down that road.
What is needed is self-restraint and individual virtue. That includes calling people out for fomenting hysteria as well as not falling for it yourself. That requires courage and refusing to pick up a pitchfork along with everyone else. That is not an easy task, but it’s time to ratchet down the rhetoric.
We don’t have many options left, people.