The term “witch hunt” is popularly understood to mean two things. First, it is sometimes used as a stick to beat the Catholic Church. Along with the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and other historic propaganda points, the Catholic Church is accused of hunting out and executing innocent women in lurid ways. The image is of the angry mob with torches and pitchforks…you get the idea.
The second misconception is a bit closer to reality. A “witch hunt” is an irrational group reaction against a particular group of people. The “red under the bed” search for communists in post war USA is one example. This is a more accurate description of a witch hunt, but what actually goes on–the dynamic of the witch hunt–is worth considering because it is both fascinating and terrifying.
Rene Girard details this in his various writings, but it goes like this:
A tribe reaches a point of crisis in some way, and pressure build to find a solution to the crisis. However, the crisis itself is either very complicated and difficult to solve, or it is impossible to solve. Nevertheless, the society MUST find a solution.
The members of the society, being righteous, cannot conceive of the idea that they might be guilty in any way. They cannot be responsible. It must be someone else’s fault. They therefore begin looking for the person or tribe responsible.
The worse the crisis, the worse the crime must be that caused the crisis. In a highly religious culture, witchcraft is the worst thing imaginable. In witchcraft people worship the devil. It is the perfect anti-social crime. It is absolute. It is unthinkably grotesque, immoral and beyond imagination it is so bad.
This is important: the crime must be the worst thing the members of the society can imagine, and because it is so bad it must be secret. Someone out there must therefore be guilty of this monstrous crime.
Before long someone emerges who is actually guilty or at least there seems to be evidence that they are guilty. In a witch hunt, it might be discovered that a woman has been dabbling in astrology or a child has been fooling around with fortune telling or some low level occult activity. This evidence is enough to start the ball rolling.
First this “guilty” person will be investigated and tried. Their crime will be exaggerated and they will be found guilty as charged. They will be punished and the tribe will feel relieved.
The problem, however, doesn’t go away. Instead it gets worse. The tribe then decides that they have clearly not rooted out all the trouble makers. There are more of them and it is even worse because they are now in hiding. They are lying about their activities and covering up. They must be exposed.
At this stage the person is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Any small amount of guilt will indicate a hidden larger guilt. In the example of a witch hunt, a woman found with a book about astrology will be assumed to be a full fledged witch, but she has been covering up her real involvement.
Because the “guilty” are covering up and lying the tribe concludes that the evidence will be even harder to find. Therefore, a telescope, which is used to look at the stars will be enough “evidence” to prove astrology which proves witchcraft. That person too will be rooted out.
The next stage is to find the people who are sheltering and sympathizing with the witches. If you should happen to think there is no harm in astrology, or at least not very much harm–you will be next in the line of the persecutors. Should you suggest that what they are doing is unjust and irrational and they are persecuting innocent people you will be suspected of being a sympathizer and you will go down with the others.
When the witch hunt reaches this pitch anything can happen. The slightest accusation will bring a person to the stake. No investigation will be made. The trial will be a foregone conclusion. A mere accusation of the slightest offense will be enough. Every accuser will be completely believed. Any attempt to question the accuser or even to ascertain the facts will be seen as complicity in the cover up. Any attempt to be proportionate and address the situation objectively will be seen as defending the guilty. Any attempt to use facts to show the accuser to be at least mistaken if not malicious will be used as a stick to beat the person who seeks justice and truth.
The final stage is when a whole group of people are accused simply because they are members of those already found guilty. Were some of the women in the town of Newport tried and found guilty of witchcraft? The whole town–all their family members must also be part of the demonic plot and they must all be witches. They must all be condemned.
Should you explain the evil dynamic of the witch hunt you too will be accused of defending and supporting the witches.
This is the present situation with the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
Buckle your seat belts. We’re in for a bumpy ride.