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Witch trials, TERF wars and the voice of conscience in a new podcast about J.K. Rowling

One of the year’s most anticipated podcasts, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, has just launched. Only two episodes of the audio documentary are currently available, with more to follow in the coming weeks.

Rowling is arguably the world’s most successful fiction author. She reigns over the multibillion-dollar Harry Potter industry, which includes books, theme parks, films and computer games.

But it is the controversy over Rowling’s statements on gender and trans rights that have fuelled the wider public interest in the podcast. These are not the focus of the early episodes, which nevertheless provide some revealing contextualising information about her stance.

What’s all the fuss about?

Even before 2020, when Rowling tweeted her frustration about an article that referred to “people who menstruate”, questions about her stance on trans issues had been building.

In 2019, Rowling came out in support of Maya Forstater, who lost her job for tweets disputing whether transgender women can change their sex. Forstater claimed her employer had unfairly discriminated against her. Last year, an employment tribunal agreed.

There was an immediate groundswell of protest against Rowling’s tweets, with many people – including lifelong Harry Potter fans – calling out her claims as “transphobic”. Several actors in the Harry Potter films distanced themselves from Rowling with strong messages of support for trans people. Stephen King, an idol of Rowling’s, was blocked by her on Twitter after he tweeted: “Trans women are women”.

Rowling then published an essay, explaining that while she sympathised with many trans people’s need for safety, she had concerns about the contemporary trans movement. These included the explosion of young women wishing to transition into men, the safety of women’s spaces being compromised if they were opened to biological males, and the climate of fear that many experience when discussing these issues publicly.

Rowling discussed how her view was shaped by her own challenges with sexuality as a young woman, and being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor.

The essay was the subject of immediate controversy. Many asserted it was dangerous and transphobic. Rowling was castigated as a “TERF”: a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. (Many of Rowling’s supporters prefer the term “gender critical”.) Commentators penned detailed arguments that Rowling’s claims were flawed and baseless.

The wider context

One relevant context of Rowling’s position concerns the status, safety and legal protections available to trans people. Another is the state of free speech, the polarisation of public debate, and the implications of disagreement in the contemporary world.

Less than a month after her Twitter controversy, Rowling was a signatory to an open letter published in Harper’s magazine, claiming that “open debate and toleration of differences” were under attack. Rowling’s signature sat alongside those of many other famous authors and scholars, including Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem and Noam Chomsky.

Spearheaded and drafted by US author and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams, the letter argued there was increasing censoriousness characterised by:

an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.

The Open Letter created its own controversy, with other luminaries speaking out against it.

Almost three years on, the culture wars continue on this issue. What some see as necessary measures to prevent harms and respond to systemic inequality, others see as “cancel culture” – the practice of responding to disagreeable views with efforts to deplatform, disinvite, suppress or punish the speaker. As a culture, we seem to have lost the capacity to disagree constructively.

There is little sign such views are abating. Indeed, a 2022 survey of UK university students showed a hardening of positions against free expression, with a third of those polled thinking academics should be fired if they teach material that heavily offends some students.

What now?

The podcast aims to explore this larger context. As the host, Megan Phelps-Roper, explains:

The longer I watched the current controversy unfold, the more I wanted to understand: how did the people in these conflicts view what was happening? How did Rowling understand herself and her critics, past and present – and vice versa? Why had she chosen this hill to die on? And how had the conversation devolved so fully that it didn’t seem possible to have a productive conversation at all?

Behind the documentary is The Free Press, a new media company that is no stranger to reporting on trans issues. It recently published a whistleblower’s harrowing account of practices in a US paediatric gender clinic.

Phelps-Roper has her own intriguing backstory, having been born into the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. In her teens, she protested at funerals of US soldiers, whose deaths the Church saw as punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. When she was put in charge of the Church’s Twitter account, she encountered many angry responses, but also genuine dialogue. When people pointed out contradictions in the Church’s positions, her previously unshakeable faith was shaken.

Ultimately, Phelps-Roper left the Church and married the man who had, via Twitter, helped to change her mind. She remains a believer in the power of conversation.

Megan Phelps-Roper. Chris Pizzello/AP

Read more: Hogwarts Legacy's game mechanics reflect the gender essentialism at the heart of Harry Potter

Plotted in Darkness

The first episode, Plotted in Darkness, explores the dark place that was Rowling’s life as a young woman.

It opens with Rowling being asked why she thinks stories about magic are so appealing. She reflects that magic provides agency. It is a secret power, seductive to those who lack control over their lives. Children in particular have little agency, she observes.

Rowling speaks from personal experience. Power over one’s destiny is a thread that weaves in complicated ways through her life story. In her own voice, she describes her life in her late twenties. We hear of the death of her mother, her abusive marriage, the poverty and insecurity she experienced as a single parent on welfare, and her struggles with mental health.

And yet all the while she was working, plotting out and writing the manuscript that would one day be her ticket to financial security and popular acclaim. Rowling’s abusive and controlling husband, we learn, literally held the pages of the Harry Potter manuscript hostage to control her and prevent her from fleeing his violence.

It will be a hard-hearted listener who remains unmoved by Rowling’s extraordinary rags-to-riches life story.

Burn the Witch

Episode two, Burn the Witch, reminds us that the current controversy is not the first time Rowling has been subjected to outraged calls that her work be suppressed.

In the 1990s, those calls came from a very different political standpoint. When Harry Potter became an unprecedented publishing and cultural phenomenon, and the spiritual practice of Wicca began having its own cultural moment, evangelical Christians in the US became alarmed about a children’s book depicting witchcraft positively.

The Harry Potter books were widely available in school libraries and often read aloud in class. Driven in part by a pre-existing sense of persecution, Christian parents on school boards demanded Rowling’s books be banned. The matter wound up in court.

The documentary’s sympathetic interviews with the lawyers on both sides explain the concerns of Christian parents and the broader civil liberties at play. Ultimately, First Amendment arguments prevailed. The court decided children had a right to access age-appropriate books, even when their parents disagreed with the works on religious grounds.

Seen from the present moment, there are rich ironies in these histories. Rowling has twice faced the ire of large movements, although from political positions that could hardly be more opposed. Both times, concerns for the safety of children were invoked as a reason for banning, boycotting or burning her work.

Intriguingly, the very US law cases deciding whether Rowling’s book could be banned by school boards are now precedents helping protect LGBQT literature from contemporary religious efforts to ban it.

The podcast records another irony. The first episode notes that the pen name J.K. Rowling is an invention – Joanne Rowling has no middle name. Worried that boys would not read a book by a female author, her publishers opted for an author name that was gender-neutral.

Read more: Harry Potter and the legacy of the world's most famous boy wizard

The voice of conscience?

As Plotted in Darkness moves to its close, the documentary provides the first hints as to why Rowling might have taken the stance that has generated the contemporary controversy.

The Harry Potter books have a curious quality. There is no question they are a classic tale of good triumphing over evil. But at the same time, the characters are flawed and complex. First impressions are often misleading. Nowhere is this truer than with Dumbledore and Snape, who ultimately defy easy categorisation.

When Phelps-Roper asks Rowling about her views on the nature of morality and conscience, Rowling responds that in Harry Potter there is no black and white. Evil-doers are as likely as anyone to be sure of their righteousness.

For Rowling, the voice of conscience is not a loud rush of adrenaline that provides certainty. Rather, it is a quiet voice that urges us to mistrust our initial reactions and to enquire further, to push back against the world that tells us (as the Dursleys’ demand of Harry) to stop asking questions.

Ethical questions

There are a host of ethical questions we can ask about Rowling’s stance on trans issues and the controversy it has generated. Most obviously, we can ask whether we think Rowling is right, or partly right, or entirely wrong, in her views on trans rights. At time of writing, the documentary has not delved into these controversies.

But there is a further set of ethical questions that have been broached by the first two episodes. These concern how Rowling should be treated if she is in the wrong. Does she have the right to speak wrongly? The issue here is ethical, not legal. Just because some speech might be legally protected does not mean it is morally right.

If we think Rowling is wrong, there are several moral judgements we might make. We might decide she is incorrect in her claims, but not morally wrong in voicing them. It is possible to be incorrect without being immoral.

Or we might regard Rowling’s speech as morally wrong. However, we can’t suppress every wrongful speaker. Her act is (we might say) wrong but tolerable.

Or we might decide that Rowling’s speech is morally wrong and she should be (non-violently) punished, socially castigated, and silenced.

Wrong but tolerable?

The view that Rowling’s claims are wrong but should be tolerated might come from thinking about the interpersonal ethics of argument and disagreement. Ethical respect for others requires us to accept that others are entitled to form their own views, free from threat and coercion.

This view might also come from a political perspective that says that, in a democracy, everyone’s views and issues must be in principle open for discussion. Open deliberation is no less necessary than elections in creating genuinely democratic outcomes.

Rowling’s discussion of the quiet voice of conscience, the need for questioning, and her pushback against simplistic black-and-white moralities provides her own argument for the tolerance of opposing views and flawed people. These themes and ideas from her books support her current concerns about free discussion and the climate of fear currently surrounding the discourse on fraught social issues such as trans rights.

In so doing, Rowling positions herself in opposition to those who – as she sees it – picture the world in increasingly black-and-white terms, and who righteously demand that some topics may not be discussed.

At the same time, Rowling has her own “tribe” whom she supports, and who support her. Gender-critical views themselves can seem worryingly black-and-white, and can be held with furious righteousness. Perhaps we can hope future episodes will explore how Rowling stands up for toleration and nuance against her allies as much as her foes (to recall another worthy Harry Potter theme).

Read more: Harry Potter and the surprisingly poignant literary theme

Wrong and intolerable?

Why then might somebody hold the view that Rowling’s views are both wrong and intolerable?

They may think that a person who is immoral and transphobic simply deserves punishment. But often the view will be that – even if some views might be wrong-but-tolerable – Rowling’s are intolerable because they are dangerous and harmful.

Rowling’s critics stress high suicide rates among trans people, and the damaging abuse they suffer. In the effect they have had on vulnerable trans people and aggressive anti-trans people, Rowling’s words might be argued to be literally killing people. The documentary has not yet relayed the voices of trans activists and allies raising these concerns, for which we must await the coming episodes.

Yet there is reason for wariness about making allegations of harm against speakers. (I term such claims “meta-argument allegations”.) The belief that what one’s opponents say is not merely wrong but harmful is not new. It is ancient, perhaps as old as censorship itself. Indeed, it is baked into human psychology. Simply hearing evidence that opposes deeply held beliefs can trigger feelings of being insulted and threatened.

Allegations of harm are easy to make. There are many ways speech might be dangerous. Such allegations are inevitably contested, but the ease of making claims of harm leads to a problem of moral consistency.

Suppose Rowling is responsible for the threats and abuse levelled at trans people, and the subsequent fear they might have about sharing their views, in the wake of her comments? If so, then aren’t activists calling Rowling a transphobe responsible for the threats and misogynist abuse levelled at her and those she supports, and the subsequent fear they might have about sharing their views?

These worries only go so far. Surely at least some harmful speech – such as hate speech or incitement to violence – should be subject to social censure, if not legal constraint.

Rowling’s special status

A final ethical question is whether Rowling specifically shouldn’t be taking an anti-trans position. Countless fans forged a special connection with her work. Young trans readers found deep parallels with their transition and Harry Potter’s journey. Do authors acquire a special responsibility not to betray the fans they have profoundly touched?

Many of us will await the later episodes to make our final judgements on many of the issues Rowling’s books and words have raised. But perhaps on this issue we have heard Rowling’s central line of defence, and it is a powerful one.

In the podcast’s trailer, Rowling observes with some suspicion the pedestal on which she had been placed. To fans who argue she has betrayed her legacy, she says: “You could not have misunderstood me more profoundly.”

The heroes in Rowling’s books are not flawless. They are not worthy of our blind adoration or tribal allegiance. They are at their best when they are listening, searching and doubting, acknowledging the complexity and diversity of the world around them.

Perhaps Rowling could have remained silent, and remained beloved. But, for wrong or right, that is not what her heroes do.

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