Repeating History, Our Salem Begins
How today’s #CancelCulture is repeating the historical mistakes of the Salem Witch Trials.
Content Warning. This article will be discussing heavy topics which could trigger some audiences.
A wave of hysteria spreads throughout social media, a special court of public opinion convenes to hear the cases; the first convicted, Harvey Weinstein, was cancelled that October. Countless others followed to Twitter’s Gallows Hill, while some 100+ more were accused over the next several months. By September 2019, the hysteria is beginning to abate and public opinion turn against these trials. Even though various courts of law later annul the public opinion guilty verdicts against accused, no indemnities have been granted to their families, all while bitterness lingers in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would continue to endure for centuries.
“It would better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.”
You may have heard something like this, because it’s happened before. It happened in Salem Village, Massachusetts, 1692.
All it took was an accusation, an allegation, to doom a person to an inescapable fate. Women, men and children alike were caught in the hysteria, being accused of witchcraft and subsequently having to be publicly tried; though no method of exoneration existed, beyond death.
In an eerie set of circumstances, these trials seem to have returned to present day, with the words of Increase Mather (president of Harvard College at the time of the original Salem Trials) being twisted: “It would better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.”
Fast forwarding to 2017–2019, we see the words of Mr. Mather flipped, in that it would seem to be better to condemn and shame ten suspected of sexual misconduct than to let a single sexual predator walk free.
No matter what side of the arguments you may find yourself on, there is a very important lesson to be learned from a point in history we have already lived through.
Even after clearing the names of those falsely accused, the repercussions for those allegations impacted the lives of families for decades and generations to come.
Well after the end of the trials themselves, in 1711 courts finally managed to overturn the legal convictions; as we are even seeing to this day, despite any legal conclusions reached — public opinion is slow to recover, if not irreparably harmed.
It has been surmised that a lot of what caused the apparent symptoms of “bewitchment” came down to reactions to fungus, that were later discovered found having been exposed to food sources; with the limited technological and scientific knowledge available at that time, people were left to make decisions based off of their faith and experiences.
Today, we have the technology; we have the expertise to investigate properly. Despite all of this it would seem, as a collective, social media and those who are in the sphere of influence are quicker to pass judgment than we ever have before in history.
It would also seem that the frequency at which we allow people to reform and recover is also at an all time low.
Perhaps it’s the current system of justice that has been too slow to adapt to the quickly changing world, that we as a society we need to compensate; perhaps it’s our own hubris that we think we know better than the experts.
It is no secret that social media is full of individuals who are quick to give their legal opinion, without being lawyers. What makes matters worse, is that there are also actual lawyers who are quick to give their legal conclusions without being Judges.
It is important to remember that we all need to take a moment when we look at any allegations made in the court of public opinion; we need to remain vigilant and yet hold a degree of skepticism of both allegations and refutations.
We are currently in an era of instant gratification, and a time where everyone has a platform to shout their message from. It would do everyone well to understand where the messages they choose to follow are coming from, and recognize the biases therein.
#CancelCulture has been missing the mark. Often times both sides of the disagreement get lost in the minuscule details and lose track of what the actual point is, and double-standards often arise to protect the cognitive-bias we build around our camps.
When it stops being about the people effected, and it starts becoming about the message someone is trying to push, one needs to take a step back and evaluate.
We need to learn from the history we have already walked; we need to stop exiling and burning witches. If we truly want society to improve, if we truly want an end to what movements like #MeToo are looking to end, we need to look at ways to rehabilitate, instead of ways to destroy.
It’s time to stop feeding into the hysteria. It’s time for the trials to finally come to an end.