Witch-hunt image - Brian Dean

"What started as a legitimate effort by the townspeople of Salem to identify, capture and kill those who did Satan's bidding quickly deteriorated into a witch hunt" (from Army Man, a satirical zine)

Global village McCarthyism

"Witch-hunts" may be conducted through various media. The newsreel and TV coverage of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (1947) raised anti-Communist hysteria to a national level. The Internet, on the other hand, through the decentralisation of email and self-publishing, provides means for relatively small but fast-spreading "village" rumour/smear campaigns. Marshall McLuhan's ideas on the "global village" and media "retrieval" of obsolesced social phenomena, etc, seem relevant here, so that's where we begin…

"The medium is the message"

McLuhan's aphorism, "the medium is the message", loses its subtlety when misinterpreted as meaning that content doesn't matter. Content does matter, and a medium can be seen as content – eg the medium of thought as content of speech; the medium of speech as content of radio; radio as content of the web, etc.

Media criticism often describes how content is edited and "framed". In the case of TV, you might experience the framed content in the same way you experience a strong emotion – ie you are captured by it, or lost in it. Stepping back from content requires awareness of different levels of media within media. In terms of "news", low-level "facts" may be accurately recorded, but their selection and framing at a higher level provides a different type of content/medium (eg a "report", editorial content). This, in turn, reflects, but doesn't necessarily reveal, a higher level still (eg a "news" policy for coverage of a given subject).

People generally engage with mid-level content/media – eg TV news reports about "rising crime". The low-level facts may be unremarkable, but their selection and framing provides emotion-rousing content, while the high-level editorial decisions are unknown to the viewer. As McLuhan put it, "The 'content' of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind".

Mid-level content/media is the hardest level to pin down as inaccurate or "biased". Low-level facts can be shown to be inaccurate, and high level "bias" can be demonstrated by statistical analysis, but mid-level content/media generally proves more slippery. Alternative, dissenting mid-level content/media may be just as slippery as its mainstream opposition.

Side-stepping the gatekeepers

In his book, Digital McLuhan (Routledge, 1999), Paul Levinson gives a brief history of "gatekeepers" (those who control and regulate the flow of information). The logic of gatekeeping, whether by church, state or corporate media, "is that information is like a food or drug, which […] requires inspection or certification before it can be made available to the public. To offer information unvetted is, on this reasoning, to risk poisoning the public." (Levinson, chapter 10). Of course, gatekeeping implies that media outlets aren't "free", but controlled by authority-hierarchies, whether economic-political or petty-political.

The web has allowed people to bypass gatekeeping (although access to a computer is required – a sort of economic gatekeeping). But evolution of media doesn't necessarily result in the diminishing power of gatekeepers. Professor Levinson points out that new media may "retrieve" (to use McLuhanite terminology) aspects of earlier media which favour the gatekeepers, as for example radio "retrieved" aspects of family/tribal "media" (verbal, one-way, from a father-figure/elder to an obedient tribe), allowing Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill to effectively deliver monologues into the homes of passive listeners who couldn't answer back.

Recipe for a witch-hunt

New media (eg web and post-web) may also "retrieve" non-gatekeeping, but otherwise insidious, social effects. Prior to the web, "rapid response" letter-writing was used by campaigning groups to raise issues with governments, institutions, etc. A primary message of this medium was (as also with mass demonstrations) the sheer number of people expressing a view ignored by the powerful. Email extended this type of campaign and, importantly, made it easier to target individuals and small groups as well as gatekeepers. But the medium's message is fundamentally altered by this change of target. A mass demonstration held outside a powerless individual's private home would convey a different message than one held outside government buildings. Web/email campaigns targeting individuals or small groups may have the effect of "retrieving" unpleasant aspects of earlier media – eg the unstoppable effectiveness of "village" rumour campaigns, "witch-hunts", or forms of "degradation ceremonies" as described by sociologist Harold Garfinkle. These phenomena present a flip-side of McLuhan's "global village" metaphor.

The ingredients necessary for a "witch-hunt", in sociological terms, include a perceived threat to "moral boundaries", availability of a vilifiable target (individual or group) and a social ritual which makes the threat tangible and which clarifies the roles of those involved (eg a "degradation ceremony"). Web/email campaigns provide a particularly suitable medium for degradation ceremonies.

Ressentiment "morality"

"There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena" (Friedrich Nietzsche)

"Those who do battle with monsters must take care that they do not thereby become a monster" (Friedrich Nietzsche)

When a new and powerful medium (eg the web) unites people in their frustrations against the gatekeepers (eg newspaper and TV editors), but doesn't have the desired impact on those gatekeepers (who'd probably rather defend their privileged positions), what happens next? Readers of Nietzsche might think there's a high probability that those susceptible to "ressentiment" would wage campaigns which focus on the "immorality" of their opponents. These campaigns would predictably aim at easier targets than the chief gatekeepers – eg individuals with a perceived taint-by-association, groups which don't have the "correct" beliefs, those who blur the "moral boundaries" which are seen as separating the "evil" gatekeepers from everyone else.

By "ressentiment", Nietzsche meant the hidden revenge motive within the "altruism" of the powerless – he had in mind the Christian slaves of the Roman Empire who "turned the other cheek", but with the satisfaction of believing their oppressors would eventually burn in hell. Clinical psychologists might label this tendency as "passive-aggressive". Many idealistic Marxists similarly harboured the comforting thought that the bourgeoisie would also burn, but here on earth (ie come the revolution), not in hell.

In Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson makes the interesting observation that occult jargon classes this passive-aggressive psychological tendency as "psychic vampirism". Perhaps this explains the energy-draining effect of getting into an argument with (or worse, becoming a target of) someone in "altruistic" ressentiment mode.

Interlude: Nietzschean morality quiz

Are you a closet Witchfinder General? Do you dream about lynch-mobbing your opponents (or even lynching them)? Or do you kid yourself that you're "compassionate" and "altruistic"? Find out more with our fun quiz. Rate yourself, according to the following table, based on how often you lean towards an altruistic-but-vengeful "morality" (Sklavenmoral, or "slave morality") rather than a "noble" morality (Herrenmoral).

If your Sklavenmoral exceeds your Herrenmoral, Nietzsche would say to you: "Du fischgesichtige Entschuldigung einer Verfehlung der Evolution".


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Note: This article was originally written with accompanying summaries of a few vicious web-based "witch-hunts" which we've recently witnessed, targeting volunteer "activist" groups and launched by people who should know better – ie other "activist" groups. We've decided to remove these summaries, as they'd give publicity to those groups. Hopefully the rest of the article still makes sense, although the relevance of the McLuhanite section might not be entirely obvious.








Sklavenmoral ("slave morality") Herrenmoral ("noble morality")
Selflessness (ostensibly) Self-affirmation
"Good" versus "evil" (no in-between) "Good" and "bad" (and in-between)
Concept of "evil" central – "good" seen as absence of "evil" (eg sin) No concept of "evil" – "bad" seen as absence of "good", almost as an afterthought
Endlessly critical of wrongdoers (evildoers) Minds its own business
Dictates the moral responsibilities of others Minds its own business
Values meekness, humility Values strength, boldness
Repressed desires (won't admit to desiring what can't be obtained, eg power) Desires openly pursued
Frustration and rancour persists as resentment Frustration immediately expressed and let go
Chronically passive-aggressive Occasionally openly angry
Ethic of pity Pity/self-pity not valued
Puritanical Hedonistic
Ascetic – anti-consumer Epicurean – choosy customer
Nihilism Narcissism
Suffering endured, gratification deferred Gratification now, suffering avoided if possible
"Love thine enemy" (but secretly hates enemy) Respects worthy enemy, disrespects unworthy enemy (no obsessive love/hate)
Morality versus instincts = guilt Morality and instincts = humour