The Legacy of Salem: Modern Day Witch Hunts and Their Causes

by Cullen

Trouble is a brewing. Crops are spoiling in the fields. The weather is grey and foul.  Animals are biting back against their masters. Children are sullen, disobedient, and aggressive. Worse yet are the stillbirths and mysterious deaths that are growing more and more common. Something wicked’s come this way. It must be… a witch.

Now, if you are a typical person in the 21st century, you’re probably scoffing at your screen as you read this. Witch hunts probably seem like a figment of a murky and backward past. However, witch hunts and even witch killings are a frightening reality in much of the Global South. In fact, just last April, 78-year-old Adelina Mohlakoane was accused of witchcraft and beaten to death by an angry mob in Copesville, South Africa. Her son had this to say: “My mother died just like that. She was killed over rumours which are not even true.”

Killings like this are not isolated occurrences. Across Africa, India, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea, people are being accused and often killed due to  rumors of them being witches. Between 1987 and 2003, 2,500 people were killed for this imaginary crime in India according to the UN estimate, which scholars see as highly conservative. The Tanzanian government reported that 3,072 victims were killed in the Sukumaland(from 1970-88) region alone.  In March 2009, hundreds of Gambians were arrested by members of the presidential guard of former president and dictator Yahya Jammeh for “witchcraft”. They driven to concentration camps where they were forced to drink poison. Meanwhile, hundreds of attacks on so-called witches have also been reported in places as distant from each other as Nepal, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and South America.

The victims of the killings are primarily of women, especially elderly(50+-year-old) women, although occasionally men and even children and infants are targeted. The perpetrators are normally unemployed young to middle aged men. Although even people in higher social circles are often accused, the victims of and participants in the killings are almost all lower class.

The killings have devastating effects on the families of the accused. Witchcraft in Africa is traditionally seen as an inheritable attribute, so if one member of the family is accused, then their children are often suspect. Huge numbers are traumatized in exorcism rituals. The Congolese department for welfare states that 50.000 children are kept in churches for such purposes. Many children are also orphaned when they or their mother and family are accused of witchcraft, including 32 000 of all street children in Kinshasa.

 What could drive people to commit such horrors? Scholars are split. Some believe that the killings of elderly women primarily come from a survival motive. According to Dr. Mette Brogden, “Many societies, from the Artic to the tropics, when they perceive a resource threat to the common good … kill expendable persons, thereby stabilizing their conditions. The expendable persons were the very young or the very old.”

Others believe that believe that this these survival style conditions are being brought about due to the disruption of the traditional agrarian and communal economy by neo-liberalism. Due to debt obligations to the IMF, countries in the Global South are forced to enact Washington Consensus policies, which restrict their ability to provide welfare to their citizens and open up their countries to neo-colonialist plunder.

Supporting historian Hugo Hinfelaar supports this interpretation. In writing about Zambia, he says the following: “In the current era of uncontrolled ‘market forces’ as preached by the present government and other supporters of neo-liberalism, confiscating land and other forms of property has taken on a more sinister dimension. It has been noted that witchcraft accusations and cleansing rituals are particularly rife in areas earmarked for game management and game ranching, for tourism, and for occupation by potential big landowners. […] Some chiefs and headmen profit from selling considerable portions of their domain to international investors, and fomenting social disruption in the village facilitates the transaction. A divided village will not have the power to unite and oppose attempts to having the land they cultivate being taken over by someone else. As a matter of fact, the villagers are at times so engaged in accusing each other of practicing witchcraft that they hardly notice that they are being dispossessed and have turned into squatters on their own ancestral lands.”

Not all agree to this interpretation of the crisis. Some believe that the perpetrators of these attacks are carrying out what cultural Marxist Max Horkheimer called “pathetic projection”. Basically, pathetic projection is the psychoanalytic theory that individuals have repressed sexual urges and destructive desires, which are channeled by society towards an acceptable target. This theory serves to explain some of the contradictions of the other two; namely why the rich also take part and are the target of rumors of witchcraft, and the sheer excessive levels of brutality with which are enacted against the accused.

Some also blame the rise of fervent fundamentalist pentecostal churches across Africa for the killings. Others point the finger at an exploitative film industry, which produces pictures such as “End of the Wicked” (1999)  and “Enjoyment in Hell” (2007) depicting witchcraft as if it were a real phenomenon, in keeping with African tradition on witch-focused media.

Whatever the cause, it is clear that these atrocious killings can not be permitted to continue. However, many are baffled at the reluctance of intersectional feminists to talk about this horrific abuse of human rights. No doubt many wish to avoid contributing to a condescending narrative about the Global South in the media, or at worst a justification for more colonialism.

However, this argument loses much of it’s weight when historical factors are taken into account. According to Dr. Elom Dovlo and Adeyemi Ademowo, Pre-colonial Africa had no witch killings, a claim which has been challenged by some due to lack of records. What is clear though is that, whatever pre-colonial Africa’s witch situation was, the one in modern day Africa is much worse.

To combat this epidemic, local governments have tried various measures. Ghana and South Africa now have “safe spaces” for women fleeing from witch hunts. South Africa’s pension reform in the ‘90’s significantly reduced witch hunt fatalities by turning the elderly into a financial asset for struggling households. But in order for assistance to these marginalized people to continue, it is vital that funds be allocated to concerned activists and that the Washington Consensus, which has caused so much harm already, be rejected once and for all.

Works Cited

CEGA | Center for Effective Global Action. Web. 08 May 2017.

http://cega.berkeley.edu/assets/miscellaneous_files/wgape/2_Miguel.pdf

Ngubane, Nompendulo. “South Africa: Woman, 78, Accused of Witchcraft Beaten to Death.” AllAfrica.com. 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 08 May 2017.

“Universität Duisburg-Essen.” Willkommen Bei DuEPublico – Duisburg-Essen Publications Online.

Web. 08 May 2017.

http://duepublico.uni-duisburg-essen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24612/03_Federici_Women.pdf

“The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network.” WHRIN. Web. 08 May 2017.

http://www.whrin.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/childreninafricanwitchhuntsfinalversion-1-Felix-Riedel-2.pdf

Links to Organizations to support to counter this menace:

http://www.whrin.org/africa/

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In Defence of Fox Mulder

by Sage

(Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for The X-Files all the way up until season ten! Read at your own risk.)

I first discovered the website ‘Bitch Media’ upon searching Google for articles discussing one of my favourite TV shows, The X-Files, and its positive messages connected to feminism. Instead, I found the exact opposite: an article entitled “In Rewatching The X-Files, One Thing is Clear: Mulder is a Real Jerk”. In this article, the author talks about their realization that, without the ‘haze of nostalgia’, Fox Mulder is a sexist character. As someone who loves Fox Mulder as dearly as you can love a fictional character (which is very much), I decided to check it out. My first impression of the site was that of exasperation; it was obvious that, with a title like Bitch Media, the owners were trying to ‘reclaim’ the word bitch, a word that many feminists consider a ‘gendered slur’. And, as for the article itself? Well, I’ll admit it: the article made me angry. Not just because it was framing one of my favourite fictional characters as an ‘anti-feminist’ character, but because… he isn’t. And that’s why I decided to write my second article for this blog taking apart the argument put forth by Bitch Media.

The article begins with the author reminiscing about how she used to love The X-Files when she was a teenager. It’s not until the second paragraph that everything begins to go downhill; specifically, this line: “Before finishing even one episode, I realized something even worse: Agent Mulder is not a dreamboat. In fact, he’s an asshole … who spends most of the series mansplaining to Agent Scully.” I was already cringing. ‘Mansplaining’ is a term that stops me from ever taking someone seriously. Same with ‘manspreading’. I mentioned ‘gendered slurs’ before, like the word ‘bitch’? Well, ‘mansplaining’ isn’t a slur, but it certainly is gendered. Apparently it’s only okay to use gendered insults when they don’t affect you. Huh.

The next passage that I will comment on is this: “It’s suddenly obvious just how much bullshit Scully has to put up with. Not only does Mulder routinely dismiss her extremely practical ideas, but her knowledge often gets the side-eye from other men in the male-dominated world of law enforcement. In episode after episode, she has to defend her ideas to Mulder, her boss Agent Skinner, small-town cops, and a rotating cast of folks like the Lone Gunmen.” I’ll admit, this was the part where I started to laugh. Yes, Mulder routinely dismisses her ideas, but it is not because of her gender. It’s because he believes in the supernatural, and she does not. I can safely say this because we actually got to see Mulder interacting with a partner who he had no respect for, and this was a man. Yep, it was Alex Krycek, back in the season two episode ‘Sleepless’. Comparing their interactions in this episode with Mulder and Scully’s in any episode will show you that there is a mutual respect between them that is impossible to break, despite the fact that their beliefs are polar opposites. In fact, this is exactly why the two characters play so well off of each other. Still skeptical? In the first X-Files movie, Mulder says to Scully, “You saved me! As difficult and as frustrating as it’s been sometimes, your goddamned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over! You’ve kept me honest… you’ve made me a whole person. I owe you everything, Scully, and you owe me nothing.”

As for Skinner, I would argue that Skinner is far more inclined to believe what Scully says than what Mulder does. For most of the series, he, like Scully, does not believe in the existence of extraterrestrials. Not only does he share her views, but in the season two episode ‘One Breath’, Skinner says, “Agent Scully was a fine officer. More than that, I liked her. I respected her.” Yes, you read that correctly. Skinner respects Scully, and cares about her too. Many times throughout the series, he is one of her most valuable allies.

And as for the Lone Gunmen, their lives are literally devoted to proving conspiracy theories and exposing the supernatural. Of course they wouldn’t agree with Scully’s rational, medical opinions. But as the series goes on, they grow to respect her too. They bring Scully flowers when she is in the hospital, and protect her son in season nine. Scully says in the season nine episode ‘Jump the Shark’ how much they meant to her.

It is true that law enforcement was a male-dominated world during the run of The X-Files. However, Scully is able to hold her own. The reason she has to fight for respect is not because she is a woman, it’s because she works with ‘Spooky Mulder’.

The author then goes on to analyze several exchanges between Mulder and Scully that apparently prove that Mulder is a ‘mansplainer’ and a sexist. One of the episodes she brings up is ‘Never Again’, an episode from season four. To be honest, I was guessing that this episode would be mentioned somewhere, because I was surprised and even disappointed with Mulder’s attitude towards Scully when I first watched it. Here is the exchange the author has cited from this episode:

MULDER: So you’re refusing an assignment based on the adventures of Moose and Squirrel?
SCULLY: “Refusing an assignment?” It makes it sound like you’re my superior.
MULDER: Do what you want. Don’t go to Philadelphia, but let me remind you that I worked my ass off to get the files reopened. You were just assigned. This work is my life.
SCULLY: And it’s become mine.
MULDER: You don’t want it to be.

The problem here is obvious: Mulder considers himself more committed to the X-Files than Scully is. Coupled with the fact that, earlier in the episode, Scully asked Mulder why he was the only one who had a desk and he responded by saying that he considered one of the corners ‘her area’, ‘Never Again’ paints Mulder in a very bad light. If this had been the first episode I had seen, I might have agreed with the author of Bitch Media’s article. However, this is exactly it: the only way I would have agreed would be if I had not seen any other episodes.

Fox Mulder is one of the most complex and dynamic characters I have ever encountered in all my years of reading, writing, and watching. However, the author of this article makes him sound very one-dimensional. She believes that Mulder’s attitude is derived from how little he respects Scully. But she is overlooking a crucial piece of the puzzle: the trauma Mulder went through that fuels his obsession. His sister was abducted when he was a child, and it broke his family apart. Scully may be devoted to the X-Files, but Mulder clung to the idea of the supernatural because it was his only hope of getting his sister back. So although I disagree with his attitude in this episode, I can definitely understand why he reacted in the way that he did. Just like Scully, Mulder is flawed. And he should be.

The author ends her article on this charming note: “Mulder and his eye-rolling can go get permanently abducted for all I care.” And yet the author emphasized throughout the article how much she loves Scully. Below, I have provided two photos: one of Scully when she found out that Mulder had been abducted, and one of when she thought she had lost him forever.

This is what you want for her? If so, I would take a second look at how much you actually like The X-Files.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time for me to put my opinion about Mulder out there. Namely, why I believe Fox Mulder is a feminist character.

In season five, there are two very important episodes in which Scully discovers that she has a daughter; a strange, half-alien girl named Emily who was born during Scully’s abduction in season two. Upon further investigation in the episode ‘Emily’, Mulder discovers that Emily’s conception was just another experiment performed on Scully. And when he meets one of the doctors responsible, he calls him out to his face. Not just for their conspiracies, but for the fact that they impregnated women without their consent. He calls them ‘medical rapists’, a phrase which has stuck with me ever since I watched that episode. He was looking past his personal bias toward conspiracy theories and seeing the actual impact that their testing had on women like Scully. That, I think, was one of Mulder’s most important feminist moments.

There is an episode in the revival series, ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’, that features a transgender woman. A lot of people were upset about the portrayal, so I was bracing myself for the worst when I saw the episode– but it was much better than I was expecting. Mulder explains to another character what the term ‘transgender’ means– and although it wasn’t the best explanation I’ve ever heard, the fact stands that he was respectful to her.

There’s another point I want to bring up, but it’s less about Mulder’s purposeful feminist actions and more about the way he was written. Despite the fact that Mulder was a male TV lead in the 90s, he was not a cold, ultra-masculine character. The writers of the show did something very important by letting Mulder cry. He was not an emotionless, stereotypically ‘masculine’ character. He was always human first.

A lot of people seem to believe that just because someone is in a position of power (such as male, straight, or white) they are automatically a terrible person. Because Mulder is a white and presumably straight man, people judge his actions in a much different way than they would Scully’s, for example. If she had done any of the things that the author brought up, she would be seen as a powerful feminist icon. (Which she already is, but still.) People would be outraged at Mulder asking for a desk from Scully. You may not agree with me there, but I’ve seen terrible things on Tumblr. We should not empower women by putting down men. The same goes for people of colour and white people, LGBT+ people and straight people, transgender people and cisgender people, etc. The only way to achieve true equality is for both sides– oppressed and privileged– to respect each other.

Gender and Neurology

by Ava

 

Recently, I’ve noticed a surge in the amount of people who say that gender is a social construct. I’ve been hearing this everywhere: not just in the depths of tumblr.hell, but also on nicer parts of the internet and even from people I know in real life. This got me thinking, and after a bit of research I concluded that I do not agree with this statement.

In this article, I’m going to use scientific articles (all sources listed at the bottom of the page) to back up my opinion on this issue. However, although I think that gender is biological, I will also be arguing the point that transgender people are perfectly valid. This will become clear later on in the article.

In order to see how gender is developed, we have to look at the very first life stage of a human being. You may have heard before that every fetus starts off as a female, and although that is simplifying the matter a little bit, it is essentially true. A fetus will, by default, develop female sex organs if a masculinizing hormone does not activate to change this. This hormone is activated by the Sry gene found on the Y chromosome. This gene, however, does not only make changes to the body, but also to the brain.

Scientists have begun to study the brain’s connection to gender in order to better understand certain mental illnesses. For example, females are more likely to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD), while males are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). What they’ve discovered is that the Sry gene, when activated in utero, sets off a hormone called androgen. This hormone is considered responsible for the feminization or masculinization of the brain, a process which happens during fetal development.

This is especially evident in people with intersex conditions involving androgen. One of these conditions, CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome), occurs in people with XY chromosomes. For some reason, as the name suggests, androgen does not affect them as it would most males. They still develop male gonads, but externally they appear female, and consistently identify as women. The same goes for people with CAH (congenital andrenal hyperplasia), who have XX chromosomes, but whose bodies make far more androgen than the typical female. These people, in the same way, undergo some degree of masculinization of the brain.

When it comes to brain shape and size, there are clearly quantifiable differences between male and female brains. Women have larger frontal cortexes as well as limbic cortexes. Men, on the other hand, have larger amygdala and parietal lobes. These cause many subtle differences in behaviour. This is why, on average, men and women are thought to act in certain ways.

The size and shape, however, are not the defining factor of a brain – neuron activity takes that title. A Penn Medicine study on brain connectivity discovered a major difference between male and female brains. It was found that females have greater connectivity between the two hemispheres of the brain, whereas males have greater connectivity within each hemisphere. In short, women’s neurons “communicate” back and forth between the left and right hemispheres, whereas men’s stay in their own hemispheres. The only exception was in the part of the brain responsible for motor control, where the opposite was observed.

This shows that women are more likely to connect the parts of the brain that are responsible for analyzation and intuition. On the other hand, men are more likely to connect those parts responsible for perception and coordinated action. This explains the results of several studies done in the past, where men and women were given the same tests. On certain tests, men consistently outperformed women, while on other tests it was the opposite.

This is enough evidence to suggest that gender is an ingrained part of our neurology. However, I would like to add that neurology is a complicated field. Every human’s brain is different, and there is nothing wrong with being a feminine man or a masculine woman; you are no less of a man or woman, if you are comfortable living as such.

This brings us to the topic of transgender people. Less than 1% of the population identifies as transgender, making it difficult to study, but some scientists have gathered enough transgender individuals to do substantial research. Brain scans have showed that white matter, the substance that connects the different part of the brain as discussed above, consistently correlates with the person’s gender identity and not their biological sex – even before they have medically transitioned in any way.

Transgender people are born with a mental illness known as gender dysphoria. Dysphoria is basically an extreme discomfort with one’s primary and secondary sex characteristics. It is usually treated by transitioning physically, which usually includes changing the secondary sex characteristics, and sometimes primary ones as well (although this involves an invasive surgery, so some people choose to opt out). If gender were a social construct, then no one would suffer from gender dysphoria. This is another point leading to gender being neurological.

Gender does not have to do with the clothes you wear, or the interests that you have. I could walk around in men’s clothing and fix cars all day, but that would not make me a man, because my neurology dictates otherwise. I think that most people who believe that gender is a social construct are thinking of gender roles, such as the clothing and interests that men and women are expected to have. But in my opinion, the real definition of gender is rooted in neurology.

As one final point, no discussion of gender is complete without one person asking about the validity of non-binary genders. I’m not going to go in-depth here, but I will say that I am open to the idea. I can understand how someone might feel non-binary; however, how would this translate to their neurology? Unfortunately, there are very few (if any at all) neurological studies on this topic, and none that I have been able to find. In the brain scans that I referenced earlier, certain people had brains with both masculine and feminine features. These people, however, all identified as male or female anyway. This is likely because, as some neurologists hypothesize, gender is primarily decided by neuron activity in the white matter. The size of other parts of the brain play a smaller part in gender. So, as it stands, I’ve never seen any proof of non-binary genders, nor have I seen any particularly persuasive arguments. However, I like to keep an open mind, and hopefully we will see some studies to prove or disprove the concept of non-binary. (And, before that happens, I will likely write an article going into more depth on my opinions!)

That’s all from me today, but I’d like everyone to remember: despite our neurological differences, everyone’s brain is based on the same structure. Translated from science-geek to English, that means that despite our differences, we are all human. Treat each other with kindness and respect. See you next time!

 

Sources

Hormones, Sexual Dimorphism, and the Brain

Sex Differences in the Brain – The Scientist Magazine

Brain Connectivity Study – Penn Medicine

Transgender Differences on Brain Scan – New Scientist