“I have seen too many frightful proofs in court — the Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points!” 

Such was the atmosphere of 1692 Salem, where paranoia and unfounded accusations reigned upon the land of Puritan America, imprinted with a fear of the supernatural. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible stands as a timeless piece of literature exemplifying the dangers of mob mentality and unchecked hysteria, where sensitivities dominate reason.  The Crucible denounces collective overreaction and the manipulation of truth for political ends. It serves as a poignant allegory for the Red Scare, a period in American history painted by the panic around communism. The Red Scare became America’s modern witch hunt, where hundreds of lives were ruined due to unverified links to communist ideologies. 

Federal employees were analyzed to determine whether they were sufficiently loyal to the government. The House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who was so involved in the communist witch-hunt that the period became also known as McCarthyism, investigated potential treason in the government and the Hollywood film industry. 

The initial reason for the Red Scare was legitimate: there was a communist threat to the United States. National security documents were leaked and several instances of espionage plagued the country. With spies who leaked atomic bomb intelligence to the Soviets, the United States had a well-founded concern regarding potential espionage. Nevertheless, measures such as blacklisting, interrogations by the House Un-American Activities Committee, employment dismissals and invasive investigations constituted a Salem-esque witch hunt with numerous people falsely convicted. Their careers and lives were ruined by insubstantial evidence. 

Today, we are facing yet another witch hunt — the hunt for enemies of progress. The term “woke” plays a crucial role in this phenomenon, acting as a tool for justice for some while being used for mockery by others. Initially used in the 1940s, the term originated from African-American Vernacular English, meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” It allowed Black Americans and other minorities to raise awareness about ongoing struggles and advocate for social justice and equality. Those struggles were real, and they were harsh. As minorities faced brutal repression by the government that prevented  them from accessing numerous opportunities enjoyed by the white population, the rise of “wokeness” was a much-needed social justice tool. 

Then it all became a shit show. Wokeness has been weaponized by the left and by the right to promote their respective agendas. Right-wing politicians pride themselves on carrying out anti-woke crusades, while the left is convinced that “too much wokeness” is a fake problem, concocted by the right for the culture war. But the left is wrong: the problem does exist and overlooking it undermines the very cause it so feverishly seeks to defend. 

While few would dispute the lingering effects of historical inequalities such as racism, sexism and homophobia, just like McCarthyism, wokeism takes worthy ideas to the extremes. For instance, tearing down the statue of Napoleon’s Joséphine de Beauharnais wife in Martinique. While acknowledging the wrongdoings of the colonial past is necessary, the desire to change the commemorative landscape should be about contextualizing and educating on how those systems operated, not punishing historical individuals for systemic injustices. 

Similarly, proclaiming that Hamas is a noble resistance movement despite the atrocious violence it has committed against Israelis only invalidates support for Palestine , as one cannot justify terrorist groups through the lens of resistance. Or censoring comedians by banning jokes about religion and atheism as taboos only further divisions. No topic should be too sensitive to discuss and consequently make fun of. 

However, one cannot criticize wokeness and what it has become without being equated to a reactionist, opposed to all social change. The conversation about the excesses of wokeness has been shut down, and just like the fear of the left wing during the Red Scare, the paranoia of the right has shut down nuance and productive conversation. 

While hate speech must be suppressed, criticizing progressive social movements does not mean opposing their goals, but rather disagreeing with the means employed to achieve them. Unfortunately, opposing perspectives to left-wing ideas have often been dismissed as hate speech, eroding political diversity. Hate and discrimination should be called out, but extremes from the left wing should be criticized as well. Uncomfortable arguments are not always offensive, and freedom of speech is not a right-wing shield for bigotry, but a foundation of liberal democracy. As dialogue fades into silence, those opposed to left-wing ideas are hunted down for being “fascists” and “racists.” Through this, we risk a society where we measure morality through politics. Where just like the fear of the left wing during McCarthyism, the fear of the right wing will shut down productive conversation. If we continue to stifle open dialogue and demonize opposing viewpoints, we will descend into societal echo chambers, plunging into modern-day Salem where fear and feelings dictate discourse and dissenters are branded as heretics.  

Wokeness is not the societal plague that the far right claims it to be, but there are legitimate reasons to criticize the movement. While those reasons can also be criticized, silencing discourse surrounding the movement only empowers the anti-woke, far-right backlash. This, in turn, means that conversations are redirected towards the “to be or not to be woke,” instead of focusing on those the movement initially aimed to uphold. And while the goals of the “woke” movement are honorable, disagreeing with its excesses should not pigeonhole individuals as reactionaries. For real social progress to occur, we need debates and conversations free from the witch hunt of ideological prosecutions. 

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