J.K. Rowling is talking about sex and gender again, which means a lot of people are getting angry. It’s striking how the prospect of a woman eloquently stating her opinions and refusing to stop stating them – even when she has been told to shut up – seems to make some people unhappy.
Because Rowling admirably refused to do as she’s told and be quiet, this is becoming a familiar story. 'Famous author wades into trans row' is good copy. And it gets angry clicks on social media.
None of this changes the minds of people already immersed in this stuff, of course. Those people remain a minority. Politically speaking, the most important aspect of Britain’s gender rows are that they are marginal: the majority of people don’t have developed opinions on the issue. Most polling on the topic should therefore be treated with caution.
About the only thing we can say with confidence is that a lot of people in Britain don’t yet know enough about the sex-gender issue to be sure where they stand on it. Meanwhile, voters may well grow frustrated with politicians who engage with the debate, concluding that their priorities should be set on different issues. (None of this means I think the sex-gender issue is unimportant: something can be important without being salient.) But because J.K. Rowing is famous, proper famous, more people pay attention. And that matters.
What will they think when they look at one of the world’s most famous and, yes, popular authors, speaking out about women and their rights, in the context of an issue that’s contested? My bet is that they’ll think like William of Occam, a 14th-century Franciscan philosopher. Although I suppose they might not know his name.
Occam, indirectly, gave us the law of parsimony, the intellectual device better known as Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is generally the best.
It is a wonderfully useful device that you might consider wildly obvious, but glance at social media and you’ll see how many people forget or ignore it. Occam’s razor cuts through most conspiracy theories in one stroke: cock-up and coincidence are almost always better explanations, especially where governments are concerned. But of course, conspiracy makes better copy, and gets more clicks.
What does Occam have to do with J.K. Rowling? To my mind, the different ways people read her tweets and intentions offer such a good test of that principle of parsimony that the law should be re-launched for the Twitter age.
So I’d like to propose Rowling’s Razor, a question that should be asked of not just the author herself but also of anyone else who raises similar concerns about sex and gender. And it can be used too to look at the impact that pro-trans laws and policies could have on the status and condition of women. It goes something as follows:
Which of these is more likely?
- A person who is otherwise socially liberal and tolerant has taken a position on sex and gender that is driven by prejudice and hatred.
- That person has some concerns about how changes in sex and gender law could have consequences for women and girls.
When I look at J.K. Rowling – and the many other women (and men) I know who take similar positions – I know which of those explanations I find more plausible. And I suspect that most of the people drawn to pay attention to this issue by Rowling’s involvement will reach a similar conclusion.