The tale of JK Rowling, finally revealed as a modern-day witch guilty of wickedness over sex and gender, is one of those stories that captures just about everything bad about this issue and about public conversation conducted via, and shaped by, social media. Rowling’s crime was to tweet that biological sex is real and should not be subordinated to the subjective concept of gender.
'My life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it's hateful to say so,' she wrote. 'If sex isn't real, there's no same-sex attraction. 'If sex isn't real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.'
If you haven’t seen this discussed on Twitter or another platform, just google her and pick from one of a few dozen news items published about the author and her views by media outlets around the world. This illustrates the first flaw of a Twitterised public culture. Most of those pieces of 'news' consist of repeating (or just reproducing) reactions on Twitter to Rowling’s own tweets on sex and transgender issues.
Here I may sound like an old-fashioned hack, but I do remember a time when 'news' meant more than 'things some people are saying'. The traditional vox pop, a report based on a few non-randomly selected remarks from a few non-randomly selected people, has always had its place in journalism, but that place was rightly low down the list of important, serious formats.
No longer. Now though 'some people said things on Twitter' is news, apparently. At the same time, a lot of media executives have come to worry that people don’t value their products enough to pay for them any more. I offer no further comment on that striking coincidence.
The second lesson of modern life played out in the degradation of the transgressor Rowling is that the world must always be divided neatly into good people and bad people. Good people are entirely good and so is everything they do. Bad people are bad, and likewise everything associated with them.
Hence those 'stories' are full of people on Twitter weeping at Rowling’s betrayal and how it poisons her work and very existence. People who just loved the Harry Potter books now simply cannot bear to think of those stories now that they know their author holds opinions that differ from their own, apparently. Perhaps this surprises you. Perhaps you think: surely it’s possible to disagree with someone on one thing without presuming them evil? Can’t you dislike an artist’s stance on an issue while also seeing merit in their work? Apparently not.
It will be no surprise if the Rowling 'story' soon includes 'calls' (from people on Twitter, obviously) for her books to be removed from libraries, withheld from children or just burned. And how did JK Rowling go from good to bad? How did the creator of one of the world’s favourite childhood stories go from being beloved and benign to the someone who is routinely (and tellingly) described on Twitter as a 'c**t'?
This lesson of modern life is most particular to the trans debate, though it relates to the broader Twitterisation of culture. Bad people don’t just do bad things. They have bad motives. It is impossible for someone to say something with which you disagree for decent, honest reasons. People who reach different conclusions to you are not well-meaning but mistaken. They are wrong and bad. End of.
In the trans debate, this means that anyone who – like evil old JK – raises questions and doubts about the implications of legally recognising as female any male-born person who describes themselves as a woman is, ipso facto, a hateful transphobe. The only viable explanation for such actions is bigotry and prejudice.
This is where the narrative of trans orthodoxy is at its most fragile, and this is one of the reasons for the relentless barrage of abuse now directed at Rowling. (The other reasons are mostly to do with the way a certain sort of person involved in this issue feels and reacts when women disagree with them and refuse to comply with their preferences.) How on earth does the priesthood of transgenderism explain to their flock that JK Rowling has become a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, one of those 'terfs' who it’s OK to threaten or even assault?
I don’t know Rowling, but I suspect she would not object to being called progressive and liberal. She has given tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds to charities. She donated to Gordon Brown’s Labour party, was friendly with Barack Obama and used to work at Amnesty International (long before it embraced trans orthodoxy, I should note). She opposed Brexit. She is not, in short, someone who can be described as a social conservative. If Left and Right still mean anything, she’s on the Left.
So are many of the women (and men) who have gone before her on the road to terfdom. Most of the feminist campaign groups and grassroots organisations that have sprung up to raise concerns about the interaction of 'trans rights' and women’s legal and social status are driven by women on the left of politics. Woman’s Place UK, the most prominent of those groups, was founded by lifelong trade unionists. Among their supporters in the Labour movement were several senior figures in the inner circle of Jeremy Corbyn.
All this is awkward for the witchfinders now seeking to put the scold’s bridle on the wicked Rowling. Having explained, tirelessly, that anyone who does not repeat the catechism of transgenderism ('Trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary') is guilty of mortal sin, they still struggle to explain where that sin originates.
The best hope of the zealots is to suggest that the failure to embrace trans orthodoxy is somehow part of a nasty, regressive social conservative agenda driven by mysteriously powerful right-wing Americans. Look at Trump and those Republicans fixated on bathrooms! (Ignore inconvenient facts like Hillary Clinton’s refusal to say the holy words ) Remember Section 28 banning teaching about homosexuality! (Ignore the fact that sexuality and gender are different things.) The terfs are all part of the global march of regressive populists intent on unravelling progressive societies. Or something.
And this is why JK Rowling – clever, thoughtful, nuanced JK Rowling – presents such a threat to all those people who talk about 'terfs' and what should happen to women who say things they don’t like. Because if you’re going to shout about the views of JK Rowling and her wickedness, you’re going to have to come up with an explanation for that wickedness, and in so doing, to ask people to reach their own conclusions.
Here are two broad explanations for JK Rowling, and a lot of other women (and men) of progressive, liberal views challenging transgender orthodoxy by asking about its consequences for women, their rights and their security.
The first explanation is that a lot of people who have previously been firmly on the liberal-left side of politics have – secretly – been converted to social conservatism by right-wing ultras, on this one issue alone.
The other way to explain JK Rowling’s journey down that road to terfdom is that she is an intelligent women who has taken a careful look at the issue and decided for herself that there is nothing progressive or kind or liberal about a movement that encourages autistic children to be given untested drugs. That tells adolescents uncomfortable with their bodies that surgery brings happiness and the alternative is suicide. That tells lesbians they’re bigots if they won’t consider sex with women who have penises. That showers women (and really, it is just women) who question these things with violent and sexualised abuse.
I don’t know JK Rowling, but I know which of those two explanations I find more plausible.