Witch Hunt! How Writers Used Misogynistic Language to Redefine the Victims and Villains of #MeToo

We’ve all seen them — the plethora of articles about men’s feelings in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. For every piece written on how #MeToo has affected women, there’s now two on how men feel about it, if it’s made them rethink their sexual habits, if they’re afraid their exploits as young men will get them fired as old men, if they’re concerned innocent men are being accused, if it makes them angry or uncomfortable, and if it’s all “gone too far”.

The Language of Spin

Words are powerful, and so is point-of-view. From the first word, these authors changed the narrative by changing the perspective. Suddenly, the victims became villains and perpetrators- pushy women, blinded by hatred of men, forcing these innocent souls to live in a brave new world they neither condone nor understand. The guilty then become victims of the wicked political correctness police state, their very livelihoods sometimes at stake.

Readers who are students of history, criminal justice, writing, linguistics, racism, or are just familiar with the character assassination that is de rigeur during most rape trials, will probably not too be shocked by this protagonist/antagonist flip-flop. The antagonists re-framed the story, and the media let them do it.

More than half the articles have the same, or a subtly altered title, titles which imply the answer in the question, such as “Has #MeToo Gone Too Far?” or are meant to garner sympathy for the accused, such as “What Do Men Do Now?” All use misogynistic language to send the clear message that women — indeed society — is wildly out of control.

These articles all contain a very specific vernacular that goes to histrionic heights, comparing a women’s rights movement to Salem witch hunts, McCarthyism, the Terror of the French Revolution, and one article even compared the movement to Nazi Germany. Make no mistake, these words are intended to send a message, both direct and subliminal. The terms which also appear with alarming frequency are those with gender-specific etymology meant to enforce the feminization of insanity, suggesting women are simply crazy, such as “lunatic”, “mania”, and “hysterical.” Other terms, such as innocent and innocuous, often appear in male-viewpoint #MeToo articles.

With or without any specific title, the theme of these articles is always the same — “what do men do now?!” implies “what do the REAL victims do now”?

But if the accused are victims, what are they victims of?

The Short Version of the Long History of Witch Hunts

While the term “witch-hunt” itself only dates to 1885, the majority of witch hunts took place in Europe between 1400 and 1800. Persecution picked up after Jacob Sprenger published Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) in in 1487. The book also set the standard for witchy behavior including the slaughter of babies and wild sex in the forest with the devil (if you’re thinking this sounds more like one guy’s fantasy weekend than a reference book, you’re not alone).

During this time, as many as 60,000 women were brutally murdered for the crime, which often ended in burning or hanging, but first featured such torture as having thumbs or breasts cut off, as well as months of mental torture to induce confession. Men and children have also been charged, and the Salem witch trials in 1692 America, which claimed the lives of thirteen women, also claimed two men, but it was largely a crime believed to be committed by women.

The term itself carries the heavy baggage of hundreds of years of the most brutal, violent, and hateful form of misogyny — the desire to kill women, especially those in the way or those are who are non-cooperative sexually. Admittedly, the term has expanded greatly over the centuries, and now has metonyms, such as “McCarthyism”, but has never lost its misogynistic roots, nor is it possible to ever separate the term from a misogynistic message. It never fails to summon imagery of women out of control.

The Articles

There are far too many to mention them all, but below are a smattering:

“There’s nothing inflammatory or insensitive, or even conservative or liberal, about fearing a modern day Salem”, writes the New York Post Editorial board in the February 10, 2018, article “When The“MeToo Movement Goes Too Far”, immediately evoking the imagery of women out of control and lives lost.

The article focuses on supporting Trump’s quote, “People’s lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” Obviously, every American should care deeply about due process and protecting the innocent. However, the article then proceeds to congratulate Lena Dunham for defending her friend (writer Murray Miller) from rape charges, but neglects to mention Ms. Dunham was forced to apologize when the allegations were proven true. Given its history, it may be no wonder the New York Post got the moral of the story wrong — it’s not how many times #MeToo allegations have proven false that’s shocking, but how many times they’ve been proven true.

September 23, 2018, they published Karol Markowicz’s “Now #MeToo is Coming For Your Thought Crimes” which takes issue with the backlash against Ian Buruma, the former editor of The New York Review of Books, when he published an article by Jian Ghomeshi, in which Ghomeshi attempted to excuse his behavior. Ghomeshi is a man accused of the sexual assault of over 20 women. While Ghomeshi was acquitted of one of the crimes in court, he seems to openly admit guilt of some kind in his printed essay in which he states, “And at some point, when it came to women, I began to use my liberal gender studies education as a cover for my own behavior. I was ostensibly so schooled in how sexism works that I would arrogantly give myself a free pass.” Meanwhile, Markowicz relates in tear-wringing detail the “helplessness, shame, and fear” he felt after being accused.

Markowicz bemoans the backlash against Buruma as equating thought with deed, while ignoring the long ugly history of powerful men standing up for powerful men, no matter what deed they committed, including rape. This type of behavior makes it virtually impossible to prove sexual assault in court, where women often need witnesses (and male witnesses at that) to a crime committed in private. The day before, The New York Post published “#MeToo Has Morphed Into a Career-Destroying Angry Mob”, which likewise takes issue with backlash against defenders of those who commit sexual assault.

The Guardian’s “Michael Haneke: #MeToo has led to a witch hunt ‘coloured by a hatred of men’” is another article that doesn’t even attempt to hide its histrionic language. The article quotes the Australian filmmaker as saying, “This new puritanism coloured by a hatred of men, arriving on the heels of the #MeToo movement, worries me,” he said. “As artists, we’re starting to be fearful since we’re faced with this crusade against any form of eroticism.” Damage to the lives and careers of women in the film industry who have been assaulted apparently don’t merit mention. He’s not the first or the last man to suggest the #MeToo movement is anti-sex. If anything, this demonstrates total confusion, if not willful ignorance, on the part of some writers to understand the very concept of consensual sex.

Andrew Sullivan’s “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #Me Too” in The Daily Intelligencer discusses a movement to defend women’s safety in much the same terminology Napoleon used to discuss The Terror of the French Revolution. He describes the movement as “mania”, and states “But I’ll tell you what’s also brave at the moment: to resist this McCarthyism, to admit complexity…to defend sex itself, and privacy, and to rely on careful reporting to expose professional malfeasance.” In Sullivan’s defense, he took the subtler path, referring to #MeToo as “McCarthyism”, rather than a straight up witch trial, though the message is the same: the brave ones are not the women who come forward at great risk to themselves to state what was done to them, it’s those who put possible damage to men’s reputations above everything else, including women’s safety.

The Washington Examiner’s “Danish Psychologist Compares #MeToo Movement with Nazi Gestapo”, on the other hand, eschews subtlety of any kind. While author Nicole Russell is careful to include this line, “While it certainly doesn’t seem like America’s #MeToo movement looks anything like a Gestapo…”, it’s also clear she basically agrees with the psychologist’s premise. Lines like, “That a columnist living in one of the most progressive parts of the world would say this speaks volumes for the trajectory of the #MeToo movement here in the United States” make clear the extreme territory the writer is wading into is perfectly comfortable for her.

And what makes this particular psychologist qualified to compare a woman’s rights movement to the Third Reich? He’s Scandinavian, a culture which has traditionally been more concerned with equality than America. That’s it. That’s the only reason. The psychologist, Finn Korsaa, frames #MeToo as offensive feminism rooting out and demonizing masculinity, to which the author comments “Of course Korsaa would be intimately familiar with this concept of extreme equality, given his geographical location.” This article, which comfortably mixes sexism with anti-Semitism, is hardly alone in discriminating against more than one minority.

No article however more clearly plays musical chairs with victims and villains than John Hockenberry’s “Exile” in the October 2018 Harper’s. Hockenberry recounts the loss of his radio show in the face of multiple allegations of sexual harassment and racism. His rambling 7,000-word defense includes everything from a well-worn reference to the French Revolution (a witch hunt metonym had to be in there somewhere), to a comparison between himself and composers of the Romantic era (echoing other publications which have framed defense of sexual assault as defense of romance and sex itself).

No other personal #MeToo essay has quite as many words, or quite as much nerve. At one point, Hockenberry even suggests he educate women on how to talk about sex in the future, stating “I hope that in offering some kind of context for my misfortunes I can also provide a basis for the beginning of a constructive conversation about sexuality in the twenty-first century”, and you can hear collective eyes rolling with the line, “Had I not been accused of being a sexual harasser I doubt I would have ever looked into the emotional life of Brahms.”

For the record, he doesn’t deny the behavior so much as reframe it as awkward attempts to flirt. But the most astounding moment is when he states, “Even if I conceded the worst possible view of my own behavior, #MeToo does not seem to consider the effect my being tossed out onto an iceberg has on my five children, especially my three daughters….” In this way, he literally accuses his victims of doing the same thing to his daughters that he did to the accusers. In case victims did not suffer from enough guilt, now they are also supposed to worry about the effect their allegations may have on women in the life of their assailant. How much responsibility does he bear for this effect? None that he mentions.

It Was Innocuous Anyway

The word “innocuous” is repeated many times in male-viewpoint articles about #MeToo. In fact, a Google search revealed the terms “#MeToo” and “innocuous” together brought up 31,800 hits. There’s a reason for that. “Innocuous” means innocent, accidental- a mere trifle, if you will. Along with “innocent” the word “innocuous” also means “unimportant.”

The implication of the use of this term in so many articles, of course, is that while these men’s activities were innocuous, the consequences were not. In this crazy new world women have created, how is any man to know right from wrong?

Not for the first time, we’re asked to believe as women these perpetrators did not really understand they were doing something wrong when they harassed, touched, propositioned, imposed, illegally fired, raped, assaulted, and tormented women for most of their lives. #MeToo may be a modern movement, but the implication that women are lying, exaggerating, or being unreasonable in their allegations of sexual violence is old as time itself.

Language is a tool, and it can be an effective, and sometimes dangerous, one in the hands of those who know how to wield it.

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