Why #MeToo Can Never Become a Witch-Hunt

A lot is troubling about the numerous sexual assault allegations that have emerged over past weeks. It pains me to be reminded that so many people deal with so much crap just to scrape by, or make a good living, or follow their dreams. It angers me that power, if it doesn’t corrupt people, attracts people who are corrupt – which is unfortunate because we need good, powerful people, to lead us in the right direction.

But there is one specific part of all this that really works me up, and this is the fact that some people equate the #MeToo movement to a potential – if not actual – witch-hunt.

The #MeToo movement simply can’t be a witch-hunt.

Some are claiming that now, with a single wink or touch, a man can suddenly be cast as a harasser or predator, and his entire life ruined. Others are responding by saying they’re comfortable risking a witch-hunt if it ultimately results in a more fair and less ugly world.

But this type of response is falling into a trap. And I am not falling for that trap.

No one is literally equating sexual assailants to witches. It’s an analogy, not a direct comparison. But even in an analogy, the components should match up. And in this case they don’t. In primitive societies, way before monotheism and the emergence of organized religion, people commonly practiced witchcraft to help them through sickness or other difficult times. “Why is there no food? Let’s take the wing off a bat, boil it, and drink the water. Then maybe the universe will help us out.” (Ok, maybe not exactly that, but you know what I mean.) People tend to pull meaning out of things and face adversity by exerting control over awful situations. When they have no answers or solutions in the material world, they turn to a spiritual or supernatural one.

I’m not a witchcraft historian, so I won’t give you a play-by-play of its history as though I am. But I can tell you that in its origins, the practice of witchcraft was innocent, and experts who study the subject will attest to that. It may have been used to wish harm on others occasionally, as in times of conflict, but it wasn’t just that. It was a coping skill. An elaborate coping skill. It was not inherently evil, nor did the people who engaged in it hold positions of social, political, or economic power. In fact, around the time of the first decently recorded witch trial (1324), witchcraft practitioners were poor, old, widowed women. Yeah… really scary. And it wasn’t until the beliefs and practices of witchcraft clashed with the church did anyone seem make a stink about it.

I suspect some sexual predators will call what they do an “elaborate coping skill.” But unless you have Stockholm Syndrome, or feel a sense of simpatico because you “get” it, it’s difficult to argue that sexual assault is innocent. Even in cultures where sexual assault is socially and legally justified, women recognize its harm. Consider the fact that not long ago, as recently as the 1980s, forcibly having sex with your wife in the United States was legally permissible. Despite the legal and cultural support for such behavior, people were aware of its damage and worked to change our laws and culture: though marital rape still has some legal support in eight states, it is essentially considered a big fat no-no. Even in India, where child brides are routinely and forcibly married off to older men as if it’s just another day, advocates have succeeded in changing the law so that sex with your underage bride is punishable as rape.

Sexual assault is universally recognized as destructive, damaging, and inhumane, even when a country’s culture and legal system supports it.

In contrast, witchcraft can’t be considered close to this. It might seem weird to you if you don’t believe in it, but Buddhism might seem weird to a Christian, and Christianity weird to a Buddhist. No one’s necessarily experiencing severe depression, anxiety, intimacy issues, or suicidal ideations as a direct result. And unless there’s scientific evidence proving that placing a curse on someone actually works, I’m not going to freak out about witchcraft.

Calling the #MeToo movement a potential witch-hunt is therefore problematic. Sure, #MeToo will likely involve some wrongful accusations. But not all wrongful accusations are alike. Equating an unprecedented string of sexual assault allegations to a witch-hunt suggests an inverted power dynamic that isn’t accurate. It assumes that the targeted behavior carries a degree of sensationalized harmlessness when it’s anything but harmless. Witch-hunts involve wrongfully accusing powerless people of doing things – like magic – that haven’t been directly tied to actual damage. The #MeToo movement, by contrast, speaks truth to power regarding a serious and well-recognized harm.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sensitive to the fact that some men during this period will be wrongfully accused. Men are wrongfully accused of things all the time. Women are too. Just the other day I was “wrongfully accused” of saying something hurtful when I did not intend to be hurtful. This is what happens in a world where people aren’t always on the same page, and the rules of engagement aren’t the same for everyone.

And I understand that for men wrongfully accused of sexual assault, the consequences can be damaging. Being publicly identified as a sex offender when you really aren’t a sex offender can be a horrifying experience, and we need to be sensitive to this. But also, being locked up for 20 years for a murder you didn’t commit is a horrifying experience. Being shot by police because they mistook the sandwich you were holding for a gun is a horrifying experience. Being fired as a problem employee when you’re actually a good employee who simply spoke up about being sexually harassed is a horrifying experience. None of these are witch-hunts. All of these have incredibly grave consequences.

The risk of the #MeToo movement isn’t that mass hysteria will result in the indiscriminate ruining of innocent lives. The risk comes from the fact that – generally speaking – many of us don’t do a great job seeing the world the way it is. Instead, we often see the world the way we fear it might be. Or the way we desire it to be. But most of the time, it’s neither of those things. Sometimes a man says he likes what a woman is wearing simply because he happens to like what she’s wearing. Sometimes, there’s no hidden agenda.

But sometimes a man comments on a woman’s outfit because he does have a hidden agenda. Sometimes a comment like that is followed up by an invitation to a hotel room, or a request for a massage, or an invitation to watch him masturbate. We must see these things for what they really are too. We can’t ignore that these things happen because we fear their implications, or because we desire that they not be happening.

Objectivity is hard to exercise, even by people like me who work in research, and whose livelihoods require an open and objective mind and a healthy respect for the scientific process. Objectivity is even harder to come by if your job or lifestyle doesn’t require that you be constantly mindful of it. But without objectivity, not only do we risk creating an environment where witch-hunts can thrive, but we risk creating an environment in which the corrupt, wealthy, and powerful get away with and continue to commit acts of sexual assault – or policies and behavior that perpetuate income inequality, racial discrimination, environmental damage, and a host of other injustices. Without objectivity, it becomes easy to point fingers wrongfully, but it also becomes too easy to create a culture that enables abuse.

So instead of (wrongfully) pointing fingers at the #MeToo movement for resembling a witch-hunt, let’s see it for what it really is: a movement that’s bringing attention to a real problem, a problem with hard evidence to support its existence and its very damaging fallout. And rather than legitimize claims of witch-hunts by responding to them directly, let’s shift the discussion to the facts. Personally, it helps me to start with this particularly important fact: just because a person accused of sexual assault says he’s being hunted like a witch doesn’t necessarily make it so.

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