There are few good things to say about the public conversation around transgender issues, which all too often shows us — all of us — at our worst. But it also offers up a seemingly endless series of case studies illustrating wider problems with the way contemporary culture and institutions deal with difficult ideas.
The latest lesson comes from Boswells School in Chelmsford, Essex. It has dropped J.K. Rowling’s name from one of its houses. Previously, she was honoured as a champion of self-discipline, regarded as a role model for children perhaps for her determination in starting her globally-successful series of books under difficult circumstances. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter novel as a struggling single mother, telling stories to millions of people about a boy-wizard who does the right thing even when it’s difficult.
Nothing in that origin story of Harry Potter has changed. Rowling remains today at least as self-disciplined as she was when Boswells named its house after her. The Harry Potter stories themselves have not changed. The reason for the school’s action is, of course, that she has written things some people didn’t like about the potential for changes in law intended to benefit trans people, which she worries adversely affects the rights of women.
The school does not say, of course, precisely what Rowling has done or said that is wrong: vanishingly few of those who criticise her even bother trying to point to any particular words to justify themselves, probably because her words offer no such justification. Instead, simply discussing trans issues at all is, ipso facto, proof of guilt.
According to the BBC, Boswells School took this decision because Rowling’s 'views on this issue do not align with our school policy and school beliefs'.
Those few words capture something important and dismal about the way some people and organisations conduct themselves today. This approach demands total alignment of a person’s views and positions; anything less must not be tolerated. This is the elimination of nuance.
If you take this position, it is impossible to say of someone: 'I agree with them about X but disagree with them about Y'. Instead, all you can do is divide the world up into two lists: people who you consider acceptable and everyone else. Troubling complexity is wished away, replaced by the childish comfort of oversimplification.
It is all the more striking and miserable that this approach is being adopted by a school and the people who teach there: the decision to rename Rowling House came after 'numerous requests by students and staff,' apparently. If that’s true, it means there are professional educators who cannot or will not explain to children that it is possible to disagree with and criticise some things a person does while also agreeing with and admiring other things they do.
It also suggests deep inconsistency and a lack of intellectual rigour. No doubt it is possible to construct a coherent worldview where a person who holds a position that does not 'align' with your beliefs cannot validly be admired for any of their actions or thoughts. But if that is Boswells’s position, can the school apply it consistently? I ask because of the people whose names remain on its houses.
One of them is Sir David Attenborough. Now, I bow to no one in my admiration of a man whose natural history films remain one of the greatest things about this country (and a reminder to those who would destroy it that the BBC is, on balance, a national asset). But while I strongly admire his work as a broadcaster, I incline towards disagreeing with him about population control.
Sir David has supported Population Matters, formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust. This is an organisation that thinks there are too many people in the world and has previously taken positions including arguing that Britain should not accept more Syrian refugees because there are too many people here already (a view that it has since distanced itself from).
I admire Sir David’s films. I don’t admire his views on population. What does that mean? Not much: that’s just how life works if you don’t attempt to see the world through the narrow lens of 'values' and purity tests. Can we assume that Boswells’s position is that Sir David’s views on population control are consistent with its policies and values?
What about Florence Nightingale, for whom another house is named? Most people, rightly, admire what Nightingale did to improve nursing and medical care. What about her support for colonialism, her belief in the 'necessity of engrafting civilised habits on uncivilised races'?
Presumably, if Boswells rejects house names on the basis that a person holds views inconsistent with the school values, we can infer that by retaining Nightingale House, the school considers Nightingale’s views of race and empire acceptable?
Or — and I’m just speculating here — is it possible that some vestigial part of the school’s collective intelligence remembers that not only is it possible for one person to do admirable things while holding contentious views, but it is also a purpose of education to equip people to understand and appreciate such distinctions?
Since this piece was published, several people have kindly pointed out something I’d missed about this story. The school has replaced the name of J.K. Rowling with that of Dame Kelly Holmes, an Olympic athlete. And guess which issue Dame Kelly has expressed controversial views about...
In the time that I spent writing this piece, a second 'controversy' over Rowling blew up online. Jon Stewart, a US commentator, is reported to have suggested that Rowling’s depiction of goblin bankers in the Potter books is anti-Semitic. Several anti-Semitism campaigners have said this is baseless and pointed to Rowling’s support for their cause.
Without getting into a detailed analysis of the texts, I note simply that the first of those books was published very nearly 25 years ago and have been read by tens of millions of people, at least. So why is the internet only today lighting up with this claim? I’d suggest it’s another illustration of the reduction of the world to stark moral binaries. Because Rowling is a designated a Bad Person — by reason of her trans views — everything she has done must, by definition, be bad. And where the facts awkwardly fail to fit into the intellectual cookie-cutter, they must be cut, shaped and tortured into shape. This is the state of public discourse today, and it is grim.