witch hunt

Using social pressure to stigmatize is a hallmark of witch hunts throughout history, and this tactic hides in plain sight on social media
Dr. Katja Thieme, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia, took to Twitter recently to enact her own unique brand of McCarthyism. "YES. If you are an academic and you publish in Quillette, we see you. We fucking see you. And we are looking right at you."

This was in response to the following tweet by a Denison University History professor who stated, "And any member of our field who publishes with Quillette should lose all credibility."


One of Thieme's followers then followed up with the astonishing suggestion that there should be a literal blacklist of academics who have written for the magazine. "It would be nice to have a list of Canadian academics who have published in that shitrag."


Using social pressure to stigmatize is a hallmark of witch hunts throughout history, and this tactic hides in plain sight on social media. But one wonders what the point is of declaring a publication dedicated to free speech and open discourse off limits? It appears that this mob is fearful of what could be gained by engaging in an honest exploration of ideas.

What's frightening about the ease with which these comments are made is that I highly doubt any of these educators have actually read Quillette.

It has become fashionable to spout nonsense such as Quillette is "racist," or Quillette is "white supremacist." When asked to provide evidence, accusers often claim that they do not have to provide evidence, or they just never respond.

Terry Newman tweet
There were no responses to these questions. This refusal to provide evidence for accusations is striking considering the number of likes and retweets these dehumanizing statements get on Twitter. So what's happening here? Let's explore.

In his article "The Two Step Flow of Communication," Elihu Katz asks, when it comes to the actions and behaviors of individuals in communities, who is more influential? Opinion leaders or the media?

To set up his investigation he first asks the question, what is an opinion leader? Opinion leaders to Katz express values, have a level of professional expertise in some subject, although it may not be the one they are attempting to influence networks on, and they have large social networks.

For Katz, these opinion leaders are often driven by two things: increasing their status in the eyes of others, and social acceptance.

These opinion leaders are seen as familiar to their networks and are therefore trusted in a way that regular media interlocutors are not.

Applying Katz's theory to opinion leaders on Twitter, we can see that theory holds. One need only look at the numbers of likes or retweets that opinion leaders like Matthew Sears and aspiring opinion leaders like Katja Thieme receive on Twitter.

In a Washington Post article claiming MAGA hats will eventually be the moral equivalent of Klu Klux Klan robes, Sears spends 95% of his article not even discussing MAGA hats. He espouses on Ancient Greek history, a subject he's actually knowledgeable in.

However, when it comes time to discuss his initial claim, he makes a very alarming remark: that individual voters should be be held "morally accountable" for the electoral decisions they make. There are a multitude of reasons why this claim is naive and frightening, but I am not going to get into those here.

Matthew A. Sears tweet
Sears was surely not thinking of Obama's drone strikes when he made this assertion. One cannot make such a claim about a system of governance and then just change one's mind about its authoritarian methods of ruling when a different political leader comes into office. Sears does not seem to understand this.

Sears also makes the assertion that the Covington boys were allowed (if not encouraged) to wear these hats at a March for Life rally and that this serves as a deliberate provocation. First, they should be allowed to wear them, and he has no idea if they were encouraged to do so. That was a strange addition on his part.

Second, that is exactly what a protest is - provoking people who disagree with you. Third, much like a woman choosing to wear a short skirt or a hijab, Sears will have no idea why these boys are wearing MAGA hats until he asks each and every individual boy personally. People contain multitudes.

Sears goes on to say that it is "impossible" to separate the MAGA hate from anti-immigrant and anti-minority values. This is simply not true. People vote for a variety of reasons, often economic or principle-related. They can be wrong about who the best person is to help them economically, but that just means they are wrong, or nostalgic for the well-paid and reliable manufacturing jobs their fathers may have had. It does not necessarily equal racism.

But opinion leaders like Sears, skilled only in Classics, are not experts in these topics. Yet, they continually act as opinion leaders and influence large swaths of people who honestly believe he has done the necessary research himself. Not only influence - Sears is in the business of dehumanization.

Sears regularly makes all-encompassing statements against fellow citizens like "imagine being libertarian." In his own words, he's admitted to having done a "drive by" of articles like mine in Quillette. And he's never once provided evidence that Quillette is the evil giant he claims it to be.

Sears Libertarian tweet
I've often asked myself, what does Sears, the opinion leader, get out of this constant strawmanning? Where is this authoritarian nature of having to destroy libertarians, conservatives, and even liberals coming from?

I try to start from a place where I interpret his actions as sincere, yet mistaken, and as a reaction to the Trump presidency. Sears is not surrounded by Nazis and white supremacists, but he has convinced himself that he is.

Like the opinion leaders in Katz's research, he also benefits from increasing his status on Twitter, and he does not do it through nuanced, good faith tweets. He does it through simplistic straw manning and dehumanizing ad hominems which he never has to defend, and neither do his followers.

Opinion leaders express opinions. No one checks to see if they have verified them. Think twice before you like or retweet these individuals. Do your own research. Do you really want to be part of a mindless herd calling for academics who are ironing out nuances to be on a list for what ends we are still unsure of?

Quillette is a windmill doing the work of discourse and Thieme, Sears, and their acolytes are impeding this process by causing further polarization. There are actual white supremacists out there. But these are not the people Sears and his followers spend their time attacking. Instead, they spend most of their day attacking their own townsfolk who have varied and unsettled opinions of how to achieve the good life.

Sears, Thieme and others like them in the academy spend their days dividing the very people they should be uniting, and they consistently do this by unfairly dehumanizing them. Do you really want these people to be your opinion leaders? Are you for putting academics on lists? Wouldn't you rather think for yourself?

The prolonged Twitter spat between Thieme and Sears' following and the readers and writers of Quillette ended with a chorus of academics pledging to keep writing for Quillette or deciding to write for Quillette for the first time as a result of the attempted blacklisting.





In this particular case, the attempt to dehumanize Quillette writers has backfired. We are not going anywhere. We will continue to strive for nuance and reason that certain corners of the humanities and Twitter are refusing. We will write more. We will be louder. We refuse to be intimidated.