Stop Calling #Metoo a Witch Hunt

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In an interview for The Late Late Show on Ireland’s RTE, Liam Neeson, the Hollywood A-Lister whose film The Commuter is in theatres, was asked for his thoughts about the wave of sexual misconduct allegations sweeping through the entertainment industry. Though it was obvious he was trying to be measured in his response, what mostly stuck out was him saying, “There is a bit of a witch hunt happening too.”

Earlier in the same week, celebrated French actress, Catherine Deneuve, drew sharp criticism for adding her name, along with around 100 others, to an open letter that was published in French newspaper Le Monde. In the letter #Metoo was denounced as a “witch hunt” that risks going “too far”.

Months ago, the equally celebrated and reviled filmmaker, Woody Allen, warned of a “witch hunt atmosphere” surrounding the furor over the sexual harassment and assault allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Our modern frame of reference for the term “witch hunt” tends to be the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693). A combination of mob mentality, hysteria, and scapegoating resulted in the deaths of 24 people. 19 were hanged, 1 was tortured to death, and 4 died in prison. Of those 24, 17 were women.

However, witch hunting has a much longer history than this American story.

Jone Johnson Lewis writes in her article “Witch Hunts in Europe: Timeline” though the exact number is subject to significant controversy, most historians accept a number between 40,000 and 100,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Europe, with about 12,000 having been verified by public records.

There are references to witchcraft dating back to Exodus 22:18 in the Bible, but the most executions by number in Europe were from 1580 to 1650.

And about 75% to 80% of those executed were women. Why?

Lewis puts forth three main hypotheses:

First, the cultural assumption at the time was women were weaker than men and therefore more susceptible to the temptations of the Devil. Remember that old story about Eve and the apple?

Second, they were used as a tool to obtain property. Many of those accused were single women or widows, and their existence delayed inheritances to male heirs.

And three, they were used to further suppress the poor and marginalized, and women’s marginality made them more susceptible than men.

Witch hunts were largely orchestrated by the church, the state, and societal elites (read: those in power), as an attempt to reassert their supremacy over those who could do little to defend themselves. It is estimated that half of those accused were burned or hanged to death.

And therein lies the ignorance of powerful men, and in the case of Deneuve, women—invoking such a blatantly misogynistic and shameful practice to refer to the calling out of men in power who exploit their positions.

There is no doubt there will be those who will attempt to hijack the banner of #Metoo to meet their own ideological ends. There will be those who overstep, and those who exploit the stories of real victims to fit their own narrative of the inherent evil of men. In a way, these perversions speak to the recognized power of the movement. These instances should be challenged.

But, in using the term “witch hunt”, you are devaluing that challenge by co-opting a term that symbolizes everything that was wrong with a society that saw the disempowered shamefully exploited by those more powerful.

Chaz Thorne