Just as John Proctor defends his name and his honour, many journalists defend the truth. Called “the voice from the grave” the final editorial written by the Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge foreshadowed his own death because he refused to compromise his principles and took an impartial stance on the ethnic rivalry between the Tamils and the Singhalese. He criticised the Sri Lankan Government’s discriminatory treatment of the Tamils who he said were ‘deprived of all self respect”. “When finally I am killed it will be the Government that kills me, he wrote (referring to President Mahinda Rajapakse). He hinted at the killers from within the ranks of Sri Lanka’s Government and detailed its flouting of democracy. Wickrematunge was shot in the head in Colombo by two gunmen on a motorcycle.
Likewise, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, refused to compromise his beliefs. He was sentenced to 11 year’s prison for exercising his international and domestic rights to free expression and for using non-violence to protest against human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government. In his pro-democracy manifesto known as Charter 08, he called for political reform in China, including the right to freedom of expression, of assembly and of religion. His wife, Lui Xia and bystander, is under house arrest and has not been accused of committing a crime. His wife also suffered high penalties. She was placed under house arrest, but was not accused of committing a crime.
In 1968 it was Mexico City’s turn to stage the Olympic Games, and Peter Norman represented Australia. It is often forgotten, however that Norman won the silver medal in the 200m; he was blacklisted by the Olympic Committee because of his outspoken support for fellow (African American) medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Peter Norman stood on the pedestal bearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, whilst Smith and Carlos raised their fists in symbolism of Black Power for racial equality. Whether we feel compelled to take a stand or remain impartial, ordinary people have the potential to defy the odds and act in extraordinary ways that can restore our faith in humanity.
Conflict always involves choices
Consider these two contrasting examples. In 2009, Trooper Mark Donaldson was the first Australian soldier for 40 years to receive the Victoria Cross medal – for his fearless actions in Afghanistan. Braving an onslaught of enemy firepower, he dangerously exposed himself to enemy fire, enabling back up forces to recover the wounded soldiers. Such heroic acts show us what it is to be a true Australian. In this case, his actions show us that he could not walk away from danger; in particular the danger that threatened his mates.
Compare this to another story. In 2012, an American army staff sergeant civilians entered three Afghan family’s homes at 3am and began a vicious killing spree. He killed 9 children and 3 women. Relatives said he poured chemicals over their dead bodies and burned them. One wonders whether this soldier, who evidently reached his breaking point, as Ivan Pavlov (ground-breaking psychologist) would say, suffers from remorse.
Indeed, as Miller reminds us, the choices we make under pressure reflect our personality, our views and our values. He writes: “a character is defined by the kinds of challenges he cannot walk away from. And by those he had walked away from that cause him remorse.”
Sometimes, the nature of some conflicts force people to compromise their principles due to self-interest or fear. Some, however, are able to retain dignity and honesty no matter how hefty the price.
During times of conflict or stress people are forced to make choices. Sometimes the choices may involve defending their principles and integrity or compromising their views and values.
Many individuals in Salem, like the soldiers fighting for their lives, are faced with a fundamental choice – to survive or not to survive. Many characters in Salem risk their lives because they adhere to their fundamental moral beliefs and refuse to confess to the pact with the devil. When Giles Corey faces the test of life or death, he clings to his faith and sense of honesty. He asks for “more weight”. Similarly, just before he is hanged, Proctor affirms his moral commitment: “now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor”. Finally, he meets his death with pride and dignity. Specifically, John Proctor must decide whether or not to sign the confession. Also he needs to decide the best way of protecting his wife’s honour which he knows will involve the exposure of his infidelity in a very public forum. However, his conscience dictates to him the need to clear any suspicion surrounding his wife’s integrity and confess his sins.
People may also be driven by greed or self-interest and deal with conflict in a brutal and negative ways. Although conflict involves choices, people are likely to choose the side which is expedient for them, usually because of self-interest.
Sadly, many people make poor choices or choices they regret during conflict, often because they lack the confidence or life skills to deal with the situation. In 2007, Brodie Panlock committed suicide because of relentless workplace bullying. She suffered “unbearable levels of humiliation” because she did not know how to cope with such discrimination and offensive comments.
Likewise, Mary Warren’s dilemma is typical of those who are caught up in a conflict which demands life skills that they simply do not possess. She has to choose between following court orders and supporting the hysterical claims of the girls, or upholding her values and telling the truth. She is typical of those who are forced to compromise their views and honesty due to anxiety and pressure from the court and her peers. Initially she is determined to reveal to the court that the girls are lying, and is buoyed by John Proctor’s advice about the angel Raphael, “do that which is good and no harm shall come to thee.” However, she becomes so intimidated by the Governor, Danforth, that she cowers before his threats. He tells her authoritatively, “You will confess or you will hang!” This emotional stress leaves her an emotional wreck. Under Danforth’s stern questioning, she is not able to stand firm to her principles and chooses to confess.
The theme of mass hysteria; the contagious nature of fear
Arthur Miller bases his play The Crucible on the McCarthy-style witchhunts that waged against communists in the 1940s and 50s in America. More recently, the congressional committee investigating the radicalisation of Muslims in America has also been labelled a McCarthy-style witchhunt by many civil rights campaigners.
Miller describes the witchhunt as a “perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom”. In other words, he recognises the disruption to the balance of power in Salem, Masuchusetts. 1692. He believes that the contagious spread of fear erupts when change threatens the established status quo.
Specifically in Salem, there is tension in the community between the church authorities and many of the citizens who are seeking greater freedom of expression especially in terms of the way they worship. For example, John Proctor and a group in the community are questioning the manner in which the religious authorities are seeking to control their lives. They do not approve of many of the Reverend Parris’s sermons and his emphasis on material comfort and props. They do not believe, as Reverend Parris, does that the golden candle sticks are so important. Parris is also complaining about people who are no longer frequenting the church. In contrast, Proctor believes that he can be a god-fearing person without necessarily going to church.
With regards to the contagious spread of fear, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, identified the use of violence and fear that propped up unpopular dictatorships. He states that Bashar al- Assad in Syria “rules by fear” and the desire to “strike fear in the heart of your people by letting them know that you play by no rules at all, so they won’t ever, ever, think about rebelling against you.”
Likewise during the 1940 and 50s, there was increasing tension between the god-fearing democrats in America and the atheistic communist Russian power. At the height of the Cold War, this tension dominated world politics and the Americans feared a spread of Russian power as well as communist infiltration. Post-war, communism spread throughout Eastern Europe and China.
The witch-hunt against communism sought to stamp out the perceived threat of communism as it was spreading throughout Eastern Europe and China. Joseph McCarthy, an American Senator, made a public accusation that more than two hundred “card-carrying” communists had infiltrated the United States government. However, the accusations proved to be untrue. Many people suffered the stigma of being called a communist sympathizer and lost their passport. There were many trials often based on unsubstantiated accusations, just like Abigail’s. Although there were no executions, these destroyed careers. Up to 320 artists were blacklisted, which for many meant the end of their careers – this brought about a great deal of professional and personal anguish.
Likewise, throughout the Muslim world, blasphemy laws have become a cover for similar types of victim-blaming under the guise of the Koran’s “charitable injunctions”. In countries such as Pakistan, religious conservatives resist the attempt by legal reformers to change the country’s blasphemy law. It states that anyone found to have defiled the name of Muhammad in writing or speech should be punished with life imprisonment or death. Up to 65 people, including lawyers and judges, have been murdered since 1990 over blasphemy allegations. The conviction of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, drew international condemnation and revealed the tendency to accuse Christians or “infidels” of crimes. The governor of the Punjab province was gunned down in 2011 because he criticised the blasphemy law which is often exploited by individuals who wish to silence or kill people against whom they may have a grievance. Contrastingly, many like Governor Danforth, believe that one is either “with us or against us”. Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the leader of the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat lawyers’ Forum, believes that the punishment for blasphemy should be “only death”.
As Miller points this, the contagious spread of such charges is more likely to happen when social order and stability are under threat. The fear of communism revealed the fragility of a capitalist democratic system that wavered under the yoke of freedom. For this reason, McCarthy and his followers were able to whip up enormous fear in the community. As in Salem, the prosecutors eventually conclude that there was a lack of evidence. In Salem, the court relied solely on the dubious evidence of the girls, and adopted the view that a person was “either with this court or against it”. The court dismissed Proctor’s petition defending his good credentials. During the McCarthy era trials, the level of threat posed by the artist’s or person’s “left” leanings was exaggerated by those in a position of power. As in Miller’s Crucible, many people were not prepared to stand up against McCarthy and the anti-communist machine. Many feared the loss of their jobs. Miller’s friend and director, Elia Kazan provides such an example.
In April 1952, Elia Kazan revealed to Arthur Miller that he was prepared to “cooperate with the Committee”. The President of Twentieth Century Fox had given him an ultimatum. They would not employ him unless he satisfied the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating an individual’s “red-leanings”. Kazan confessed to Miller: “He had been subpoenaed and had refused to cooperate but had changed his mind and returned to testify fully in executive session, confirming some dozen names of people he had known in his months in the Party so long ago.” (Timebends, 333)
More recently, spokespeople have have criticised Americans for waging a McCarthy-style witchhunt against “radicalised” Muslims or those who have travelled overseas to certain countries. In the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans established a congressional committee to investigate the “radicalisation of American Muslims’. Its aim is to investigate Muslims who have been suspected of visiting countries with terrorist training camps such as Yemen and Somalia.
As Miller points out, people need someone to blame during times of change. They need to find a scapegoat to deflect blame from themselves. What is particularly insidious for Miller is that people were also able to justify their grievances in such a way that made them look respectable. It seemed as if they were acting on behalf of the common good. It “suddenly became possible – and patriotic and holy – for a man to say that Martha Corey had come into his bedroom at night”. One could not “ordinarily speak such things in public”. He believes that the witchhunt is dangerous because they are able to express “long-held hatreds of neighbours” all in the “arena of morality”.
Thomas Putnam is a typically opportunistic character who seeks to take revenge for past grievances. Not only does he and his wife blame Rebecca Nurse for their still-born babies but he also resents the fact that the parish gave the ministry to George Burroughs in preference to Putnam’s brother in law, Bayley. He took the slight personally and felt that his family’s reputation had been “smirched”. Rebecca Nurse is one of the first “decent” people accused of witchcraft. Abigail also seeks to settle scores with Goody Proctor and resents the fact that she dismissed her from the house after an affair with her husband, John.