In 1692, a group of hysterical teenage girls in Salem, Massachusetts, began denouncing girls from rival families as witches. Accusations of witchcraft soon multiplied and spread throughout the town; some of the accused were as young as four years old. Ultimately, 200 people were tried, and dozens executed, for fictious crimes. No evidence was required by the court, as the accusations themselves were considered proof of guilt.
There are obvious parallels between the Salem Witch hunts and today’s cancel culture, especially in the ubiquitous and toxic accusation of racism. The accusation alone smears the accused as guilty, and the denounced party has no way to defend against the charge. Looking back at Salem gives us insight into the conditions that enable cancel culture to take root, why the public tolerates it, and how it might end.
Seventeenth-century Salem was known as a particularly fractious town burdened with continuous disputes over property and church rights. These poisonous divisions among the citizens provided the fertile soil necessary for the false accusations and terrible punishments they inflicted on one another.
Today we have a similarly caustic political climate in the United States; we are perhaps more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Polite, intelligent, political discussion has largely disappeared, with political conversations quickly dissolving into anger and hysteria. As a result, people often avoid political dialogue with people who hold opposing views; this confirmation of bias ensures that people remain frozen in their opinions. This division is reinforced as people listen only to news sources that support their beliefs, sources that often contain little news and lots of opinion. It is in this fractious environment that cancel culture flourishes.
Primitive 17th century communications ensured that the witch hunt remained localized in Salem. In contrast, today’s traditional and social media enable our modern-day witch hunters to spread their accusations instantaneously across the nation.
The question has never been why hysterical young girls would label their rivals witches, but why the entire adult population of Salem would go along with it. Likewise, today the question is not why political hacks or hysterical teenagers on the internet routinely accuse their rivals of racism and other charges without any meaningful proof, but why our entire society caves into such allegations, with no evidence or due process offered or required. The short answer is moral cowardice.
Of the two hundred people accused in Salem, only one, 81-year-old Giles Corey, had the courage to refuse to enter a plea. Stones were gradually piled on him to force a confession until, after two days, he finally expired. Others, not wishing to share his fate, quickly confessed to being witches.
Just as the goal of the Salem Witch Trials was to force the accused to confess, so too the goal of cancel culture is to force confessions of racism. Chris Harrison, the long-time host of “The Bachelor,” confessed to being a racist; not for anything he had done, but simply for opposing cancel culture in the case of a contestant who had attended an antebellum-themed sorority party years earlier:
I am here to extend a sincere apology… yesterday I took a stance on topics about which I should have been better informed.…my intentions were simply to ask for grace in offering her an opportunity to speak on her own behalf. What I now realize I have done is cause harm by wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism, and for that I am so deeply sorry.
Groveling, however, did not save Harrison, who lost his job anyway. The actress Gina Carano lost her job after being accused of anti-Semitism for writing: “Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors…. even by children.” Her post was clearly anti-Nazi, not anti-Semitic, but facts are irrelevant in cancel culture where accusation is proof of guilt. Likewise, Megan Markel’s accusations of racism against the Royal family, Democrat claims that mispronouncing Kamala Harris’s first name is a sign of racism, and Kamala Harris’ accusations of racism against Joe Biden in their 2019 debate are all taken at face value.
During the recent conservative CPAC conference, the internet was abuzz with accusations that the stage, if viewed from above, was purposely built in the shape of a Nazi symbol. Not the well-known Nazi swastika, but an obscure ancient European symbol called an orthala rune which almost nobody had ever heard of. That this is obvious nonsense did not stop the Hyatt hotel, in which the conference took place, from immediately issuing a statement declaring that Hyatt had nothing to do with the design or installation and calling the stage “abhorrent.”
Hyatt and Chris Harrison’s groveling responses to these false accusations are exactly the sort of confessions of sin their accusers seek, and are the typical reaction of cancel culture’s victims. Few people have the moral compass, self-assurance, and courage to stand up in the face of such mass hysteria. Only one public figure in Salem, Major Nathaniel Saltonstall, stood up against the proceedings, resigning his position on the court. This level of moral courage is rare. A twentieth-century example occurred when, prior to the Army/McCarthy hearings, President Eisenhower was one of the few brave enough to criticize Senator McCarthy publicly. When libraries began burning books McCarthy claimed were subversive, the thoroughly decent Eisenhower urged Americans: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.”
Beginning with the 2016 Presidential election campaign, the Democratic Party and media, in an effort to gin up the black vote, began claiming police racism every time a black person was killed by a police officer. This, despite the fact, that many of the officers involved were themselves black. Nor is police racism borne out by police shooting statistics. In almost every case, the media’s original attribution of “racism” as the police motive has fallen apart in court, and many of the suspects have been found to have been armed and or in the act of committing a violent crime.
Charges of racism soon spread beyond the police, and our entire society and history as a country is now being accused of “systemic racism.” Just as the citizens of Salem saw the Devil in everything and everyone, our modern witch hunters now see the specter of racism everywhere. They have convinced themselves that the United States is permeated by “systemic white racism.” Schools teach “critical race theory,” essentially anti-white, racism. What began with tearing down statues of confederate generals soon spread to tearing down statues of Grant and Lincoln.
So, what might we learn from Salem about how this will end? Witch hunts always end in the same way. Drunk on their power to destroy people with mere words, the accusers are eventually emboldened to level charges against the powerful. In Salem, the trials ended soon after the wife of the governor of Massachusetts was accused. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror ended when he went after the U.S. army. Cancel culture’s ubiquitous accusations of racism will end once they begin leveling that charge at the party now in power in Washington: the same Democratic party that instigated this witch hunt in the first place as a weapon against its Republican rivals.
Ultimately, the Salem witch trials so discredited the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts that it permanently lost power. The history of witch hunts indicates that the Democratic party can expect a similar fate. What should the rest of us do in the meantime? We should not abase ourselves in response to false, malicious accusations. We should emulate those decent and heroic people who maintained their honor and good name by standing up and boldly speaking the truth in defiance of the mob. In the words of Hillel: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man”.
IMAGE: Mary Walcott accusing Giles Corey, illustration by John W. Ehninger, 1902. Public Domain.