JK Rowling recently published an eminently reasonable, heartfelt treatise, outlining why it is important to preserve the category of woman. There’s only one thing wrong with it: it assumes a rational interlocutor. Rowling outlines why the biological and legal category of sex is important: in sports, in rape crisis shelters, in prisons, in toilets and changing rooms, for lesbians who want to sleep with natal women only and at the level of reality in general. Rowling marshals her experiences as an androgynous girl, as a domestic violence and sexual assault survivor and as someone familiar with the emotional perils of social media, in ways that have resonated with many women (and men). Her writing is clear, unpretentious, thoughtful, moving, vulnerable and honest. At no point does she use exclusionary or hostile language or say that trans women do not exist, have no right to exist or that she wants to rob them of their rights. Her position is that natal women exist and have a right to limit access to their political and personal spaces. Period.
Of course, to assume that her missive would be engaged with in the spirit in which it was intended, is to make the mistake of imagining that the identitarian left is broadly committed to secular, rational discourse. It is not. Its activist component has transmogrified into a religious movement, which brooks no opposition and no discussion. You must agree with every tenet or else you’re a racist, sexist, transphobic bigot, etc. Because its followers are fanatics, Rowling is being subjected to an extraordinary level of abuse. There seems to be no cognitive dissonance among those who accuse her of insensitivity and then proceed to call her a cunt, bitch or hag and insist that they want to assault and even kill her (see this compilation of tweets on Medium). She has been accused of ruining childhoods. Some even claim that the actor Daniel Radcliffe wrote the Harry Potter books—reality has become optional for some of these identitarians. Rowling’s age, menstrual status and vagina come in for particularly nasty attention and many trans women (or those masquerading as such) write of wanting to sexually assault her with lady cock, as a punishment for speaking out. I haven’t seen misogyny like this since Julia Gillard became our prime minister.
The Balkanisation of culture into silos of unreason means that the responses have not followed what might be loosely called the pre-digital rules of discourse. These rules assume that the purpose of public debate is to discern truth and that interlocutors on opposing sides—a reductionist bifurcation, because, in fact, there are many sides—engage in argument because they are interested in something higher than themselves: an ideal of truth, no matter how complicated, multifaceted and evolving. While in-group preferences and biases are inevitable, these exist within an overarching deliberative framework. This style of dialogue assumes the validity of a persuasive argument grounded in reason and evidence, even if—as Rowling does—it also utilises experience and feeling. By default, it assumes that civil conflict and opposition are essential devices in the pursuit of truth.
Three decades of postmodernism and ten years of Twitter have destroyed these conventions and, together with them, the shared norms by which we create and sustain social consensus. There is no grounding metanarrative, there are no binding norms of civil discourse in the digital age. Indeed, as Jaron Lanier shows with his bummer paradigm (Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent) social media is destroying the fabric of our personal and political lives (although, with a different business model and more robust regulation, it need not do so). The algorithm searching for and recording your every click, like and share, your every purchase, search term, conversation, movement, facial expression, social connection and preference rewards engagement above all else—which means that your feed—an aptly infantile descriptor—will quickly become full of the things you and others like you are most likely to be motivated to click, like and share. Outrage is a more effective mechanism through which to foster engagement than almost anything else. In Lanier’s terms, this produces a “menagerie of wraiths”—a bunch of digitised dementors: fake and bad actors, paid troll armies and dyspeptic bots—designed to confect mob outrage.
The norms of civil discourse are being eroded, as we increasingly inhabit individualised media ecosystems, designed to addict, distract, absorb, outrage, manipulate and incite us. These internecine culture wars damage us all. As Lanier notes, social media is biased “not towards the left or right but downwards.” As a result, we are witnessing a catastrophic decline in the standards of our democratic institutions and discourse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary culture wars around the trans question, where confected outrage is the norm.
This is why the furore over Rowling’s blog post misses the point: whether we agree with her or not, the problem is the collapse of our capacity to disagree constructively. If you deal primarily in subjective experience and impulse-driven reaction, under the assumption that you occupy the undisputed moral high ground, and you’ve been incited by fake news and want to signal your allegiances to your social media friends, then you can’t engage in rational discussion with your opponent. Your stock in trade will be unsubstantiated accusations and social shaming.
In this discombobulating universe, sex-based rights are turned into insults against trans people. Gender-critical feminists are recast as immoral bigots, engaged in deliberately hurtful, even life-threatening, speech. Rowling is not who we thought she was, her ex-fans wail, her characters and plots conceal hidden reservoirs of homophobia and bigotry. A few grandstanders attempt to distinguish themselves by saying that they have always been able to smell a rat—no, not Scabbers—and therefore hated the books from the outset. Nowhere amid this morass of moral grandstanding and outrage is there any serious engagement with her ideas.
Those of us on the left—and left-wing feminists in particular—who find trans ideology fraught, for all the reasons Rowling outlines, are a very small group. While Rowling is clearly privileged, she has also become the figurehead of a rapidly dwindling and increasingly vilified group of feminists, pejoratively labelled terfs, who want to preserve women’s sex-based rights and spaces. Although our arguments align with centrist, conservative and common sense positions, ours is not the prevailing view in academia, public service or the media, arts and culture industries, where we are most likely to be located (when we are not at home with our children). In most of these workplaces, a sex-based rights position is defined a priori as bigoted, indeed as hate speech. It can get us fired, attacked, socially ostracised and even assaulted.
As leftist thinkers who believe in freedom of speech and thought, who find creeping ideological and bureaucratic control alarming, we are horrified by these increasingly vicious denunciations by the left. The centre right and libertarians—the neo-cons, post-liberals and the IDW—are invariably smug about how funny it is to watch the left eat itself. But it’s true: some progressive circles are now defined by a call out/cancel culture to rival that of the most repressive of totalitarian states. Historically, it was progressives who fought against limits on freedom of speech and action. But the digital–identitarian left split off from the old print-based left some time ago, and has become its own beast. A contingent of us are deeply critical of these new directions.
Only a few on the left have had the gumption to speak up for us. Few have even defended our right to express our opinions. Those who have spoken out include former media darlings Germaine Greer and Michael Leunig. Many reader comments on left-leaning news sites claim that Rowling is to blame for the ill treatment she is suffering. Rowling can bask in the consequences of her free speech, they claim, as if having a different opinion from the woke majority means that she is no longer entitled to respect, and that any and all abuse is warranted—or, at least, to be expected. Where is the outrage on her behalf? Where are the writers, film makers, actors and artists defending her right to speak her mind?
Of course, the actors from the Harry Potter films are under no obligation to agree with JK Rowling just because she made them famous. They don’t owe her their ideological fealty: but they owe her better forms of disagreement. When Daniel Radcliffe repeats the nonsensical chant trans women are women, he’s not developing an argument, he’s reciting a mantra. When he invokes experts, who supposedly know more about the subject than Rowling, he betrays his ignorance of how contested the topic of transgender medicine actually is: for example, within endocrinology, paediatrics, psychiatry, sociology, and psychology (the controversies within the latter discipline have been demonstrated by the numerous recent resignations from the prestigious Tavistock and Portman gender identity clinic). The experts are a long way from consensus in what remains a politically fraught field.
Trans women are women is not an engaged reply. It is a mere arrangement of words, which presupposes a faith that cannot be questioned. To question it, we are told, causes harm—an assertion that transforms discussion into a thought crime. If questioning this orthodoxy is tantamount to abuse, then feminists and other dissenters have been gaslit out of the discussion before they can even enter it. This is especially pernicious because feminists in the west have been fighting patriarchy for several hundred years and we do not intend our cause to be derailed at the eleventh hour by an infinitesimal number of natal males, who have decided that they are women. Now, we are told, trans women are women, but natal females are menstruators. I can’t imagine what the suffragists would have made of this patently absurd turn of events.
There has been a cacophony of apologies to the trans community for Rowling’s apparently tendentious and hate-filled words. But no one has paused to apologise to Rowling for the torrent of abuse she has suffered and for being mischaracterised so profoundly.
So, I’m sorry, JK Rowling. I’m sorry that you will not receive the respectful disagreement you deserve: disagreement with your ideas not your person, disagreement with your politics, rather than accusations of wrongspeak. I’m sorry that schools, publishing staff and fan clubs are now cancelling you. And I’m sorry that you will be punished—because cancel culture is all about punishment. I’m sorry that you are being burned at the digital stake for expressing an opinion that goes against the grain.
But remember this, JK—however counterintuitive this may seem to progressives, whose natural home is on the fringe—most people are looking on incredulously at the disconnect between culture and reality. Despite raucous protestations to the contrary, you are on the right side of history—not just because of the points you make, but because of how you make them.