There has been an ongoing thing among people attending skeptic conferences (and people reading about them) about inappropriate behavior towards women. I have not managed to follow the entire saga, but even what I have followed is too much to reasonably sum-up. The original furor began over something that Rebecca Watson said that sent out wildfires every which way for no readily apparent reason; the latest round seems to be here.

The saga as a whole is a touch above my pay grade, but I do periodically take an interest in the way certain words are used or misused in the English language.  Which is not to say that I think English deserves any sort of respect or is even a real language.  But it is noteworthy to see people rely on historical ignorance to craft inappropriate analogies for the purpose of emotional appeal.

At certain points in the history of (mostly western) civilization it has been fashionable to hunt witches. We look back on these episodes with a certain amount of embarrassment, so much so that ‘witch hunt’ is regarded almost universally as a negative descriptor. It has become an easy counter to any sort of attack on an individual or small group’s behavior by a larger group. We don’t want to have a witch hunt, we should be embarrassed that what we were doing might be construed that way.

Except one thing. It seems like a stupidly obvious detail when you notice it, but somehow it almost always gets left out when people start crying ‘witch hunt’.

Witches are not real.

Way cerebral, I know. Just give it a minute to sink in.

The reason that we are embarrassed of witch hunts is that witches are not real; many of the crimes they were accused of are mostly impossible, so we know that our ancestors executed innocent people in horrible ways. Crimes like psychically torturing people or transforming people into animals. Some of the crimes were possible but extraordinarily unlikely, like eating babies or poisoning wells, so we’re pretty sure that our ancestors killed even more innocent people than just the provably innocent ones. That is the reason we are embarrassed of witch hunts.

Now suspend disbelief for just a moment- suppose someone were actually going around poisoning wells and psychically torturing villagers. This seems like exactly the sort of person we ought to hunt. We might still consider burning them alive beyond the pale, but if they are actually guilty we should at least hunt them down and put them in jail so that they stop murdering and torturing people. That seems non-controversial. If an actual well-poisoning, villager-torturing person were to be hunted by an actual mob of villagers, it would not meet the modern definition of ‘witch hunt’.

Actual people have made actual threats of rape and other forms of violence to actual women in the Freethought/Skeptic community. Rebecca Watson is one of these actual women. There have been actual cases of harassment. These are not impossible or even improbable offenses. Many have been committed in public. To say that, as a community, people attending skeptic-themed events need to crack down on such behavior is not to call for a witch hunt. It is reasonable. It is non-controversial.

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