The purge is on. Mobs are toppling statues of historical figures; television streaming services are busy removing potentially offensive comedy shows and universities are falling over themselves to disown former benefactors. Now The Weald Community School in West Sussex has decided to join in with this latest trend, and has dropped the name of a house which had been intended to honour the author JK Rowling. One would have thought that a woman who reignited children’s literature for a generation would be worthy of a house name, but the school authorities clearly take a different view.
This is just the latest twist in an ongoing row over Rowling’s apparently outrageous claim that there is such a thing as biological sex. With activists determined to promote a new kind of reality, telling the truth has become a dangerous act. A liberal democracy cannot be sustained if we are not able to express ourselves honestly for fear of “cancellation”. Rowling knows this, and is right not to capitulate to those who are attempting to browbeat her into silence.
With activists determined to promote a new kind of reality, telling the truth has become a dangerous act … Rowling knows this, and is right not to capitulate. – Andrew Doyle
It all started a couple of years ago, when Rowling accidentally “liked” a tweet from a gender critical feminist. This was taken as evidence of transphobia and she was subject to attacks from online activists and in the LGBT press. The major catalyst came last December, after tax expert Maya Forstater lost a tribunal against her employers for wrongful dismissal. She had been fired after voicing her opposition to the government’s proposed amendments to the Gender Recognition Act, which would have allowed trans people to self-identify as the opposite sex without medical consultation. Rowling tweeted her support using the hashtag #IStandWithMaya, writing: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
The backlash has been seismic. Extreme trans activists, well-known for their viciousness and bullying tactics, bombarded Rowling with threats and misogynistic abuse. It goes without saying that this behaviour can hardly be said to be representative of trans people as a whole and many decent trans people have expressed dismay at the damage this is doing to public perception. The situation escalated even further last week when Rowling criticised an article for its use of the phrase “people who menstruate” rather than “women”. The subsequent abuse reached fever pitch; many of the worst offenders have been collated on the website Medium under the title “JK Rowling and the trans activists: a story in screenshots”. Some former Harry Potter fans have even gone so far as to burn their copies of Rowling’s books. If they knew their history, they might think twice about the optics of such a move.
This week Rowling, issued a lengthy statement on her website to outline her thought process surrounding this most controversial of topics. She explained that her experiences as a victim of domestic abuse had led to her interest in trans issues and the concerns that feminists have raised about the threat to single-sex spaces that may result from gender self-identification. Those who read Rowling’s statement with an open mind could not possibly infer that she felt any hatred or prejudice towards trans people – and yet this is the astonishing conclusion that many have reached. It hasn’t helped that the stars of the Harry Potter films – Daniel Radcliffe, Eddie Redmayne and Emma Watson – have denounced Rowling for her opinions.
Too often, well-intentioned activists are advancing an absolutist worldview which is unsustainable when set against the experiential reality of the vast majority of people. – Andrew Doyle
Predictably, these actors have parroted the usual mantras such as “trans women are women”. This is a common tactic of those who have been intoxicated by the social justice ideology. Rather than open up a discussion about difficult issues, there is a tendency to simply make assertions and treat with hostility anyone who challenges them. The proposition that “trans women are women” is the beginning of a debate, but the likes of Radcliffe treat it as though it is an irrefutable truth. To simply demand that the public subscribes to a particular viewpoint without even attempting to persuade people – not least a viewpoint that, until very recently, would have been countenanced by virtually no one – is always likely to generate resentment. This approach works against the cause of equal rights for trans people and it makes a mockery of activists’ pretensions to be (in any way) progressive.
Rowling’s courage in the face of such an onslaught has been remarkable. Anyone who has ever been the subject of a social media frenzy will appreciate how psychologically damaging it can be and for a figure as famous as Rowling, the extent of this frenzy is unfathomable.
There is an ongoing struggle in our culture between those who value liberal principles such as free speech and inquiry and those who favour the intolerance of ideological mobs. – Andrew Doyle
Most celebrities are in lockstep over this issue. The actor George Takei offered a representative example when he tweeted: “When you defend so-called “biological sex,” you sound scientifically ignorant and you elevate transphobia”. But biology is not something that can be simply wished away. Too often, well-intentioned activists are advancing an absolutist worldview which is unsustainable when set against the experiential reality of the vast majority of people. In spite of their determination, this isn’t an argument that they can win. As Leslie Stephen noted in Hours in a Library: “Facts revenge themselves upon the man who denies their existence”.
There is always value in telling the truth in the face of pressure to conform. Even for those who take issue with Rowling’s perspective, she surely deserves respect for her honesty in such a febrile climate. When it comes to contentious issues we need more conversation, not less. There is an ongoing struggle in our culture between those who value liberal principles such as free speech and inquiry and those who favour the intolerance of ideological mobs. That Rowling is refusing to kowtow to voguish groupthink is a promising sign that all is not lost.
Andrew Doyle is a writer and satirist. He is the creator of the fictional activist and slam poet Titania McGrath, under whose name he has written two books – Woke: A Guide to Social Justice and My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism.
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