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Beware the Witch Hunt

I ran out of words last week to finish off a final thought from ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, so I will start with them this week.  By coincidence, issues relating to free speech at universities are highly topical, with the news that the government is planning to intervene to ensure that no-platforming and inappropriate censorship will not be tolerated, and I am sure we are all reassured to know that Gavin Williamson will be leading the charge.

An area of focus from the book was the worrying trend towards collective rather than individual thinking, through some reflections on witch hunts, both from the past and, more troublingly, in the modern world. The authors make the point that humans are tribal creatures who readily form groups to compete with other groups, drawing attention to sociologist Emile Durkheim’s work that illuminates the way these groups engage in rituals, including the collective punishment of deviance, to enhance their cohesion and solidarity.  Collective and morally homogeneous groups are prone to witch hunts, particularly when they experience a threat, whether from outside or within. 

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that these witch hunts generally have four properties: they seem to come out of nowhere; they involve charges of crimes against the collective; the offences that lead to those charges are often trivial or fabricated; and people who know that the accused is innocent keep quiet, or in extreme cases they join the mob.  This also links to a current key issue in education, as seen by the fallout from the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website, and the reflection that is consequently taking place with regard to what is known as ‘peer on peer abuse’, a topic to which we will all need to return on a regular basis. 

What the authors call ‘viewpoint diversity’ reduces a community’s susceptibility to witch hunts, arguing that one of the most important kinds, the diversity of political thought, has declined substantially among both professors and students at American universities since the 1990s.  They suggest that these declines, combined with the rapidly escalating political polarisation of the United States, may be part of the reason why the new culture of 'safetyism' has spread so rapidly since its emergence around 2013, a situation that they see only as detrimental to the mental wellbeing of students and wider communities. 

By happy coincidence, I also wanted to draw your attention to some more pearls of wisdom from Sandi Toksvig’s ‘Almanac for 2021’, where she also talks about witch hunts and shines a light on the ongoing inequalities that permeate our modern society, even where we have notionally made progress in a handful of areas.  The trouble is, she says, that history too often gives us women at the sidelines, brilliant women who have been forgotten or misremembered, whether victims of wife-beating, witch-hunts, terrible treatment in wartime or their subjugation in so many parts of the world. 

Reflecting on the recent deaths at the religious festival in Israel, where I was struck that it was only men and boys who died, I remembered Toksvig’s analysis that one of the interesting things about so many religions is that, on the whole, women do not do all that well out of them.  Most religions give men a higher status than women and are rougher on women who stray from any of the rules.  Women may be exalted as mothers, but at the same time they are required to be submissive to the Church and men in general.  Leadership is often restricted to men, with the patriarchy firmly in place in the bulk of organised religion.  The ranks of the faithful are dominated by women, but it is the men who tell them how to behave.  Gods tend to be male and it is the men who seem to be in closest touch when it comes to writing things down.  The result is a strange silencing of women.  In the Bible, for example, women only speak just over one per cent of the total words in the book.  Jesus’ mother Mary says just 191 words.

Another example comes from a moment of American political iconography, the Great March on Washington in 1963, where the men profited handsomely and the women were not treated well.  For example, the activist Anna Hedgeman helped to organise the event, personally recruiting 40,000 participants and making sure everyone had food and water.  Despite this, she was not allowed to march at the front and was not allowed to speak.  When Dr King declared, ‘I have a dream’, she cried, and scribbled on her programme how she wished he had said, ‘We have a dream.’  After the address, Dr King and all the male leaders of the march were invited to the White House.  Not one of the women who was there, including the legendary Rosa Parks, was asked to go with them. 

Moving to the next point, I would like to clarify that before sitting down to write this blog I did some ironing and vacuuming, and later I shall cook dinner – just saying!  Crystal Eastman, born 1881, was an American lawyer, feminist, journalist and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and she was once called ‘the most dangerous woman in America’.  Shortly after the 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920, giving women the right to vote in the USA, Eastman gave a speech entitled ‘Now We Can Begin’, which clearly stated that the work of women’s emancipation did not end with the amendment. 

She said, ‘We must now institute a revolution in the early training and education of both boys and girls.  It must be womanly as well as manly to earn your own living, to stand on your own feet.  And it must be manly as well as womanly to know how to cook and sew and clean and take care of yourself in the ordinary exigencies of life.  I need not add that the second part of this revolution will be more passionately resisted than the first.’ 

She went on, ‘Men will not give up their privilege of helplessness without a struggle.  The average man has a carefully cultivated ignorance about household matters – from what to do with the crumbs to the grocer’s telephone number – a sort of cheerful inefficiency which protects him better than the reputation of having a violent temper.  It was his mother’s fault in the beginning, but even as a boy he was quick to see how a general reputation for being ‘no good around the house’ would serve him well throughout life, and half-consciously he began to cultivate that helplessness, until today it is the despair of feminist wives.’ 

If progress has been made, it has been too slow and too hard won, but the future surely gives hope for better, so I’ll close this week with Minnie D. Craig, who was born 1883 and was the first female speaker of a state House of Representatives in the United States.  She said, ‘Women are naturally given to detail…If they weren’t, they couldn’t make pies or sew dresses.  Men don’t like details.  Because of woman’s training…she is more thorough than man, and right there she has a splendid opportunity for politics.’ 

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