A Word on Witch Hunts – I don’t think it means what you think it means

The phrase “witch hunt” seems to be cropping up a lot recently, and not just because it’s Halloween. It’s been used in relation to the investigation into collusion between Russia and the US government and in association with the powerful #MeToo campaign. Neither are witch hunts in the original sense of the word because in both causes, they are seeking specific wrong doing. If they are witch hunts, we need to rename our police force the Witchfinder Generals.

The phrase refers to trials of witches who were accused of causing harm by magical means. Anything from having red hair or being left handed to being independent or promiscuous could be used as proof of witchcraft. The point about witch trials, as made so powerfully in Arthur Miller’s iconic play The Crucible, is that the charges are arbitrary and the accused are clearly innocent. There may be an argument that there was, at the heart of the McCarthy-era witch hunt for communists that inspired Miller’s play, a sense that there was some wrong doing. However, the way that people were accused, the hysteria and distinct lack of proof made it closer to Salem than a search for justice. These recent cases have led to criminal investigations, and those simply aren’t initiated because someone starts a whisper campaign that leads to hysteria. In short, there is more than a discarded poppet behind the Russian investigation and there is no more a witch hunt against Harvey Weinstein than there was against the Yorkshire Ripper.

Words and phrases can evolve, however. Lindy West’s excellent article Yes, This is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You turns the idea on its head. Instead of hunting for witches or their modern day equivalent, she suggests, the #MeToo campaign is empowering women and hunting down oppressors. There has been an increase in women identifying with the figure of the witch along these lines; witches, after all, have independence and power. In stories, they often get the best plot lines and have a lot more fun, even if they’re made to pay for it. Why not change the story and own the insult? While this is not the original intention of the phrase, it’s a positive development.

I’m not OK with powerful men crying witch hunt when they get found out because it’s an emotive phrase with the weight of brutal history behind it. It’s different when women do it because it’s our history and has been repeated in so many ways over generations. We’re not living in the village of Shirley Jackson’s haunting short story The Lottery and what’s happening now is neither arbitrary nor unfounded. It’s been a long time coming, and so perhaps it is time for witches to step out from the shadows and start hunting.

I have a poem over at Dodging the Rain today in which I own my inner-witch. It’s a call to arms for women to raise their voices and embrace their power; I couldn’t have known when I wrote it just how relevant it would be. What I do know is that we have to listen to these voices. Believe women as they step out from the darkness. Together, they have power you can’t imagine.