‘Masterchef’ isn’t the sort of place where one would expect to find inspiration for social comment but I’m still mulling over an odd moment in one of the recent rounds where a competitor was discussing his plan with the judges.
“I’m taking you back to seventeenth-century Salem” he said, explaining his witch-themed creation of a cauldron-based dish served with a ‘monster’s eyeball’ and brightly-coloured slime and accompanied by a pastiche of the witches’ incantation from Macbeth. It was undoubtedly creative (albeit in a rather lowbrow trick-or-treat way) and apparently very well executed but I was finding it hard to concentrate because I was still struggling with his original comment - after all, wasn’t the whole point that there weren’t any actual witches in Salem?
I’ve mentioned ‘The Crucible’ a couple of times recently - the parallels in the world of social media and public life are, alas, inescapable - and, in the course of research, discovered that the social media generation may be interpreting the plot in a novel and somewhat disturbing way. By turning Abigail Williams into a victim and casting the townsfolk as the villains of the piece, the way is opened for a reading in which “I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil” can be accepted as a believable statement.
The aspiring chef’s conflation of the Salem witch-trials and Macbeth was apparently inspired by a film - a product of the usual Hollywood dumbing-down and distortion of history - about actual witches in seventeenth century Massachusetts, presumably leading to the same sort of muddled thinking which has people believing that Frankenstein was a monster with a bolt through his neck. Apart from sadly traducing the innocent (200 accused and 20 executed in a relatively small community), this confusion completely undermines Arthur Miller’s allegory and the point he was making about the evil of witch hunts.
In a world where Oprah fans, defending an imposter who promoted a false misery memoir on the show, can condemn ‘the facts squad; these people make me sick!’ and Prince Harry opines ‘There's just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts’, the play’s courtroom scene becomes a veritable quagmire of shifting truths and values - a problem which has chilling implications for the use of a jury to decide legal cases. If Abigail is assigned the moral superiority and credibility now accorded to victimhood, goes the argument, her truth must be valid, ergo Goody Proctor must be guilty of witchcraft.
Even before this shift in values, my faith in trial by jury was irretrievably undermined when, after some years in a different subject area, I took over another teacher’s English GCSE class and read their coursework essays on ‘Macbeth’; I still shudder at the thought of an innocent defendant trusting in the verdict of jurors who, a few years earlier, despite having read the play and watched a film version, struggled to identify the murderer of Duncan (or, in one case, insisted that it couldn’t have been Macbeth ‘because it’s never the person you think it is at first’).
With the concept of truth under attack from all directions and in an increasingly complex world, trial by jury may be reaching the end of its usefulness as an institution; what hope is there for justice in a world where people believe there really were witches in Salem?