As I have previously written, a UK history teacher was recently subjected to a Twitter public shaming event – a witch-hunt – because a lesson he shared on North American history drew disapproval. This was despite the lesson being written to the requirements of the English exam board that sets the exams the teacher was preparing students for i.e. he hadn’t come up with his own unique take on the matter. Initially, the teacher sought dialogue, but this is impossible in a witch-hunt because he was soon overwhelmed. Eventually, he locked his Twitter account.
I recently became aware of an excellent article that charts the path of witch-hunts of this kind and offers advice on how to fight them. Essentially, it is a long game and the way you eventually win is by demonstrating that you are more rational than the hunters.
As is often the case, the witch-hunt operated on two levels. Some screamed abuse at the teacher while others attempted to project the image that their participation was just polite questioning and that they were simply there so that others could benefit from their expertise. A witch-hunt is not a natural forum for education and so we should treat such claims with due scepticism.
At one point, the teacher was accused of holding seemingly contradictory views. In this instance, it was held that he thought that Native Americans had not been subjected to a genocide at the same time as thinking there were no native Americans left. Unless there was some third factor involved, and nobody alleges this teacher thinks there was a third factor involved, it is hard to reconcile both viewpoints. It was not clear to me that there is strong evidence the teacher holds such views. As far as I am aware, he wasn’t asked whether that’s what he believed to be true. It also seemed unlikely anyone would hold two such contradictory positions at the same time.
It felt a lot like the villagers in this Monty Python sketch who put a fake nose and hat on a woman and then declare this as evidence she is a witch.
Rather than row back from the contradiction, admit one claim was wrong and focus on the other, there was a doubling down.
Another feature of witch-hunts is that the hunters, secure in their righteousness, tend to reverse the burden of proof. After making various allegations, they do not see it as their duty to provide evidence for these allegations but the duty of the victim, or anyone who questions the validity of the witch-hunt, to prove the allegations false. When challenged, the polite experts tended to respond that they were not here to do the work for their ignorant questioners. To his credit, one expert did produce some sources that he claimed showed that it was common for people to believe the two contradictory things he alleged the teacher believed, although having read them, I am not convinced.
At one point, the situation descended into a surreal inversion. A new person popped into the timeline to suggest that the hunters had definitely justified their allegations because they had provided documentary evidence and then later demanded that we point to these allegations because she did not have the time to find them herself.
There is clearly something pythonesque about this. It must be hard, when full of righteous moral outrage, to step back from yourself and coolly observe your own behaviour. I’m just putting it out there so that others can see how this kind of thing works. Hopefully, with time, engaging in Twitter witch-hunts will result in moral opprobrium, just as we now view McCarthy’s 1950s hunt for communists, and people will hesitate before doing so. Until then, all we can do is stay rational and expose the inherent absurdities of authoritarian moral crusaders who deny due process and invert the burden of proof.