Hocus Pocus: Modern-Day Manifestations of Witch Hunts

Sherwin, Brie D. | November 20, 2023

Witch hunts have never been about facts or evidence; rather they are about beliefs often fueled by fear. Witch hunts of the past persecuted the powerless – typically women or those who did not fit into “societal norms.” More recently, the term “witch hunt” has reappeared with great fervor in the political arena, used by the powerful to generate fear that serves a distinct political narrative that those in power are the true victims. Tweets, sound bites, and political speeches rife with accusations of a “witch hunt” reflect a modern usage which has served to delegitimize the historical context of the term. This Article argues that this modern use of the term “witch hunt” is a misappropriation of what has long been used to describe illegitimate hunts of marginalized groups of people, implicating roles of gender, race, and power. This misuse is happening all while subversive, carefully veiled witch hunts are occurring in cleverly disguised legislation and litigation, supported by anecdotes and “spectral” evidence, and aimed at affecting the rights of historically oppressed groups of people based on their gender and race. This Article aims to remind the reader of what a “witch hunt” looked like in colonial New England and to propose that witch hunts are still alive today – not in the political arena, but in the legal one. Law cannot stand on conspiracy theories or perversions of truth shaped to fit a narrative, fueling fear, and resulting in the need to find a scapegoat. For as we’ve seen in the Salem witch trials, without a legal system rooted in reliable evidence and based on verifiable facts, a society can crumble.