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"
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
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,
] 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
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
"There are no
moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation
of phenomena" (Friedrich
"Those who do
battle with monsters must take care that
they do not thereby become a monster"
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
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
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"
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
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".
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 who
don't deserve it. Hopefully the rest of
the article still makes sense, although
the relevance of the McLuhanite section
might not be entirely obvious.
prefer not to respond to any queries concerning