Sunday, June 10, 2012

Witch-Burning: A Question of Tolerance?

In this post, I don't mean "witch" to refer to a Wiccan, but to someone who actually puts curses on virgins, poisons wells, and so on. I mean no offense to neo-Pagans, precisely because they don't do any of these things.

I am a firm supporter of burning witches, and I refuse to tolerate them. Let me explain.

The Salem witch-trials seem to be obvious evidence of the religious intolerance of the Puritans. Their determination to hang witches marks them as narrow-minded and religiously tyrannical, and gives us cause to triumphantly dismantle the myth that our country is founded on religious freedom.

This intolerance wasn't restricted to small-town New England: a horrific and often-forgotten part of our history is the witch-hunt that swept Europe in the Early Modern period. Over two centuries, tens of thousands of innocent people were put to death for witchcraft. And in modern Africa, innumerable innocent men and women have been murdered, "exorcised", and thrown out of their homes for allegedly committing witchcraft. Clearly, narrow-mindedness has had deadly consequences.

But the solution to this is not to tolerate witchcraft, because the problem is not, in fact, a lack of tolerance. It's a problem of bad science. There's no such thing as witchcraft, after all, so anyone who's ever been put to death for witchcraft has been innocent. That's not to say, though, that if someone had actually committed the crime she was accused of, she wouldn't have deserved the punishment. That's why I can't say in good conscience that I tolerate witchcraft, because if I ever met a real witch, I would want her dead. But witches don't exist, so witch-trials shouldn't either.

The sign doesn't say, "witches deserve equal treatment."
Accordingly, much of the historical opposition to witch-trials has appropriately come in the form of denying the existence of witchcraft, not in opposing witch-burnings in principle. As Increase Mather put it, "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned." Still, to Mather, those ten suspected witches deserved the fate that they escaped. Similarly, Abraham pleaded with God to save Sodom, not because he thought that the Sodomites deserved mercy, but because he thought that there actually were good people in the city. (For a similar reason, I oppose the death penalty only on the grounds that it's nearly impossible to prove guilt to what I think is the required standard. That doesn't mean a murderer doesn't deserve to die.)

The same goes for metaphorical witch-hunts. The problem with McCarthyism, for instance, is not that it was intolerant of Communists. Citizens who actively promoted the overthrow of the government, I think, actually did deserve to be socially ostracized, even if legal punishment was unconstitutional; and spies who turned secrets over to the Soviets deserved to be executed.
Rather, anti-Communist programs were unjust insofar as they ignored evidence and accused innocent people of crimes that they didn't commit. If McCarthy had used proper standards of evidence and been more than occasionally and accidentally right, he would have been justified.

When, then, is tolerance appropriate? We should tolerate people as long as we don't have a moral objection to their conduct. Sacrificial slaughter, even though it seems weird to outsiders, is something that we ought to get over, at least as long as we kill cows in slaughterhouses. Female genital mutilation, by contrast, should not be tolerated, because of its horrible effect on its victims' lives. So tolerance should only extend to differences that, crucially, do not carry moral weight. We should tolerate Wiccans but not witches.

In short: if we're falsely accusing people of immoral actions, the solution is not to tolerate the action but to stop believing the accusation.

Thanks to my brother Ben for giving me the inspiration for this post.

(By the way, a similar principle holds in Shylock's case. As I mentioned in my last post, if we want to take a stand against anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice, we should not say "Shylock's evil is an understandable response to oppression" but "almost no Jews are like Shylock.")

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