Every year I teach my high school students The Crucible, a play outlining the mass hysteria and hangings that occurred during the Salem Witch trials. And each and every year, their reaction is one of incredulity: How could they have been so stupid? How could the judges have not seen that there was a total lack of evidence behind the accusations? How could the townspeople have been so intensely hateful and murderous? My students mock the frantic hysteria demonstrated by the girls who were the accusers, and the townspeople’s complicit behavior or silence in the face of such inexplicable histrionics. They shout out, “Say something! Fight! Tell the truth! Don’t let them get away with it!”
The irony in this reaction is that these youth live in a society that is replete with witch hunts, and yet few even realize it. The news is full of people forming angry gangs and amassing to attack, persecute, and condemn, with an emotional illogicality that rivals the Salem Witch Trials. Even though these witch hunts happen right here and now, the abhorrence my students feel over past historical events doesn’t seem to translate into an awareness of the mob behavior that swarms all around us.
Modern-day society is overflowing with cultural fanatics who are out to hunt down anyone who happens to disagree with their point of view. Those who are principled enough to stand up for their beliefs in life, commerce, and social matters are often labeled as today’s witches. More specifically, an outward belief in God and religion is the new stigma that marks people for persecution, and traditional values are under attack with mass hysteria and mindless fear to incite rage, blind accusations, and even death threats from emotional masses.
Consider the recent example of the Indiana pizzeria, who serves all customers--straight and gay, religious and non-religious—who had the audacity to state that they wouldn’t feel comfortable catering a gay wedding if asked. They merely stated their beliefs, and indicated how they would act, if the situation ever arose. That situation hadn’t arisen, these owners do not discriminate in serving customers in their store, and yet, the mob got out their torches and descended upon them in an emotional rampage, shouting about “tolerance” and “love” even as they hurled hate mail and death threats.
The gay issue, as demonstrated with the pizzeria example, is a hot bed of embers that frequently ignites the flames of the mob. In Indiana, with their recent religious freedom bill, emotions were already in hyper-drive; and so it happened that a small, inconsequential pizza shop became a target for the mob, and ended with businesses pulling out of the state, mayors in other states declaring boycotts on city-funded trips to Indiana, and death threats and hate mail abounded. And once again, while the mob was throwing their torches, they were screaming about acceptance and non-discrimination.
And, we’re all aware of the debates over wedding photographers and cake decorators; dubious claims of supposedly hateful customers denying gay waiters tips (made up, in the end, but it didn’t stop the mob from throwing their pitchforks); the outcry against Chick-fil-A; and job loss to those who privately supported traditional marriage. Dare mention words against gay marriage on Facebook and an all-out brawl erupts.
Let me be clear here: there are haters and fanatics on both sides of every issue out there, and in no way am I supporting or condoning mob behavior on any side. I am simply trying to shed light on something that our culture and society so often turns a blind eye towards, and at times even condones, props up, and supports. Any trace of religious fanaticism is stoutly and quickly decried in our culture; indeed, even calm, well-intentioned, rational religious thought is shouted down. Yet, fanatic mob behavior of other stripes is actually touted and packaged as “fair-minded.” Those on this side of the issue are given a free pass, due to an “ends-justify-the-means” mentality that is implicitly assumed and promoted by the loudest (not necessarily the most numerous) voices in society. We need to decry fanaticism everywhere we see it, no matter what banner the mob is carrying.
The internet is a particularly fabulous goldmine for witch hunts, giving anyone and everyone the chance to join in, often without even having to disclose their identity. It's amazing the cruelty that can possess an otherwise considerate person when they are no longer held responsible for their words. Mobs form online in comment sections and flame torches are hurled through emails, mimicking the frantic and murderous climate of times past. Thankfully, here in America we haven’t descended where some other countries in the world have gone--to actual eradication of those with unpopular beliefs, to hunting them down in the streets like dogs--we just hunt them down online instead.
These witch hunts are perpetuated through the media and pounded into our kids’ heads and preached from the pulpits of power in our country. The mobs shout outside businesses, threaten violence, and call for the firing of traditionally-minded employees, with utter willingness to leave any who stand in their way in ruins and tatters. Cultural charlatans jump into the fray, using these causes for their own vainglorious goals, just as Thomas Putnam in Salem used the witch hunt to snatch up land from those accused.
These are the tools of the modern-day witch hunters. They carry false banners of love and acceptance, flying them over their angry mob, and attack and destroy everyone in their path. History has shown the end result of mob mentality, over and over again. The story is the same, it is no different than it has been, and if we are paying attention, we will all stand up—those on every side of every belief—and unite together to stop the madness.