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 evide