Is anyone offended by the phrase ‘witch hunt’?

witch-hunt-imageThe other day I used the term ‘witch hunt,’ and afterwards I was like, huh, I wonder if anyone is offended by this phrase?

I know that there are other such phrases that offend people. I’ve heard pushback with regards to “trail of tears” and “death march.” And, of course, if you use “lynch” or “lynching” to refer to anything other than the extra-judicial execution of a person, for a perceived crime, by a mob, then you’re just asking to get called out (or ‘called in’ as my friends are saying now).

I’ve never heard of anyone taking offense to ‘witch hunt,’ and my hasty googling revealed nothing, but it’s certainly something that a person could, conceivably, find offensive. Like, the world has witches. They often perceive themselves to be a persecuted religious minority. Talking about how there’s “The internet is staging a witch hunt to find people who misuse the term ‘witch hunt,'” might possibly be very offensive to someone.

I think that all these social justice conversations don’t really work unless you believe people about the depth and enormity of their pain. Sometimes it’s hard for me to do that, since I’m only really offended by terms that are already consensus not-okay. For instance, calling something “gay.” Offensive. But the number of times I’ve heard someone say that since becoming an adult is very small. I’m not really on the cutting edge of taking offense at terms. But I do make an effort to believe people. So if someone were to chime in and be like. “never say ‘witch hunt’ ever again!” then I would probably make an attempt. There’d have to be a few reminders, though. I’ve been trying for years to stop saying ‘lame’ and have yet to quite manage it. If once in my life someone in real life had been like, “Rahul, it really hurts me when you say that,” then the experience probably would’ve been so scarring that I’d have never said it again. But since at the moment this is a taboo that, for me, exists only as a result of conversation on the Internet, there’s something vaguely unreal about it.

Although, actually, maybe I don’t say ‘lame’ on the internet? At least I’m not seeing any hits for it on my blog. So maybe there’s a certain amount of code-switching going on. I don’t say the word on the internet, where I know there’s a chance someone will give me shit for it, even though I do say it in real life.

2 Comments on “Is anyone offended by the phrase ‘witch hunt’?

  1. IIRC (and I may not) Adam Kirsch made a useful distinction about this. He was criticizing Plath’s “Daddy” on moral grounds, say that the Holocaust belongs not to the realm of myth, but to history, and so we’re not going to view the Holocaust as something you can use rhetorically for hyperbolic rhetorical purposes.

    I think that’s why “Witch Hunt” is more okay than “lynching.” Although witch hunts actually do still happen (I know this because Wikipedia), we associate witch hunts with previous centuries. And we’re detached from moral issues sounding witch hunts, just as we’re pretty detached from the issue of dueling, or the sale of indulgences.

    Looking at evil acts from previous centuries, if we’re no longer concerned about the moral issues that surround those acts, those acts start to feel more like myth and less like history. The genuine suffering that actually happened falls into the background. We think of it as a story.

    So if we describe a cavalcade of Twitter criticisms as a “witch hunt,” it feels more okay than saying it’s a “lynch mob” because we still think about the legacy of racism, whereas we (I mean American liberals) don’t really think about LITERAL witch hunts at all. If I compared a departmental conflict to the Pelopennesian War, no one would get pissed, because even though that war really happened, we don’t view it as relevant to current moral issues. So the fact that the Pelopennesian War matters so much more than a departmental squabble wouldn’t bother us. “It’s like–a metaphor, dude!”

    • Agreed. But isn’t that exactly why people use the term ‘lynch mob’? Because they don’t think about race? And isn’t that exactly why others object to the use of the term?

      My point, though, was that perhaps there is some witch out there who still perceives themselves to be discriminated against (i.e. the victim of a literal witch hunt) and feels that the American mind SHOULD still be alive to the literal possibilities of witch hunts.

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