Witch-Hunting: Why Everything Becoms Fuel

(This is a reprint from my Medium blog, while I edit the new book. I felt it was worth stating here.)

One of the first things a witch-hunter learns is that a witch-hunt is very much like a fire. Perhaps you already have the conditions and tools to get it light; perhaps it even starts with an existing blaze, something big and crackling and scary that attracts attention.

And witch-hunts are, in essence, a fear of the dark. I don’t mean that poetically. I mean the premise of any witch-hunt is:

“There are those among us who profess to be like us, but secretly, they’re monsters. We need to get rid of them, because we’re unsafe until we do so.”

Because if they’re visible enemies, it’s not a hunt, it’s a war. If someone stands up and says, “I am here to do you harm!” — then, if you oppose that person, it’s a fight. Witch-hunts are defined by the fact that you are accusing someone of planning, in secret, to hurt you — when someone says, “I do not mean you harm, I am not your enemy, I am one of you, I am a friend, I am an ally”, and the witch-hunter replies, “No; you’re secretly a monster.”

It’s not that there’s never such a thing as a hidden enemy; it’s not that every hunt for secret malefactors is a witch-hunt. (Bank robbers do not wear t-shirts saying, “Hi, I rob banks”; people running nonprofits with the goal of taking the money for themselves do not send out donor letters saying, “I asked you for money to feed the hungry with the intention of using your dough to buy a fancy car; they just raised the prices on Ferraris, so please send more checks”.) But there are a number of characteristics of witch-hunts which are less often employed by sincere attempts to avoid harm. To give a few examples, with-hunts are notable for using weak proof to justify harsh penalties; for practicing guilt-by-association; for punishing criticism; for preferring to attack hiddenhypothetical enemies over visible, serious, known enemies — and for being deeply, intensely cannibalistic.

And that brings us back to the fire. I’m going to use the fire metaphor a lot in these discussions. It’s partly because fire is a well-known tool of witch-hunts — book-burnings, witch-burnings, temple-burnings, to name just a few — and partly because, with one major exception, it’s a pretty good metaphor.

Because witch-burners want a big, bright fire. Looking at a fire makes you night-blind; that’s great for those who want to deepen the aforementioned fear of the dark. The bigger your fire, the more people can hear its sound, see its light, feel its heat; and the more power is in the hands of those who build and maintain that fire. Fire is one of humanity’s first and most basic tools; and we still know it as important to survival. And fires are hungry; they need fuel, or they get smaller, and burn down.

And in my mind, that’s perhaps the most critical place where the metaphor breaks down. Because real fires are fueled by objects which are reasonably dry and have a reasonably low flash point — firewood, say. A person who feeds a fire could get hurt by it, could even die in that fire, but it won’t do that fire a lot of good.

Witch-burning fires are fueled by “those who are called witches”.

And that could be anyone.

And once you run out of easy outside targets, witch-hunters start throwing each other into the fire.

It’s natural.

Being good at witch-hunting means being good at spotting secret enemies. And the more you look for anything, the more you will see it. Did you know that the number five is everywhere? It is. Take some time today looking for the number five; I bet you’ll see it in more places than you thought. It could be part of the time on your screen, or a number on a receipt; you could have five of a piece of fruit on your counter, you could suddenly realize how often it’s on license plates. Sure, it was always already there, but if you try hard to look for it, you will notice it more often. (Sound obvious? It is. Now imagine someone who’s decided that a certain set of symptoms tend to indicate the presence of a witch. Unsurprisingly, that person will start seeing those symptoms all the time. The existence of confirmation bias is pretty well-proven at this point.

And what all these things mean is that the more successful a witch-hunt is, the more cannibalistic it becomes. The more you “prove” that there are witches everywhere, the easier it becomes to believe that there’s a witch right next to you. The more people who believe this, the more some of them will start spotting witches in their own midst. Witch-hunts tend to insist that those who are not with the witch-hunt are witches. This really helps the size of your hunt grow, since it ups the stakes pretty hard. And once you’ve established that witches are everywhere, then it’s impossible to believe that your own group is free of witches. The more you establish that witches are everywhere, that they’re devious, that they hide, that the most seemingly-virtuous person could be a witch…

…the more those who lead the witch-hunt become potential fuel for the fire. And they know it — consciously or otherwise. They know that if there aren’t external enemies, people will look for internal enemies.

And that’s just assuming that everyone in that group of humans has sincere, positive intentions. And the larger your group gets, the more that’s unlikely. There are ambitious, unscrupulous people in the world. And if you live in a situation where very little proof is needed, and very few denials will be heeded, all it takes is one person who starts to whisper.

It’s much worse, though. The ugly undercurrent comes into existence of its own accord. Have you ever been a part of any organization which was free of rumours? I doubt it. Rumours are a part of human communication. And they’re not fatal — until and unless you live in a world where rumours can become accusations in the blink of an eye.

Got an ex-boss, an ex-spouse, an ex-friend, an ex-member of your model train society? That person doesn’t have to be evil or malicious in order to dislike you. And in ordinary circumstances, that’s normal; we accept that, after a divorce, sometimes people are amicable, and sometimes people hate each other’s guts. It doesn’t mean that one or both parties is suddenly a monster; just that the ending of most human relationships is painful.

Witch-hunting organizations are based on the belief that the world is full of secret enemies.

Witch-hunting organizations need to keep finding new enemies, or they die off.

I don’t pity any witch-hunter or former witch-hunter, myself included. But I’ll offer a warning to those who haven’t already realized it:

The fire that warms you today will consume you tomorrow.

~Jeff Mach


My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. I also tweet a lot over @darklordjournal.

I write books. You should read them