We like to think that human civilisation advances and learns from history. To some degree that happens. However, it is uncanny how often the mistakes of history are repeated albeit in different ways and for different reasons. All the while those involved will deny any similarity with events of the past.
You will need to stay with me whilst some history is revisited.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 are remembered and still studied today because of the lessons we can draw from them. In summary, a group of young girls claimed to have been possessed by the devil and accused certain women of witchcraft. Some of these girls displayed symptoms for which doctors had no answer. The community was fearful and hysteria grew.
Over a few months some 19 people were hanged, seven died in jail and 150 were accused. Some of the accused confessed and named others so as to deflect attention from themselves. The process was driven by fear of others and suspicions of neighbours.
Not everyone went along. Respected Minister Cotton Mather warned of the dubious value of spectral evidence (that of dreams and visions). His father, Harvard College President Increase Mather believed standards of evidence for witchcraft needed to be equal to any other crime saying; “It would better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.”
The crisis waned and the special court that had been established was dissolved by the Governor and in May 1693 all those still in jail on witchcraft charges were pardoned. In 1697 the trials were deemed unlawful and in 1711 all those convicted were pardoned and restitution provided to their heirs.
Arthur Miller dramatized these events in his book “The Crucible” in 1953, which was designed to demonstrate how McCarthyism was not different to a witch-hunt. All that was needed to bring someone down was the accusation that they were a communist. No proof was needed.
Brendan O’Neill writes on Spiked about events in 1955 “… a woman called Carolyn Bryant Donham accused a young man of sexual harassment. He grabbed her by the wrist and said ‘How about it baby?’ she said. He wolf-whistled at her, she claimed. Everyone in her local community believed her, uncritically, and instantly. ‘I believe.’ They went after her harasser, tied him to the back of a truck, and then beat him to death in a barn. His name was Emmet Till.
Today of course we are much more civilised. We would not burn people at the stake, or convene a lynch mob to kill someone because of allegations. And surely careers would not be destroyed because of allegations.
I don’t watch House of Cards and express no opinion as to whether or not Kevin Spacey may or may not have inappropriately touched someone 30 years ago. We also know that as soon as there are two witnesses to the same event we will have two varying recollections.
No allegation of rape has been made. If, and I repeat if, he has touched someone in an inappropriate manner then an apology would be a reasonable response. Maybe, and I am not convinced, but maybe some small restitution could be made.
Yet with nothing more than an allegation, his TV show has been axed an award that he was to receive has been cancelled. Can anyone point out what basis this has been done on other than an allegation? There has been no trial and no evidence presented.
Increase Harvard said in 1692 “It would better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.” This principle has not changed. It is about time the Twitter mob that claim to be Social Justice Warriors remembered this.
Today we condemn people on social media. Careers are destroyed just like in the times of McCarthy. The driver is the same as in Salem in 1692-fear of others and hysteria.
People who make allegations absolutely deserve to be heard, but do not warrant automatic belief for any reason other than that they have made an allegation. Making an accusation is extremely easy. And yes, people do make stuff up!
Our justice systems are not perfect but they were developed so that independent inquiry could determine whether a crime or unlawful act had been committed. The claim of “He did it” is not grounds to convict anyone of anything.
I will give the last word to Brendan O’Neill. Emmet Till “was a victim of uncritical belief in people who make accusations of sexual harassment. Crying ‘I believe’ in response to every accusation of a sexual crime isn’t progressive; it’s a species of savagery.
If people want us to believe that an individual has behaved criminally, they will need to convince us beyond reasonable doubt”
Dr Joe Kosterich MBBS is an author, speaker, media presenter and health industry consultant, who wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life. Dr Joe also gives practical, motivational health talks for the general public and organisations where he is known as “An independent doctor who talks about health”. His latest book “60 minutes to Better Health” is available on Amazon.