#MeToo: From Salem to Now

Recognizing the problems inherent in the hysteria surrounding the #MeToo campaign, which the media and politicians are heralding as a pivotal moment in our culture, should not require a difficult intellectual exercise.  It was once conventional wisdom gleaned from history.  But given that modern media narratives serve more to reshape history than to appropriately understand and learn from it, perhaps a brief history discussion is in order.  All you have to do is remember the first famous #MeToo campaign to take place in the Americas.

Salem Village, 1692.  Young girls, caught up in the frenzied hysteria of rampant devilry and witchcraft as explanations for the problems plaguing Salem Village, led to the accusation of more than 200 men and women of witchery, leading to the execution of 20 innocent people.  Today, it is generally believed that these young women and the later accusers voiced their accusations for attention, personal gain, or to capture a moment of relevance in a popular wave of accusations that were then-thought “brave” by local religious leaders, who were both the media criers and political leaders of their day.

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson

Myriad lessons were learned from this horrific event.  Chief among these is the realization that there is a distinct problem in weaponizing random accusations of wrongdoing amidst mass hysteria about the rampancy of a peculiar moral evil.  That is, innocent men and women are invariably punished when accusations grow from the passions of a frenzied mob.  In fact, during this event, Increase Mather, then the president of Harvard, was prompted to make a reasoned observation that what would eventually become a famous cliché: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”

The wisdom of this lesson was later applied by John Adams in his defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre of 1770.  In arguing the innocence of the British soldiers amidst an emotional local populace clamoring for their execution, he was prompted to note that “[F]acts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and reason.”

The dichotomy between his approach and that taken the adjudicators in the Salem Witch Trials was not lost on Adams.  Years after the Boston Massacre, he said as much.  “Judgment of Death against those Soldiers,” he wrote, “would have been as foul a stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently.”

This all leads to the inevitable question: if facts can damn an American to a horrible fate, either in legal proceedings or in the public square, shouldn’t the absence of damning facts offer the presumption of innocence? 

This is the point where someone might suggest that testimony is evidence of facts.  Of course, in the legal world, testimony which is many years old is often not admissible in a court outside of very specific crimes, and for good reason.  We call these protections for defendants “statutes of limitations.”  The idea is to ensure that “convictions occur only upon evidence (physical or eyewitness) that has not deteriorated with time.”

In the absence of “physical or eyewitness” evidence, personal testimony also has the tendency to diminish with time, due to a prevalent trait in human nature called “recall bias.”  You see, our brains are wired to “continually rewrite memories, putting present in the past.”  Some studies show that current events can cloud memory, or that some memories might be edited completely, or even that 50% of the memories of a particular event “are completely lost.”   

If personal testimony is unreliable enough to not alone warrant “fact” immediately after an event, it becomes exponentially unreliable years, even decades, hence.  So just imagine the precedent that we accept by allowing that nothing more than personal allegations of sexual assault, harassment, or misconduct is all that is required to discern the facts from allegations in decades-old alleged crimes.  We will find ourselves in a world where every future election amounts to Stalin-esque show trials, held by the media to sway public opinion against whatever morally and politically evil candidate they might wish to smear.  A world where allegations can ruin a man’s career or marriage absent any of the evidence which would be required to reasonably prove any wrongdoing of any kind. 

The simple point is that testimony alone is, and should be, insufficient for acceptance as fact.  Again, this is not a new lesson.  There was ample testimony in Salem regarding the witchery of the accusers’ neighbors, just as there was ample testimony that the British soldiers took an aggressive posture against the colonials in the Boston Massacre.  But there’s an important distinction here which has become generally understood by America’s legal system -- however less observed in the court of public opinion. 

That is, a fact and an allegation are not the same thing.  Facts require evidence deemed sufficient to be considered indisputable.  An allegation is a claim made in the absence of such evidence, and while an allegation certainly might qualify as testimony, that testimony doesn’t necessarily qualify as evidence of facts. 

Some just don’t care about these gargantuan distinctions that the legal world tends to recognize.  The most obvious example might be modern feminist Emily Lindin, who tweeted that she simply is “not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false allegations of sexual assault/harassment allegations.”

She’s riffing on the generally accepted narrative today, that women with #MeToo tales are to be believed without question, absent the facts needed to condemn a person outside the forum of public opinion.  After all, breaking silence, years later, about alleged past incidents of sexual misconduct landed a few high-profile gals on the cover of Time magazine as the “Person of the Year.”  The widespread acceptance of these #MeToo allegations and its narrative, without question or reason informing cultural verdicts, is what makes this an atmosphere of a looming, if not entirely underway, witch hunt.

Seemingly recognizing this, Fox News host Laura Ingraham offered that conservatives “be wary of the lynch mob that you join today” in response to Al Franken and John Conyers’s resignations, “because tomorrow, it could be coming for your husband, your brother, your son, and yes, even your president.”

She’s right.  The left has created a narrative in which child molestation, sexual assault, and potential sexual harassment are all equal signs of the presumed cultural phenomenon of predatory behavior toward women.  A world where a peculiarly remembered unwanted kiss by a 30-year-old man toward an 18-year-old girl, 40 years ago, can serve as evidence to the veracity of claims that he’s a child molester.    

It’s not so much that the left hasn’t gleaned the lessons of history around witch hunts, but that the left happens to currently crave the atmosphere of the witch hunt because they believe themselves to be in control the socio-religious pulpit, and they lack the moral integrity of an Increase Mather or a John Adams to call for reason amidst the cultural hysterics.

Facts should still be stubborn things, and a dearth of convincing facts should still stubbornly presume innocence.  Accused men or women should still be presumed innocent unless it is proven otherwise.  If we lose our grasp on those simple principles because we excitedly get caught up in the zephyr of popular outrage against leftist targets of similar accusations, we cede centuries’ worth of costly-to-win ideological ground.

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.