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How to Fight a Witch Hunt

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

The witching season is upon us.

Halloween is the one holiday that officially celebrates the things that freak us out. It’s a tradition that reaches far back into history and the human psyche.

In honor of the season, let’s consider Halloween's most iconic fright: the witch. Maleficent. Strega Nona! And of course, the nemesis of my childhood nightmares, the Wicked Witch of the West.

Perhaps like me, during this season in school you were forcibly compelled to read the witchy American novel, The Crucible, which follows the dark history of the Salem Witch Trials.

Interestingly, the focus of Arthur Miller’s classic masterpiece, isn't really witches. It is something far more frightening; the witch hunt.

Throughout history, more destruction has been wrought by witch hunts themselves than by any double, double, toil, and trouble cooked up by fanciful witches.

Miller’s novel chronicles the seventeenth century witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, in which more than two hundred people were accused of witchcraft and nineteen (fourteen women and five men) were executed. This dark episode of U.S. history is usually remembered as a cautionary tale against superstition and social hysteria.

Apparently, it’s also a cautionary tale about mixing LSD-mimicking funguses with a fundamentalist theocracy. Seriously, check this out. It seems that Puritanism was a bad trip on many levels…

All of the above is certainly true. But history shows that there was something far deeper going on beneath the surface.

Many in the Massachusetts colony were certainly consumed with fear of the diabolical, but the witch trials were also a cynical exercise of power. Old scores were settled. Land from executed “witches” was conveniently confiscated. The ruling caste of the small colony used the process of the trials, and its physical and psychological terrors, to reinforce their position and power.

The supposed threat posed by an arcane spell cast in the forest is rather remote. The threat posed by an irrational mob at one’s door with torches is more direct.

In part, Miller wrote The Crucible as an allegory for 1950’s McCarthyism. However, the deeper warning of this tale is that all communities carry within them a dark potential to become so fundamentalist in their beliefs, whether religious or ideological, that any perceived digression is viewed as an existential threat.

This dynamic unleashes the irrational fears and ruthlessness hiding in the darkest parts of every human heart. As in early Massachusetts, it also provides an opportunity for the worst type of leaders to harness the crisis for their own cynical ends. Workplaces are not immune.

If you look up from your cubicle one day and see a gathering collection of pitchforks and torches, here are some things you need to understand about witch hunts.

Witch hunts are not about finding witches. Instead, the purpose of a witch hunt is to reinforce the power of those who get to do the hunting. One sure sign of a witch hunt is that normal rules for evidence and defense are relaxed or eliminated entirely. Sometimes farcical new methods of gauging guilt are developed for these “special circumstances” that subvert longstanding procedures that would otherwise provide more protection to the accused.

The typical argument is that the threat posed by the supposed witches is so unique, insidious, complicated, and hidden, that the old and stuffy ways of justice simply won’t do. Evidence, schmevidence. Let’s start gathering firewood for the pyre. You get the picture.

Witch hunts will expand. When established procedure and normative social behavior are no longer expected, onlookers and bystanders will seek protection from being targeted. This is most easily accomplished by joining in and becoming an accuser as well.

After all, who wants angry villagers at their own door? Now that anyone might be accused with little opportunity for reasonable defense; better to be holding a torch than standing on top of the bonfire.

This drives all witch hunts into expansion as the number of accusers proliferate, and the need to supply new witches increases exponentially.

Opposition to the witch hunt will be portrayed as a sign of collaboration or guilt. Those brave few who refuse to join in the hunt and speak out against what’s happening will likely be accused or implicated as collaborators.

This vicious cycle of circular logic reduces the community into a binary. Increasingly, there are only two available groups: accusers and the guilty. This is another sure sign that a witch hunt is underway.

This dynamic serves to silence and cow those leaders and others best placed to help the community preventively self-correct. This is the stage in which courageous leaders must demand a focus on process first, before and as the surest means to establishing, any legitimate level of guilt or culpability of supposed wrongdoers.

Witch hunts eventually consume themselves. Eventually, in witch hunt economics, supply always outstrips demand. As more and more of the fearful join the witch hunt leaders, eventually there’s just not enough credible potential witches to go around.

After the marginalized, outliers and other social or ideological outcasts with the least recourse to self-defense have been consumed, the hunters will begin to turn on one another. This is when things get really weird.

The accusations get more fantastical and the targets less believable.

Prior witch hunt collaborators now begin to attack each other. As fervor for the hunt begins to wane, leadership fractures. Typically, the most extreme leaders will accuse the more reasonable ones of “going soft” or outright collaboration with the supposed wrongdoers.

As the farce begins to be exposed, those who joined-in mostly out of self-preservation begin to fall away. Next, some of the true believers become disillusioned. Some of them fall away as well. Soon, all that’s left are the most extreme and cynical hunters. Without the insulation of the larger crowd, the ugliness of the whole affair is increasingly laid bare.

There’s likely to be more thrashing about at that point, but it’s the beginning of the end for the hunt.

How do you fight a witch hunt? Well, it’s not easy. If you are the explicit target, it’s unlikely that you’ll emerge unscathed. However, you can be prepared to survive in the long run. Here’s a few tips.

Stay cool and fight back. Staying cool is hard when you’re being treated unfairly and are under attack. As discussed above, there is always an element of irrationality to a witch hunt.

In the face of an angry mob it is very tempting to fight fire with fire. However, that is typically ineffective. The hunt is already running on a high-octane combination of extreme emotion and vindictive animus. You’d simply be providing more fuel.

Instead, fight fire with ice.

Hold up a mirror to the hunters. Do your best to exhibit the character, stability, and principles so absent in the witch hunters. Remind them and the onlookers of their better selves. Be the active example of a higher standard of behavior.

It might not seem like it at first, but others will notice. At this point, your own behavior is one of the few things that you actually control. Hard as it is, admirable behavior on your part is what’s most likely to help others find the courage to speak out against what’s happening.

If you do so, the hunt will typically continue to escalate in hopes of goading you into an emotional reaction that will then be twisted as more evidence of your guilt. The hunters want and expect that reaction. Don’t it give to them.

This is one of the most fundamental ways you can fight back. The contrast between your measured and reasonable behavior and their escalating irrationality, will begin to operate as a defense unto itself. This encourages support from those you will need to eventually end the hunt.

Never apologize for something that you didn’t do or isn’t true. If you are faced with wild or distorted accusations that are simply untrue, it is tempting to admit to something in hopes that it will make this all go away–especially in the early stages of the conflict.

Frequently, a witch hunt will focus on small transgressions or mistakes but then magnify them to diabolical proportions. You will be encouraged to admit to the small or unintentional error, but then be punished as if it is an intentional capital crime. Understand, regardless of what’s offered, there are no plea deals in a witch hunt.

It's important to remember... Just because you feel persecuted doesn't mean that there's a witch hunt underway. Real witch hunts have the qualities described above. You might in fact have done something wrong. If you did make a mistake or harm someone, you should take responsibility for it. Otherwise...

If you have done nothing wrong or your actions have been grossly distorted, do not admit or imply false guilt in hopes of placating a mob hungry for someone to punish. It never works and will be considered tantamount to a full confession.

One of the most toxic aspects of a witch hunt is that they tend to invert the normal rules of justice. They formally or informally imply a presumption of guilt, not innocence. The problem with this is that it is simply impossible to prove a negative; to prove that something didn’t happen. That's why most modern justice systems presume innocence and place the onus on the prosecution to produce credible evidence of guilt.

For instance, if I accuse someone of kicking a puppy over the weekend, how could they prove that they did not? They might try to account for their time over the weekend, who they were with, or try to show that they otherwise had no opportunity to kick a puppy. But, I might respond that surely there still must have been some time when you might have had an opportunity to kick a puppy. How are we to know? After all, puppy-kickers are probably very crafty people... and so on.

To the extent possible, leave the burden of proof with those making the accusation. The same rule applies whether the accusation comes through formal channels, or more typically, through informal social networks and relationships.

If evidence if presented, respond to it as needed. Otherwise, don’t do their work for them. Never work harder than the hunters.

Focus on the long run. I’m sorry to tell you this, but if you are the target of a true witch hunt you are going to take damage in the short run. It’s unavoidable.

Witch hunt dynamics empower the unscrupulous for precisely this reason: the hunt provides an opportunity to do maximal damage with the lowest possible threshold of proof and behavioral standards.

Even if the witch hunt is initially spawned by a truly righteous cause, the allure of easy power typically brings the worst kind of leaders to the fore. The rest are then either corrupted, silenced, or turned into targets themselves.

Accusations, even if eventually proved to be untrue or not credible, will harm you. Casual observers will remember the accusation not the retraction–especially if the charge is something they wanted to be true in the first place.

Fighting a witch hunt is not really about winning. It’s more about surviving in the long term by being consistent, truthful, and resilient.

Steel yourself for a marathon, not a sprint. This will not be over soon. It will be painful.

Staying cool and guarding your own self-respect by maintaining high standards for your own behavior will give you the endurance advantage. You will get stronger as others burn themselves out.

Be a hard target and stand-up for the vulnerable. Another great irony of a witch hunt is that, although they present a fearsome spectacle, they typically target people who are already perceived as weakened, compromised, or marginalized in some way. The Salem Witch trials began by targeting elderly single women, a slave, and children.

The first targets are usually those who will have the most difficulty fighting back or whom the larger community already views as suspect or an outsider.

Only later do witch hunts typically seek more difficult targets as demand for witches outstrips supply. The more you are generally seen as someone who stays cool, fights back, cannot be pressured into false apologies, and is willing to stick it out to the end, you will become a hard target.

The typical witch hunt will usually look elsewhere for easier quarry.

However, if you are already a hard target consider your responsibility to stand up for those more vulnerable than you. It is not only morally right, but also strategically smart to defend the innocent who might be in a weaker position.

Soberly consider the advice of 20th century German pastor, Martin Niemoller. After all, once successful and emboldened, the hunters might eventually come for you.

Witch hunt dynamics are always inherently destructive, no matter the target or the cause they support. This is especially true if real harms have occurred. Illegitimate process undermines legitimate claims.

Witch hunts further undermine the pursuit of real justice as the hunt devolves into a cynical bid for power, instead of a sincere effort to reveal, acknowledge, and repair harm.

With this in mind, organizational leaders have a grave responsibility to maintain the integrity of legitimate avenues for redress and reparation, whether formal or informal–so that the real needs of those harmed are not lost in the chaos of mob justice and organizational dysfunction.

All human communities, whether in the workplace or civil society, have the latent potential to turn upon themselves and give breathing room to unjust persecution. For the historically minded, check out Milton Mayor’s chilling account of how otherwise ordinary people can come to persecute their erstwhile friends and neighbors.

I have seen several versions of the above run their course through organizations. There will come a time at the very end of a witch hunt, when those left standing in the relational rubble will look at one another and ask, “My goodness, what have we done?”

When that time comes, the community always looks for answers from trusted leaders whose principles and integrity are still intact. Hopefully, we are all working hard to be that kind of leader.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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