If there’s a demographic that loves to use the term “witch hunt” more than say, actual witches, it's powerful men. At the top of that list is President Donald Trump, who recently tweeted (apparently his favourite form of communication) that he was the victim of a “TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT” after BuzzFeed News published a dossier that claimed he has deep ties to Russia.
But author Margaret Atwood should know better (or so we hoped). Atwood wrote an extraordinary poem about Mary Webster, a real woman hanged for witchcraft in the 1680s. She titled it “Half-Hanged Mary,” and later dedicated her ever-relevant feminist tome, The Handmaid’s Tale, to her. Even Atwood fell into the trap of using “witch hunt” to protect a man who didn’t need protecting.
Many members of the Canadian literary community were, and still are, deeply divided over University of British Columbia creative writing program chair Steven Galloway's alleged misconduct last year. Galloway was fired in June 2016 following several different accounts of improper interactions with his female students, including a relationship with a student that Galloway admitted to via his lawyer, claiming it was consensual. (One woman, identified only as "main complainant," later said in a statement through a lawyer that "Mr. Galloway sexually harassed and sexually assaulted" her.) There are also several allegations of physical and sexual assault against his students. The university investigated, calling in retired British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Mary Ellen Boyd to serve as an independent arbiter. She found that his dismissal was justified and Galloway was let go.
After Galloway’s firing, The Orenda author Joseph Boyden (currently embroiled in his own scandal arising from questions about whether his self-professed indigenous identity is legitimate) wrote a letter in support of the disgraced professor, which was then signed by more than 50 other Canadian writers, Margaret Atwood and Brad Cran among them.
But of all the writers, educators, and mentors who leapt to defend Galloway, it was Atwood’s support of the disgraced academic that hurt the most. Who Atwood is and what she has seemed to represent has always been important to me and so many other women. The Handmaid’s Tale is a critical piece of feminist dystopian speculative fiction, a book that directly engages with ideas of oppression, systemic abuse, and distrust of women. It’s a book that’s become more and more necessary for women, particularly in our days of President Trump. She is responsible for the extraordinary (though apocryphal) quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." To watch Atwood throw in support along with rape apologists, and compare assault victims to inquisitors, is devastating.
Worse was when presented with evidence that she might be mistaken, she doubled and then tripled down, implying that what happened to Steven Galloway was comparable to a witch hunt. “My position is that the ubc [sic] process was flawed and failed both sides,” she told The Walrus, “and the rest of my position is that the model of the Salem Witchcraft Trials is not a good one.”
In evoking a witch hunt, Atwood likened the efforts of women who came forward about their experiences with Galloway, and the allies who supported them, to the atrocities of inquisitors and torturers. She framed an attempt to seek justice in some small measure with a series of atrocities inflicted upon marginalized people — mostly women — for centuries. She compared an accusation of sexual assault to an accusation of witchcraft.
This is something that happens again and again when a high-profile man is accused of sexual assault. Canadian media is still dealing with the aftermath of the 2015 Jian Ghomeshi trial. Barbara Hewson of Spiked referred to what she perceived as a "a social-media witch-hunt” that befell the disgraced CBC star. Hewson claimed that people coming forward with firsthand stories of Ghomeshi’s misconduct (or their knowledge of it) and the proliferation of the #ibelievewomen hashtag, constituted this witch hunt. Similarly, Bill Cosby’s lawyer, Monique Pressley, called the discussion of her client’s case in the media “tantamount to a witch hunt.”
But in all of these cases, the powerful men forever crying "witch hunt" have it backward.
A witch hunt is, quite literally, an attempt to seek out and eliminate a group of sorcerers, often unpleasantly. You need two things for a witch hunt to take place: A group of people you identify as witches, and a belief that witchcraft both exists and is morally reprehensible and dangerous. A little moral panic and hysteria is also often thrown into the mix. There are examples of witch hunts throughout history, some in antiquity and some terribly modern: Saudi Arabia still has anti-witchcraft legislation, and as recently as 2012, women in India, Nepal, and Uganda were executed for witchcraft. When most people talk about witch hunts, however, they’re referencing the mass persecutions of accused witches that took place across Europe and colonial North America during the Early Modern period, from around 1450 to 1750. These include the trials and executions of witches in Salem, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, as well as incidents like the Basque witch trials headed by the Catholic Inquisition in Northern Spain.
Witch hunts were a way for those already in power (the courts, the church, the clergy, the patriarchy) to inflict horrific torture — often grotesque sexualized violence — on powerless women living on the fringes of their communities. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or "Hammer of Witches,” was published by Heinrich Kramer in 1487. The book was intended to serve as a guide for clergy to help them identify, prosecute, and execute witches in their local communities. According to Kramer, part of the process of identifying a witch involves a thorough physical examination, which included stripping a suspected witch naked and shaving all body hair (and sometimes hair from the head as well) to look for demonic marks, instruments, or signs. Witches could also be tested by drowning or burning: A woman who could not be burned or drowned was a witch, but if she was successfully killed then she had been innocent. Whoops.
Whether a woman was innocent or guilty of being a witch has never been a particular concern of witch-hunters. Or, rather, their potential guilt is far more important that their potential innocence. When the 13th-century crusader Arnaud Amalric, a papal legate and inquisitor, was asked by those carrying out his orders how they should tell the difference between Christians and heretics (in other words, who they should kill and who they should spare, Amalric’s famous apocryphal response was, “Kill them all, let god sort them out.” The same philosophy was adopted by witch-hunters. In many cases, an accused witch’s community was actively kept from helping her. The Malleus Maleficarum also explains that “quarrelsome women” should not be allowed to testify either for or against a witch, preventing other women in the community from coming to the aid of one of their friends.
This book, which includes a papal bull (an official, sealed public decree issued by the head of the Catholic church) issued in 1484, was used most frequently by the Inquisition in their proceedings. Kramer, who was sometimes known as Henricus Institoris (an infinitely more evil-sounding moniker) laid out in excruciating, exquisite detail what witchcraft is and how to identify it. Essentially, witchcraft is when the devil becomes your boyfriend.
“These women co-operate with the devil although they are bound to him by that profession by which at first they freely and willingly gave themselves over to his power,” writes Kramer. Kramer recommends torture, and deception, as ways to get suspected witches to confess. This includes lying to the suspect about what their fate will be if they confess — for instance, telling them that they won’t be executed when they most certainly will. A confession under torture also has to be “confirmed,” meaning the alleged witch would have to repeat their confession and have it formally recorded for a notary. If they failed to do so, they would be subjected to torture again — though the text is careful to specify that the means of said torment should not be the same as before, but a new and different kind of violence.
Torture was not always confined to the women themselves; when Aleson Balfour was accused of witchcraft in 1596, her husband and children were also tortured when the mortifications of her own body were not enough to get a confession out of her. This included applying thumbscrews to her 7-year-old daughter. Incidentally, thumbscrews were not only applied to those accused of witchcraft to wring out a confession. If a woman claimed she was sexually assaulted, she might be tortured by thumbscrews or other means to prove that she was really telling the truth. The renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi most famously endured this torture during court proceedings after she was raped by fellow artist Agostino Tassi. He was convicted after a grueling seven-month trial and sentenced to a year in prison, which he never served. (A narrative that sounds awfully trite to any rape survivor who has sought any recourse through Canada’s legal system.)
The Malleus Maleficarum also explains why most witches happen to be women. The text perceives women to be generally weaker and more degenerate. Their faith isn't as strong, they are much more susceptible to temptation both demonic and worldly, and they are more driven by lust than men are. The way women are often framed and treated today isn’t terribly different: We’re treated like liars, like we are stupid and less stalwart, that expressing our sexuality is revolting. Whether in the context of early modern witch hunts or contemporary media, women who speak out are still treated as something disgusting and dangerous that needs to be controlled and dismissed. Delightful quotes about women’s qualities include disparaging their “loose tongues” and stating that they are "defective in all the powers of both soul and body.” This is precisely the same kind of derision that women who come forward with their stories often face: that they should have stayed silent, that they are liars, that speaking out is somehow a defect of character. While women are accused of witch-hunting, it’s these same women who are treated like witches. Of the 40,000 to 50,000 people — a conservative but generally accepted estimate — executed for witchcraft during various witch hunts between the 15th and 18th centuries, the vast majority were women. Of the trials Kramer himself conducted, he pursued women for witchcraft exclusively.
This is markedly different from a community reacting to the revelation or accusation that someone within that community is behaving monstrously. To refer to what Galloway — or any man accused of wrongdoing against women — has gone through as a “witch hunt,” even if it is intense and virulent, ignores the reality of what a witch hunt is, and inverts the broken power structure that allows a witch hunt to take place. While being cast as witch-hunters, the women who come forward with their stories of abuse must endure their own persecution, from losing friends and having their reputations destroyed publicly, to being harassed for trying to speak truth to (and about) power. Referring to a community turning against an abuser as a witch hunt positions an abuser’s victims and their supporters as the evil inquisitors, and those who had enjoyed (and probably still enjoy) a position of power and respect in that community as the helpless victims. It ignores the very gendered nature of the violence of witch hunts.
These kinds of abuses regularly happen, and happen all the time, and communities react so fiercely, and with such great agony, not because they are unimaginable, but because they are mundane. They are not incidents of people believing stories of devilry and goat-fucking, brainwashed by predatory power structures both religious and governmental. They are the oppressive reality of our lives and in the communities where the vulnerable are repeatedly hurt.
We hear constantly about men in power, from Ghomeshi to Galloway, mistreating or assaulting their students, colleagues, or partners, abusing their positions to lord over women, and yet we claim to be shocked every time. We hear whispers about these men for years and then claim to be blindsided when an incident becomes public knowledge, or actual consequences may be meted out. But the men who accused women of stealing their virility or ruining their crops are viewed as more believable — and were historically taken much more seriously — than a woman is today when she states that she was harassed or sexual assaulted. The witch hunt metaphor is appealing because of its extremity, it’s evocation of hysteria. It’s a way to dismiss, disempower, and actively harm women that men are afraid of. It’s used to suggest that the persecution isn’t only unfair, or disproportionate, but that it’s rooted in literal fantasy, in historically untrue panic. It casts women as torturers, their accusations as lies, and the men who have hurt them as beleaguered victims. It changes the discourse so that we’re supposed to feel bad for the poor rapist tied to the stake as a consequence of his actions.
Witch hunts are incidents of a particularly dangerous kind of collective break with rationality. Those who call the public criticism faced by Galloway a "witch hunt" invoke a sense of moral panic, those moments where we are so sick, scared, and violated that we lash out at any perceived threat. To call something a witch hunt is to draw parallels between these moments and McCarthyism during the Red Scare, or the satanic ritual abuse allegations, like the McMartin preschool trial, of the ‘80s. In the latter case, a investigation into possible abuse at a preschool ended up becoming the longest and most expensive trial in American history, with one of the accused, Ray Buckey, spending five years in prison awaiting trial for crimes most people agree he did not commit (which included everything from sexual abuse to murdering babies and drinking their blood). It recalls historical examples where people have submitted to all manner of injustices out of fear or panic.
But none of that is actually happening. There are no disappearances, no beheadings, no live burnings. There are barely any legal repercussions. There are just social consequences. People are angry and hurt, and expressing that distress, often very publicly. But social censure is not a strappado; a think piece is not pien-fort-en-dure. Victims are not inquisitors. Authorities still, overwhelmingly, side with accused rapists and abusers over their victims. A community rallying around those they perceive to be their most vulnerable is not a witch hunt. That same community thrashing about in pain when yet another betrayal is brought to light is not a witch hunt. And most certainly, seeking consequences, reparations, and trying to find a way to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again is not a witch hunt.
A woman (known as "main complainant") said she was sexually assaulted by Galloway via a statement released by her lawyer, not in an interview with The Ubyssey. We regret the error.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a freelance writer, community manager and bailed academic based in Toronto. She writes everything from reviews of science fiction novels and interviews with heavy metal musicians to to in-depth feminist games criticism and pieces of long-form journalism. She is the author of two books of poetry, and is presently finishing a novel about supervillainy and the plight of henchpeople. In her free time she has been exploring the poetic potential of the notes engine in the video game Bloodborne, writing a collection of polyamorous fairytales, developing interactive narrative classes and composing short text-based body horror games. She also plays a lot of D&D, participates in a lot of Nordic LARPs, watches a lot of horror movies and reads a lot of speculative fiction.
Contact Natalie Zina Walschots at lauren.strapagiel+NatalieZinaWalschots@buzzfeed.com.
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