Moral Panics and Witch Hunts

By Astrid Popovici

In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer writes that “mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” From the Salem Witch Trials to Communist China’s Cultural Revolution to McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee, people can be incredibly cruel to those who dissent from the orthodoxy of the time.  Those who have dared to stand before the mobs of history have been socially ostracized, blacklisted from finding work, ritualistically humiliated, and even killed.   

It would be easy to decry witch hunts as pointless, but they do serve a purpose: building social cohesion by uniting a group against a common enemy, and acting as an outlet for people’s natural impulses towards violence.  With his theory of the scapegoat, Rene Girard explains how ritualistic violence against an innocent victim forms the foundation for the social order and resolves outbursts of mass violence.  So how can you know a witch hunt when you see one?

Sociologist Albert Bergensen notes three features common to most political witch hunts in a 1978 paper.  First, they arise suddenly: in a dramatic outburst, a community becomes intensely motivated to purge internal enemies.  Second, they charge their targets with crimes against the collective.  Third, charges are often trivial or even fabricated: insignificant and petty acts are blown up into crimes against the common good.  In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt add a fourth feature to Bergensen’s three: fear of defending the accused.  Many bystanders know the victim is innocent, but don’t come out against the collective ritual for fear of being punished themselves.  In extreme cases, these bystanders may even join the mob. 

Looking back on past moral panics and witch hunts, it seems obvious that they were often based on fleeting moral fashions, and that the hysteria they created was wildly out of proportion to the problems they attempted to solve.  We can see that in every past era, people believed in things that we now find wrong or even ridiculous.  

But it’s much harder to find the blind spots in our own time.  It’s easy to sit back and analyze the characteristics of moral panics, but caught in the throes of the hunt itself, the participants are true believers in the righteousness of their cause.  The spirit of the mob engulfs them.  In the same way that clothing fashions are hard to recognize while they’re happening, it can be difficult to recognize moral fashions as they spread.  

However, there are things you can do to practice rising above today’s moral fashions and recognizing where our society is mistaken.  One method is to think quantitatively—a disproportionate response to a small problem is a hallmark of moral panic.  For example, would it be logical to implement a measure that kills thousands in response to a problem of ten deaths per year?  Another way to transcend your time is to think about what you can’t say, and why.  How to do that could be a topic for an article all its own, but if you’re interested, I highly recommend Paul Graham’s essay on the topic.