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No, #MeToo Is Not a Witch Hunt

How the powerful appropriate the rhetoric of historically marginalized peoples.
Actress Rose McGowan speaks at the Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, on October 27th, 2017.

Actress Rose McGowan speaks at the Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, on October 27th, 2017.

The #MeToo movement is not a witch hunt. It's not a lynch mob. It's not like the Holocaust, Japanese Internment, McCarthyism, or the Inquisition. Every time we get a little bit closer to holding powerful men accountable for their actions, bad historical metaphors tumble forth from people who are eager to appear to be concerned about overreach and due process. Overreach is always possible. Due process is important. But comparisons that equate holding the powerful accountable with the systematic persecution of marginalized people are both offensive and intended to obfuscate the truth. #MeToo is a rebellion against the kinds of entrenched powers that persecute; it is not an act of persecution.

Here are just a few recent examples of this kind of comparison. Former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson wrote on behalf of former Senator Al Franken: "I firmly believe in due process, which is a cornerstone of our democratic way of living. Whenever in history we abandoned it, we severely damaged ourselves. Just think about the lynching of blacks in the South, the internment of people of Japanese descent in World War II, or the era of McCarthyism when lives were destroyed based solely on allegations." Needless to say, asking one of the most powerful men in the world, a United States senator, to resign has nothing in common with any of these historical inequities against groups of marginalized people or political dissidents.

Carlson is hardly alone. Writing at the Federalist (a right-wing outlet that specializes in concern-trolling), Maureen Mullarkey argues that "criminalizing sexual harassment fosters witch hunts." Woody Allen, himself an accused child sexual predator, worries that the allegations against Harvey Weinstein would lead to a "witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere." Historically speaking, of course, witch hunts involved powerful state and religious agencies identifying and then executing vulnerable people, mostly women and other outsiders. Also, the people punished were not actual "witches" as defined by the church. The men in film and media being accused of sexual harassment, by contrast, are, for the most part, wildly powerful and—in most cases, it seems—actually guilty of the actions of which they've been accused.

As a historian and journalist, the use of these loose metaphors to protect the powerful has concerned me for years. This latest push against serial sexual harassment in media and entertainment, as noted by BuzzFeed journalist (and Pacific Standard contributor) Anne Helen Petersen, has driven the bad historical metaphors to new heights (or depths). In a recent New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear about Hollywood following the Weinstein revelations, various industry sources compared the practice of re-shooting scenes that featured sexual predators to "Soviet Union-style erasure," as if losing screen time were equivalent to being consigned to a gulag. It's not "blacklisting" when someone chooses not to hire an accused sexual predator. It's certainly not a sign of incipient Holocaust or gender-based despotism. Nevertheless, a male comedy producer calls Hollywood a "reverse Handmaid's Tale society." One industry insider told Goodyear, "Men are living as Jews in Germany."

These bad metaphors, of course, exist outside the context of #MeToo. Last spring, Steve Cortes at Real Clear Politics described being called a racist as the "new McCarthyism." Donald Trump calls the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election the "single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" Sam Altman, a Silicon Valley big shot, recently compared the social scorn experienced by anti-gay bigots in San Francisco to the plight of Galileo before the Inquisition.

This is all nonsense, but nonsense with a purpose. Powerful men, mostly white men, are not Jews in Nazi Germany, black Americans in pre-civil-rights U.S., heretics and witches before the Salem magistrates or the Inquisition, alleged Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee, or political dissidents in Soviet Russia. Losing a job, losing screen time, losing influence—these are not equivalent to the loss of life or freedom. Every time the playing field tilts a bit toward level, the powerful start to cry, "Help, I'm being repressed!"

This rhetorical device, whereby the powerful treat any check on their power as a descent into historical levels of victimhood, is not an accident. Victimhood generates sympathy. We've seen it from American conservatives, who currently dominate all three branches of the federal government and most state governments, but who still astonishingly believe they are a persecuted minority. American conservatives are not Jews in exile nor Christians among the lions. They are, rather, the Pharaohs and the Emperors, ready to determine our fates.

Our metaphors matter. They shape the way we respond to social change and social pressure. We cannot allow the persecutors to casually appropriate the rhetoric of oppression to hold off accountability. The very people who now worry about witch hunts, it seems to me, are the ones who would have gleefully lit the pyres beneath wrongfully accused women in other eras.

Let's keep our attention on the real victims and the truly vulnerable. We know where the threat of burning lies, and the targets are not powerful men and their enablers. Last week, someone burned down the home of Tina Johnson, one of the women who accused Roy Moore of sexual misconduct. Until victims are safe from the very real and often violent consequences of speaking out against oppression, our country's most powerful should take a break from claiming to be victims of a witch hunt.