Psychology of Political Witch Hunts

Witch hunts have not ceased; they are increasing. So the thinking Christian conservative must understand the mass psychology of these vitriolic movements.

Witch hunts were popular in Robespierre’s France and Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China. This alone gives us a few clues. In fact, the similarities between the Salem witch trials and the French Revolution have been clarified by scholars. But for clarity’s sake, we turn to A.J. Bergeson, who developed a model for understanding the nature and method of political witch hunts (of which, the Salem incident also fits). 

First characteristic; they explode quickly and violently. Yet the anger and hatred displayed makes no sense to outsiders. Sociologists and historians believe the cause of this violent purging is either a response due to external threats or a severe lack of internal cohesion and unity. As A.J. Bergerson explains:

Witch-hunts seem to appear in dramatic outbursts; they are not a regular feature of social life. A community seems to suddenly find itself infested with all sorts of subversive elements which pose a threat to the collectivity as a whole. Whether one thinks of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the Stalinist Show Trials, or the McCarthy period in the United States, the phenomenon is the same: a community becomes intensely mobilized to rid itself of internal enemies.

Political witch hunts never could be a viable and sustainable option. Order and stability are necessary if a community will continue to subsist, let alone thrive. The paranoid psychology of political witch-hunts exists in short bursts of erratic moments, seemingly from nowhere.

The second characteristic; the accusations are always made against the collective. A.J. Bergerson again explains:

The various charges that appear during one of these witch-hunts involve accusations of crimes committed against the nation as a corporate whole. It is the whole of collective existence that is at stake; it is The Nation, The People, The Revolution, or The State which is being undermined or subverted.

Witch hunts involve crimes against the collective, crimes against The People, thus, they take on a much greater significance — a national or global importance. Further, crimes against humanity are convenient, since there are none who can forgive or have mercy, and anyone can press charges. Specific people, in contrast, have a right to drop all charges.

The third trait of these mass movements of hysteria; falsehood and insignificance. The accusations made against The People, or Humanity, are always either false or unimportant. Bergerson notes:

These crimes and deviations seem to involve the most petty and insignificant behavioral acts which are somehow understood as crimes against the nation as a whole. In fact, one of the principal reasons we term these events ‘witch-hunts’ is that innocent people are so often involved falsely accused.

Cultural revolutions depend on witch-hunts to propel them to success. The cultural revolution needs scapegoats to crush. Just as virtue signalling and moral posturing is a public signal to the world, likewise with witchhunts — only on a mass scale. 

It seems that witch hunts are more suited for postmodernism than modernism. Why? Because modernism emphasizes facts over narratives, whereas postmodernism emphasizes narratives over facts. Modernism emphasizes connotations over denotations; fuzzy feelings over precise truth; the reality we want instead of the reality we have.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt add a fourth characteristic of political witch-hunts. Namely, the refusal to defend the innocent. They explain:

When a public accusation is made, many friends and bystanders know that the victim is innocent, but they are afraid to say anything. Anyone who comes to the defense of the accused is obstructing the enactment of a collective ritual. Siding with the accused is truly an offense to the group, and it will be treated as such. If passion and fears are intense enough, people will even testify against their friends and family members.

We are reminded of Hitler’s Germany, where children would turn in their own parents, of Stalin’s Russia where Nikolai Yezhov became an unperson, and of the social justice movement where people are guilty before any evidence is considered. 

The social justice movement fits the description well enough, and especially in its more radical moments. 

Social justice accuses those who have been blessed with prosperity by God of crimes against The Poor — stealing, exploiting, and robbing them. And all too often, these accusations are quite false. Another way in which a person can be ‘guilty’ of a so-called social injustice is by simply being a part of the system, participating in the tax system, for example. Yet, if a man really does share in some guilt by perpetuating an unjust system, then this is a supreme example of a trivial form of injustice.

And social justice has a history of runaway mob psychology. This is shown by a social justice mob canceling a book over alleged racism in the word ‘eating,’ and other stories.

Political witch hunts will continue to grow; postmodernism and social justice show trials will grow. At least the Christian conservative understands the psychology and characteristics to recognize the social typhoon when it happens. 

Daniel Mason

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Daniel Mason studied theology in his undergrad, and currently pursuing graduate studies, with a particular interest in the Dutch statesman, Groen van Prinsterer. Daniel Mason is the co-founder of The Reformed Conservative.

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