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During the Chinese cultural revolution, students assaulted their teachers. During the French liberation, Nazi collaborators were shaved in the streets. The perpetrators are often described as being in terror of holding back, afraid of being seen as sympathisers, panicky scapegoaters, desperately inciting the mob against others to reduce the threat to themselves.

Is there a phrase or idiom to describe that fear of incrimination by inaction, specifically in the context of (metaphorical) witch hunts?

The men, afraid of [_____], shouted at the prisoners where the soldiers could see.

As noted by @BenjaminHarman: bonus points for conveying both the fear of being associated with a group and the fear of reprisal from another group.

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Your use of "omission" seems kind of strained. It took me a minute to realize what you were asking. Maybe "neutrality" or "passivity" would work better in your title and question. – Silenus Jan 7 at 15:01
There are several words that could be used in such a sentence with additional context, such as: retaliation, reprisal, or (less likely) recrimination. But this request is more specific than those words, in my opinion. – Nonnal Jan 7 at 15:06
How about "fear of incrimination through inaction?" I want to convey that suspicion falls on those who hold back. – user7823 Jan 7 at 15:09
@user7823 : I don't think you will find an idiom that expresses both the fear of being associated with a group and the fear of reprisal from another another group. That's a pretty complex socio-psychology for an idiom. I think you'll have to hone in on either one or the other as far as idioms go, well, other than being stuck between a rock and a hard place. – Benjamin Harman Jan 7 at 15:31
The problem is that the situation is two things coming together: First a "mass hysteria" where some people (not necessarily that many) actually believe the accusations being made, then there must be an environment where "rational" people feel compelled to join in the "hysteria" for fear of being accused themselves. This was seen in Salem during the witch trials, in Nazi Germany, and in China during the Cultural Revolution. It's not a matter of "guilt by association" as "tarred with the same brush" implies, but with the need to actively join the "mob" to avoid accusations. – Hot Licks Jan 8 at 4:59
up vote 9 down vote accepted

"..., afraid of being tarred with the same brush, shouted at..."

Idiom: Tar somebody with the same brush

To believe wrongly that someone or something has the same bad qualities as someone or something that is similar (usually passive)

"I admit that some football supporters do cause trouble but it's not fair that we're all being tarred with the same brush."


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I like Marv's tarred with the same brush, and here are a couple others:

  • Guilt by association - An expression that is less idiomatic but means the same thing: "The men, afraid of guilt by association, shouted..."
  • If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas - Conveying a very similar fear, this idiom would take a slightly different tack, albeit probably a truthful one for some, by saying: "The men, afraid of lying down with dogs, shouted..."
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I think "guilt by association" is the best possible answer to this question, but I would suggest you rephrase your answer to highlight it. As it stands, it looks like you're duplicating Marv's answer, and then just adding on some other suggestions. If you like Marv's answer you can just upvote it, you don't need to reiterate it. – Chris Sunami Jan 7 at 15:49
@Chris Sunami : Thanks for the feedback. I took your advice and rephrased my answer in order to highlight for the OP the additional suggestions. – Benjamin Harman Jan 7 at 16:31

Afraid of being accused of complicity...

From Merriam Webster:

complicity: association or participation in or as if in a wrongful act.


Afraid of being seen as complicitous...

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition © 2008.

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I think that [to side with] covers it pretty well. For example, "many people sided with the victors" or "sided with the people looking for scapegoats". The expression conveys that the people did not originally take part of the event but chose (out of several motives) to join the actuation of one side.

If you want to explicity the motives, that is to be exposed later "many people sided with the punishers out of fear of being targetted themselves" or "many people sided with the punishers to make a public show of loyalty".

UPDATE: Depending of the emotional context, another valid option could be "let themselves be part of the mob". The difference would be that the above option would be part of a calculated position to get something, while this last one relates to a situation were people is stressed, has pending issues ("I did not dare to attack the German soldiers so now that I am safe I will take revenge in collaborationists"), etc.

Of course, in a real situation I would expect a lot of differents POV; some individuals may act due to actual reasons (knows X became a colaborationist out of greed), others may just become part of the mob and imitate what they see and some others may just be avoiding to be blamed. Assuming a single purpose for a group of individuals is always tricky and due precaution is advised.

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How about "[sided with Y], desperate to acquit their own guilt" ? – user7823 Jan 8 at 0:17
Depends of what you want to express. The OP means (to me) not as much "acquiting their guilt" as "avoiding the blame". If you want to acquit your guilt, you do something to repair your guilt (enlist for volunteer work, v.g.; attacking defenseless people does little to repair your fault). If what you want is that no one hurts you, you make a show of how righteous you are by attacking such a people and claiming that they are nothing like you and the only people to blame are "the ones who got caught"). – SJuan76 Jan 8 at 0:24
Of course, all of the above begins sliding into slippery territory because it depends on people being honest to themselves, which sometimes is quite a feat by itself. It may even be different between different cultural groups, with some cultures considering such actions as a way to effectively purge the blame.... – SJuan76 Jan 8 at 0:26
This is touching on the issue, but not really conveying the full weight of it. I would think that a good answer should somehow illuminate the moral dilemma faced by "decent" people when placed in this situation -- join the lynch mob or become one of those being lynched. – Hot Licks Jan 10 at 21:48

There's a simple one-word term for what you describe: conformism (synonym: peer pressure). However, I'm not sure how to insert "conformism" in your example sentence...

"The men, afraid of [X], shouted at the prisoners where the soldiers could see."

Here are some possibilities:

Afraid of being seen as subversives, the men shouted...

Afraid of being perceived as members of the opposition, the men shouted...

Fearing being labeled traitors, the men shouted...

Afraid of being perceived as disloyal (or unpatriotic), the men shouted...

To emphasize a fear of punishment, you could replace the verbs with punished, or something similar...

Afraid of being punished as traitors...

Afraid of being ostracized or worse...

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The men, afraid of being indicted, shouted at the prisoners where the soldiers could see.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

(BrEng) If a ​law ​court or a ​grand ​jury indicts someone, it ​accuses them ​officially of a ​crime:
He was indicted on ​charges of ​fraud

(AmEng) to ​accuse someone ​officially of a ​crime:
Five ​people were indicted on ​charges of robbery.

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Indictment usually comes after arrest (or sometimes without detention when crime is not serious) but certainly after investigation of suspects. You can't indict people before any investigation is conducted and concluded by the police or prosecutors and the word doesn't seem to fit in the context. "Arrested" would fit better than "indicted" I think. – Rathony Jan 10 at 12:11
@Rathony but if there was an investigation then several suspects could be indicited. If the men screaming at the prisoners are aware that the authorities are performing a "witch hunt", they would not want to be on that list. But I might be wrong on this issue. – Mari-Lou A Jan 10 at 12:23
The way I understand from the context is those people (shouting) are afraid of being arrested for the same reason as those prisoners (already arrested) because they supported the same cause. I just upvoted Jim's answer and I think he nailed it. I thought about posting "being arrested for conspiracy" as an answer, but it could not be better than the two answers by Marv Mills and Benjamin. You are not wrong, but the word is a bit stretched. It's up to you. :-) – Rathony Jan 10 at 12:29

A one-word synonym of "tarred with the same brush" or "guilt by association" proposed by @BenjaminHarman is stigmatized.

Definition: to describe or regard something, such as a characteristic or group of people, in a unfairly way that shows strong disapproval.

Example: People should not be stigmatized on the ​basis of ​race

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