Don’t put J.K. Rowling in a box

It’s lazy and hurts critical thinking

Carsten Torgeson, Staff Writer

J.K. Rowling has been under fire for transphobia since late 2019. Since then, she has enraged much of her fan base by clarifying and defending many of her positions. Her successes have become understood as victories for intolerance, and naturally, the success of the new video game “Hogwarts Legacy” has reignited anti-Rowling sentiment. I do not intend to take a strong stance on Rowling’s ostensible bigotry in this article—that is not the purpose of this piece. However, before I discuss the way uninformed hate harms academic environments, it is first important to recognize that Rowling is more complex than her haters would have us believe. In a 2020 tweet juxtaposing the hate directed toward her, indicative of her nuanced perspective on transgender people, she said, “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”

Rowling’s portrayal in the mainstream media is that of a bigot—though in reality, she occupies a complex gray area regarding transgender identity politics. Essayist G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “Ivory may not be so white as snow, but the whole Arctic continent does not make ivory black.” I believe that what is true about ivory, snow and the color black is similarly true about Rowling, socially liberal ideals and transphobia. Sadly, Rowling not supporting social liberalism ad nauseam—not being so white as snow—has put a target on her back for death threats, public ridicule and cancellation. These attacks on Rowling are enabled by social media, a notoriously uncritical space that fosters mob mentality, ignorance and indoctrination. In one of the many responses to Rowling’s 2020 tweet, one user said, “Just stop. You do not ‘know and love’ trans people and you most definitely do not respect them. You are so very wrong about [so] much and such a disappointment to everyone decent who ever enjoyed your work. Quit while you’re behind.” Another person said, “You’re a disgrace, @jk_rowling” and yet another tweet said, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to go Shove your Dumb Prejudice[.]”

I am inclined to believe that having meaningful discussions on social media is a hopeless endeavor—it is a lawless space, and people are going to feel, think and do whatever they please. Rowling has a thick enough skin to weather these attacks, and I am not intent on defending her. 

Nevertheless, these hateful sentiments, which attempt to silence people whose ideas do not conform with what is considered most “correct,” not only harm their targets but also compromise academic environments. While social media may be a lost cause for encouraging critical discourse, we must do everything we can to keep these perfunctory displays of disapproval from the classroom. I want to make myself clear. I do not discount the affront that transgender people have felt as a result of Rowling’s comments. The struggle of the transgender community to have others recognize them as even people has been a long and difficult one. Therefore, I understand how anything but the most steadfast support for them could be considered harmful. More than that, I do not mean to compare the harm done to academic spaces to the significant and pervasive harm that transgender people have and still do experience today. Rowling is right when she says, “the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable” and that “[t]rans people need and deserve protection.” However, even though everyone is entitled to their own opinion regarding the author, I denounce hate for her, especially when it silences discussion and compromises spaces for discourse. 

Before continuing further, I want to draw attention to both of the excellent articles involving “Hogwarts Legacy” in last week’s issue of The Observer. Writers Joey Gonzalez and Milo Vetter both correctly maintain in their respective articles that it is a personal decision to play the game. Vetter puts it eloquently, saying “the act of avoiding consumption of unethical products is still a moral virtue—though not a moral necessity.” This assertion upholds academic rigor and critical thinking alike by recognizing that the “Harry Potter” franchise can be separated from Rowling as a novelist. American poet Reginald Shepherd also sums it up nicely in his article “On the Intentional Fallacy”—the incorrect notion that an artist and their art are synonymous—stating, “one writes because one wants to produce something separate from oneself.”

If Rowling’s smear campaign was limited to social media, I would not be writing this article. However, her compartmentalization as a bigot by well-meaning LGBTQIA+ lobbyists to spineless conformists, has led to unexacting critiques of her right here at Case Western Reserve University. I first caught wind of Rowling’s “cancellation” a year ago when an English professor compared something we were working on to the “Harry Potter” series—eliciting a number of ill-concealed gags from many students. The professor asked, “Oh, do we not like Harry Potter anymore?” to which a student replied, “Yeah, J.K. Rowling is transphobic.” It is absolutist stances on issues like this that prevent discussion. Taking anything to be an undeniable truth is uncritical. When dissent for these attitudes is met with the risk of being canceled, the stakes are often too high to speak up. In this way, uncritical stances that would otherwise be instantly dismantled are protected by cancel culture. There becomes very little room to think for oneself. 

This year, in the few minutes remaining at the end of a class, a professor innocently asked if any of us had heard about “Harry Potter Legacy” and if we were playing it. After not so much as a moment of silence, a student in the back of the class said derisively, “They better not be playing it.” Immediately, anyone who might have come forward to talk about playing the game, potentially inviting meaningful conversation, was discouraged from speaking. The academic space within which a conversation could have happened about any number of interesting corollaries to the debate about Rowling and “Harry Potter” was swiftly compromised by one student’s stifling comment. 

Some could argue that this student’s comment should not have prevented another student from speaking up about playing the game. I agree and even suggest that a possible solution is bravery from students and professors alike who are not purveyors of bigotry, but instead, protectors of critical discussion. And while I have no intention of playing the game—though as I write this article, I would like nothing more than to be mindlessly playing any video game—I wish I had said something. This is partially why I decided to write this article. Just because this discussion may have been uncomfortable, charged and predicated on identities, does not mean it should have been off the table for a discussion. In fact, difficult topics are the ones we should be discussing more. We cannot hope to have these discussions so long as people are intent on squelching them before they begin to germinate. 

Solutions for numerous social issues can come from collaborative discussion and debate. Universities are the primary places where these conversations can occur; therefore, the integrity of these spaces must be preserved and protected from uncritical thinking. Rowling may have made politically incorrect statements, but labeling her as a transphobe is indolent, discards her work as a feminist and serves only to hinder peoples’ thinking. Before the internet and social media, debate and dissent ensured that critical ideas would rise above uncritical ones. Now, however, these cursory ideas are supported by cancel culture, which permits its propagation by making it socially unacceptable to dissent in any manner—even in academic environments whose very purpose is to provide a space for healthy skepticism. I cannot help but be frustrated when I see examples of this decline in productive conversations right in front of me. 

If you would like to read more about Rowling, I recommend “In Defense of J.K. Rowling” by Pamela Paul and “I’m trans and I understand JK Rowling’s concerns about the position of women. But transphobia is not the answer” by Valentijn De Hingh.