On January 4, the Guardian published an article by Australian journalist Helen Davidson on assaults in Togoba, Papua New Guinea against people accused of using sorcery to kill a man who died of malaria. She followed this up on January 10 with another report on an attack on the chief justice of PNG and his relatives that was apparently sparked by the rescue of two other women accused of another, earlier sorcery attack. These articles are the latest examples of coverage in the international press of violence against people accused of sorcery both in PNG and elsewhere in the world (see below). I always have mixed feelings when I read these accounts of sorcery belief in various cultures. On the one hand, it is clear that “sorcery accusation-based violence” is a widespread problem in many parts of the world. On the other hand, the reporting of this always seems to depict such incidents through stereotypes, and trivializes the issue while it sensationalizes each individual incident.

For instance, Davidson’s January 4 article suggests ironically that the people of Togoba don’t understand the germ theory of illness but now suddenly possess “camera phones.” Yet there are countless examples where alternative theories exist alongside and are sustained by mass communication technology, viz. climate change denial, anti-vaxxers, and the alternative facts of the Brexit and Trump campaigns. It may be comforting to dismiss these as exceptional instances of public ignorance, but as many have noted there is a universal tendency to hold a view of the world that resonates with one’s identity and value commitments in the face of counterevidence. These false dogmas persist because they feel true to their believers. We can understand sorcery accusations in other cultures when we start here because at least then we can proceed with some degree of humility, if not empathy. Calling these killings “bloodlust” suggests that the killers have no capacity for rationality, when in fact their reasoning is the same as everyone’s.

Indeed, the January 8 attack on the chief justice of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court because of his kin ties to people accused of sorcery by the kin of the alleged victim would suggest that this is a calculated effort by a community to take justice into their own hands, rather than simply being actions motivated by superstition, fear. More often than not, Western reporters imply that all violence in PNG is simply an extension of people’s tribal culture, traditions, and beliefs.

Anthropologists like myself may share some of the blame for journalistic misrepresentations of witchcraft and sorcery beliefs. We have so long encouraged people to see different ways of life as expressions of different beliefs about the world which people acquire from their socialization in specific communities. In doing so, we unintentionally encourage the public to treat different cultures as though they were like different religions. In this view, cultures inculcate fundamentally unshakable views of the universe. It is more accurate to say that cultures teach people what illness and misfortune mean. If sorcery belief is an ethical philosophy, then in it people are responsible for each others’ wellbeing, and even one’s unintentional action and inaction can disturb this social equilibrium. It would be better if journalists accurately and nonjudgementally reflected what really makes cultures different—their values and philosophies—rather than stereotype some cultures as primitive, backward, or ignorant.

It may be that Western readers would still react with shock and horror at what is a fundamentally different kind of politics. Yet at least that is an honest reaction. The problem we face as a global community is this: We must recognize that there are many philosophies about people’s responsibilities to each other, but that neither liberal individualism nor the almost total ecological interdependence imagined by Papua New Guinea societies are sufficient on their own to create a moral world for all of us. Rather than imposing one ethical theory on other people by force, we must all work together to find ways for us all to pursue a plural vision of justice that we can all support.

Further information

Davidson, Helen. 2017. “Mass ‘sorcery’ Murder Trial of More than 100 Men Begins in Papua New Guinea.” The Guardian, March 28, 2017, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/28/mass-sorcery-trial-of-more-than-100-men-begins-in-papua-new-guinea.

Ruiz-Grossman, Sarah. 2016. “Child Abandoned And Accused Of Witchcraft Makes Extraordinary Recovery.” Huffington Post, April 2, 2016, sec. Impact. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/child-abandoned-and-accused-of-witchcraft-makes-extraordinary-recovery_us_56fea74de4b0daf53aef8b01.

The New York Times. 2016. “Fighting Modern-Day Witch Hunts in India’s Remote Northeast.” The New York Times, February 24, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/25/world/asia/india-assam-state-witch-hunts.html.