Opinion: Moral Crusades or Witch Hunts?
|17 June, 2014||Filled under Opinions||
“The political question, therefore, of whether Witches and Communists could be equated was no longer to the point. What was manifestly parallel was the guilt, two centuries apart, of holding illicit, suppressed feelings of alienation and hostility toward standard daylight society as defined by its most orthodox proponents.”
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, dramatises the moral and physical destruction of individuals and families wrought by the Salem witch trials in 17th century America. The play, written at the height of Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunts, is a good starting point for considering the role of the Moral Crusade as a mechanism for re-establishing moral values during times of moral uncertainty. How does a ‘moral crusade’, which may spring from a desire to do good in the world, become a ‘witch hunt’? And, from Salem to McCarthy and the Stalin era show trials, what does history have to tell us about the nature of contemporary moral crusades and witch hunts?
‘Witch hunts’ reached their height in Europe in the 16th century in the aftermath of the Reformation, spreading to the early American colonies around the same time. Post Reformation Europe was a turbulent era, a time of great change and uncertainty. Writing about the Crucible in his autobiography, Timebends, Miller reminds us that belief in witchcraft was deeply felt, not in an imaginary or superstitious way, but as a fundamental truth. The ‘best minds of Europe’ believed in witchcraft, as a Biblical truth and act of faith. To deny witchcraft was to deny the Word of God. As John Wesley summed it up: “The giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible.” In the face of challenges to universal truths presented by the Reformation and the beginnings of modern science – what was then called “infidelity, which is to say scepticism, deism and even atheism” – provoked an intense fear and persecution of witches, uniting ‘the community’ of the God fearing around a common set of values, which affirmed a shared belief in God:
“When several hundred thousand people had been executed in Europe for witch craft” writes Miller, “it was hardly wisdom to say that the cause was merely imaginary.”
Contemporary witch hunts differ in some respects. For example, today’s crusades often appear less morally grounded, focusing outrage on everything and anything from ‘internet troll hunting’ to hunting down ‘celebrity abusers’. But Miller makes some interesting observations on the sexual themes at play in the Salem Witch Trial transcripts, which chime with some of the more prurient aspects of crusades like Yewtree:
“Almost every testimony I had read revealed the sexual theme, either open or barely concealed… night was the usual time to be subverted from dutiful Christian behaviour, and dozens were in their beds, when through window or door, as real as life, a spectral visitor floated in and lay upon them or provoked them to some filthy act… the relief that came to those who testified was orgasmic; they were actually encouraged in open court to talk about their sharing a bed with someone they weren’t married to, a live human being, now manacled before them, courtesy of God’s lieutenants… Here was the guilt, the guilt of illicit sexuality…had there been no tinder of guilt to set aflame, had the cult and culture of repression not ruled so tightly, no outbreak would have been possible.”
The outrage of the contemporary moral crusader is often expressed as a response not merely to the individual victim’s experience of loss, damage, abuse but – and perhaps even more so – to any expression of disbelief or scepticism towards individual victims’ stories, both in the past and in the present. To question the testimony of the victim may be interpreted as a denial of the truth of ‘the thing itself’ (child abuse, misogyny, racism); so the good character of the victim is paraded and made unassailable. Thus, while the judicial system is often employed as a mechanism to pursue moral crusades, Britain’s adversarial criminal justice system, with its presumption of innocence, offers little comfort, let alone resolution. For, in the pursuit of the moral crusade, over and above the verdict of guilt or innocence of conventional justice with its rules and processes and commitment to discovering ‘objective truth’, what the moral crusaders require is a ‘psychoanalytical excavation’ into the minds of the accused and the accusers.
Again Miller touches upon the psycho drama of the witch hunt in the way he resolves The Crucible, with John Proctor’s defiant public renunciation of his confession:
“John Proctor, then, in being driven to confess not to a metaphoric guilt, but to actual sex with an identified teenage partner, might save the community in the only way possible – by raising to consciousness what had been suppressed and, in holy disguise, was out to murder them all”.
In spite of a seemingly radical ambition to re-activate political or moral agency in the public sphere, contemporary moral crusades, with their promotion of irrationality and emotion suggest a profound unease with adult society, dramatising the vulnerability and ‘arrested development’ of ‘victims’, treating them like children. The anti institutional character of the moral crusader may give the crusade a radical gloss, but attacks on public institutions may simply provide cover for an attack upon ideas of the public itself. Society labels some bad behaviour criminal because it is universally bad, bad for all not just bad for particular individuals. In other words the crime transcends the individual; it is ascribed a universal meaning, which even the criminal must acknowledge, if not accept. Finally, in re-fighting the political battles of the past through dramatising the pain of the victims of history, moral crusaders further undermine political agency in the here and now; creating a separate ‘community of truth seekers’, who look not to the public but to power for existential validation. Playing fast and loose with time and space: deconstructing the past and reconstructing it, to bring it more in line with ‘what should have been’, the moral crusader’s excavation of history destabilises and disrupts the search for common truths and values that give meaning to our lives.
1 Arthur Miller (1999) Timebends, Methuen, page 335 – 342. Miller is describing the formulation of his ideas for The Crucible, set in 17th Salem during the witch panics, He writes about his search for a moral connection between the Salem trials and post War America’s ‘Red- baiting’ witch hunts,; a connection that would allow the play to transcend its time and place. Quotes from Miller’s autobiography are included – in italics.