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Anti-Witch Bigotry: Still As Popular and Deadly As Ever
Article ID: 15530
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I love Samhain, and one of my sacred celebrations is to hand out treats in my traditional garb to the spirits who come to my door representing the New Year. However, this time of year can be particularly irksome due to the depictions in costume and imagery of various cultural groups, especially witches. Even though it’s the 21st century, some people apparently need to be reminded that Hallow'een doesn't come with a "Get out of Bigotry Free" card. It's bizarre, I know, but there is a bastion of folks who still believe that a license to dress up also implies that they have carte blanche to defend the use of characterizations that at any other time of year would get them fired, or sued, or worse.
A survey of social media shows the same tired old arguments are being trotted out as justifications for intolerance. "All in good fun", "get a sense of humour", "no one really gets hurt"... The causal racism and sheer jackassery seems to be getting worse, not better. I won't even begin to go into the sexist and LBGT stereotyping, which is also glaring, obvious, and just as hate-promoting. Instead, I will focus on the racism, narrowing in on a deconstruction of anti-witch bigotry specifically.
Activist groups have made the argument for decades that constant and consistent negative stereotypes of certain groups deeply affect those who are part of that culture, as well the society they live in. This hypothesis have been backed up by thousands of studies, and with persistence, social justice actions have largely made such depictions distasteful at the very least, and illegal where possible. It has been a great boon to progressive thinking to have serious consequences to those who insist on reducing others to stereotype images and demeaning their lifestyles, cultures, or persons, thus trampling on their human rights.
Today, it's generally no longer considered tasteful to go in costume with blackface. And it's starting to sink in that representations of traditional native garb, like headdresses and face paint, are unacceptable public attire for those who have no cultural claim to it. Though there are still holdouts on that one... In Canada, negative stereotyping of an identifiable people, such as black Sambos and Uncle Toms, "How" Indian chiefs and "Jewish conspiracy" literature are considered offences under the hate crimes and human rights laws. The continuation of these negative perceptions has put lives and lifestyles at risk from the ignorant and it is for that reason that our society has felt such laws are necessary for a just culture. (Though Harper and the neocon agenda have been making a shameful effort to dismantle much of the progress we've made..) (1)
The latest trend for negative stereotype costume ideas currently is Muslim terrorists, a vicious offshoot of the anti-Arab Islamaphobia (2) being voraciously fed by the neocon propaganda machine. Yay! What a progression in tolerance. And what fun!
With all the anti-Arab lynchings that have happened in the Western world recently, plus the clearly discriminatory laws being passed, especially in the States, it is childishly easy to counter the argument that "no one gets hurt' by these depictions. A quick Internet search yields a plethora of recent material on the very real consequences of what Islamaphobia and anti-Arab racism are doing to communities. It is clear that perpetuation of these stereotypes are getting people killed, destroying livelihoods and families and generally making life much harder, often for those who can least afford it, such as new immigrants.
Establishing this, most reasonable people agree that these depictions of stereotypes are not in fact amusing or in good fun in any way, and are actually harmful and should be highly discouraged. And yet, it's still open season on witches, for many reasons. Don't think that counts? Think again...
Many of you have seen, I'm sure, the charming Jeff Stahler cartoon going around showing two typical hags in stereotypical attire of pointed hats and black robes around a cauldron, with the adorable caption of “I only use local children.” I know some claim that it’s funny, but it's totally not. Baby eating jokes are never funny, and depicting it as a characteristic of an entire group puts that group on the level of irredeemable Evil. And what can you do with irredeemable Evil other than destroy it?
Where does that particular horrible idea in this illustration come from? Good question. Blood Libel (3) , baby killing or eating, is traditionally attributed to peoples that have been targeted for removable with extreme prejudice. Ancient Romans are said to have used it against Christians at various times, though current evidence indicates that may be Christian propaganda to justify their own martyrdom and later accusations of blood libel against other groups. (4) Huns had this attached to them, which is why the name still invokes shudders after centuries. Jews have been the most common recipients of the Blood Libel tag in current millennium. And occasionally Gypsies. (The latest Jewish blood libel incarnation, with the same themes, is disturbingly alive and well in the Illuminate conspiracy myth cycle.) (5) Used for generations to murder individuals from cultures accused of it, witches are only the most recent addition to this fable used to justify hatred. But if it’s only a caricature, and no one believes they look like that, then no one ever suffered or died from that myth. Right? And we're completely evolved now anyway and aren't at all susceptible to negative representations about a group of people, right? Right...
Using cartoonish depictions of this narrative to incite hatred and fear against a group of people is also not new. Wood cuts depicting the tale of Norwich and the Blood Libel in England for example were enormously popular, and reached what would be urban legend status nowadays. The story goes, in Norwich in the Twelfth century, a “boy named William was found dead in the woods outside of town, and a monk, Thomas of Monmouth, accused local Jews of torturing him and murdering him in mockery of the crucifixion of Jesus.” (6) Though the case was obviously never proven, the boy was actually made the *first” martyred blood libel saint (there are more?) , legitimizing this horrific mythology in the eyes of the common people. After all, how could the child be a saint and do those miracles if he *wasn't* sacrificed by demonic Jews? Depictions of gleeful Hebrews bathing in the blood of children, and St. William in particular, are not difficult to find in the historic record, since so many were made.
So to prove the hate and harm in the hilarious witch cartoon I mentioned above, let's try a quick mental experiment. Using the similar blood libel accusation for Jews, and our imaginations, let's replace the two hags with two rich men with big noses, who are obviously supposed to be Jewish, and throw in jewelry and a menorah, just for extra clarification. Now include some of the traditional devices that wood cuts associated with torturing piles of babies and use the exact same caption. ("I only use local children".. Heh.) Funny, right? Everyone used to know the "Jew and baby killing" stereotype, so if everyone is familiar with it, then it's not hateful, it's hilarity! It's because you can use such labels as punchlines - black guys are gangstas or Asians are good at math. Or blond women are stupid. Or gays are pedophiles. Or Jews and witches eat children. I mean, we all know it's not true, and no one really looks like that, but for some reason black men are getting shot in the streets for wearing hoodies, gays are beaten on their way home, and witches are still losing their homes, families, and livelihoods in North America. And their limbs and lives elsewhere. (7)
In the aforementioned cartoon, the pointed black hats represent our Elders and express respect and power as the leaders of our community. Rather like a Bishop's mitre. And it is these women who are depicted as the baby eaters! Not just anyone, but the community leaders. Rather like drawing the Pope and his cardinals carving up a choirboy. Funny, right? Surely no disparaging statement can be meant to the Catholic community in general... I mean, it's only their leaders.
It is in part due to the accusation of Blood libel against Jews that led to the Holocaust. There were many other factors obviously, but with such beliefs rampant in the popular culture, some persons were very clear that "those people" only got what was coming to them. I mean, what else are you going to do with baby eaters? Which is why the Gypsies were also included in the Final Solution...
*All* of these images could qualify as Hate literature according to the Criminal Code of Canada. "Hate propaganda" means "any writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide. The Code defines genocide as the destruction of an "identifiable group." The Code defines an "identifiable group" as "any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation." A group that eats babies certainly qualifies as one that should be exterminated, and these witches are not shown as crazy offshoots, but expected to be typical of their group. Otherwise, it's not funny!
Dress as whatever profession or imaginary creature or natural feature you like. But if you are choosing a costume that is characterizing a "culture" or "race", you are contributing to racism.
Admittedly, representations of witches aren't usually that bad. Often it's just old hags with hooked noses, warts, green skin, and buckle shoes riding brooms with their bloomers showing. But those very same images are also used as monsters to frighten children, and all that underlying hate and fear is understood, or they wouldn't be staples in Haunted Houses. (8)
Witches are not fictional creatures. We are not werewolves or Frankenstein monsters. We do not have green skin, and only some of us have warts. We are young, old, women, men, straight, gay, and of all shapes and sizes. Witches have always been, and still are, real people. We have recognized legitimate churches with our own holidays by federal governments in North America and around the world, and these negative images can be, and often are, a threat to our quality of life and sometimes our safety.
It's our sacred holiday of Samhain and, unless one actually is a witch, dressing up as stereotypical witches is bigotry. Same with depictions of our sacred objects like brooms, cauldrons, wands, or other accoutrements. Even cartoonishly. When we do it, well, then it really *is* just all in good fun. I mean, let's face it. Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and laugh at all this... (9)
Anti-witch bigotry is just as fear driven, virulent, and dangerous as homophobia and Islamophobia, and based on much the same mythology.
"Of course, those in the throes of this phobia are in denial. They never recognise it as such. Instead, they cling to their "deeply held convictions…But a glance at those objections unfailingly reveals an unwarranted belief that "something bad will happen"
6.“ Blood libels have frequently led to mob violence and pogroms, and have occasionally led to the decimation of entire … communities.” http://www.adl.org/anti-semitism/united-states/c/what-is-the-blood-libel.html#.Uj6NH9KTiSo
7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/07/kepari-leniata-young-mother-burned-alive-mob-sorcery-papua-new-guinea_n_2638431.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular and utm_hp_ref=fb and src=sp and comm_ref=false
8.“Entitled "Invectives Against the Sect of Waldensians… and is thought to be one of the founding texts for the Christian horror and propaganda against witchcraft.
“The real evil is actually in this book, and it’s human. It’s not magical, ” said Gow, a medieval history professor. “It’s a view of one’s fellow human beings as agents of the devil that is truly evil.”
Its pages describe cackling wenches sailing across the night sky on broom sticks, frolicking in nocturnal orgies of twisted delight and casting Satanic spells to doom crops with lightning and hail.
“It’s this long, involved, complex litany of imaginary crimes, ” said Gow, “which were cooked up in the fevered literary imaginations of these small-time church men.”
The purpose of the book, Gow explained, was to instruct witch hunters on how to identify and prosecute supposed servants of the devil. Ominously, it describes how one should “ratchet up the pain” to force suspected witches to confess, said Gow.
“It’s a fascinating thing, ” he said. “It’s 150 pages of craziness.”
9. http://www.crackle.com/c/bewitched/the-witches-are-out/2457166 Though a sitcom about a fictional “Harry Potter” type community, the arguments used in this episode of Bewtiched are still valid for our real-life community today!
From the Hampshire's Community Advocacy Association anti-racism awareness poster.
Here are some of the helpful indicators that your costume might be racist.
* If your costume is supposed to be humorous, does the humour rely on making fun of real people, human traits, or cultures?
* Does your costume depict a culture that is not your own?
* Does your costume packaging include the words “traditional”, “ethnic”, “colonial”, “cultural”, “authentic”, or “tribal”?
* Does your costume perpetuate stereotypes, misinformation, historical or cultural inaccuracies? (Lone Ranger…cough, cough..)
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