Skip to main content
editorial

It's ironic about the phrase "witch-hunt."

It has become associated with the backlash against the #MeToo movement – most recently thanks to the French actress Catherine Deneuve, who last week signed an open letter accusing women who are outing male sexual harassers of acting like the Puritans of old.

Woody Allen, too, notoriously used the phrase this fall to describe the risks men might face in a post-Harvey Weinstein world. Countless others followed suit.

It's ironic because the term could not be more misapplied. It isn't just that the present moment of sexual reckoning isn't a witch-hunt. It's that it's the opposite.

Real, historical witch-hunts were the #MeToo movement inverted. They often consisted of communities trying to police the behaviour and sexuality of women in their midst. Widows, spinsters and teenage girls were suspected of deviant sexual power because they were unmarried, and thus unmastered. Men sought to exert control over them.

In 17th-century New England, Mr. Weinstein would have been the hunter, not the witch.

The phenomenon was, and is, much more widespread than our Salem-haunted culture allows. A "witch craze" gripped all of Europe from 1400 to 1800, a period that saw some 110,000 trials for witchcraft, with a conviction rate of about 50 per cent, the British historian Malcolm Gaskill noted recently.

These misogynist pogroms continue in the developing world today. About 150 "witches" are killed every year in Papua New Guinea, for example. Gruesome images of the tortured women are sometimes uploaded to social media.

Yes, the phrase has become an idiom, divorced from its historical context, and normally it makes a perfectly good shorthand for "politically motivated dirt-digging." And yes, it is right to worry about the momentum of the movement hurting innocent parties.

But just as any politician accused of racism should not decry his "lynching," perhaps critics of the #MeToo movement should avoid using rhetoric that reminds listeners who is the more hunted.

Interact with The Globe