With this exciting year almost at the half-way point, it is reasonably safe to conclude that coronavirus has not killed off the culture wars after all. Indeed, with Covid-19 still taking hundreds of lives in Britain each week, the political madness of our age has flared up like never before, a whirlwind that howls afresh each day, the crowds making themselves more and more demented at a faster and faster rate.
We are now at the stage where people are expected to denounce friends or, in the case of J.K. Rowling, the woman who made their careers and to whom they owe everything. The author needs no introduction, but perhaps a lucky few among you have managed to miss our howling culture wars. If so, a summary: where Rowling was once universally lauded for her writing, today an element of the online public purports to believe that the Harry Potter author is an evil bigot.
This is because on that issue of minimal importance but maximal rage – the Trans debate – Rowling has taken the same view that the majority of the British public holds. Which is that while trans people should be afforded the same rights and dignity as everybody else, they do not have the right to redefine biological reality. Specifically, in the case of Rowling and many others, they do not have the right to redefine what a woman is.
Last week the author took exception to the use of the phrase “people who menstruate” in a news report — the headline writer clearly trying to get around having to use the increasingly triggering word “woman”. As Rowling wittily put it:
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
This brought the ire of trans Twitter down upon her. That whole army of people who used to be men who tell women to shut up, and the people who think they are helping trans people by pretending that biological sex doesn’t exist and that the clownfish is a suggestive comparison for the biological make-up of human beings.
So after a few days of abuse, Rowling published a long article on her website explaining her position, a deeply personal, moving and reflective piece from the heart. So of course people who hadn’t read it continued in their campaign to make the creator of the Potterverse into a persona non grata in what used to be called polite society.
All of this is an average week in the cesspool of Twitter. But the most interesting aspect of the rage against Rowling is not the anonymous trolls and freakishly unemployable individuals who spend their days abusing famous writers on social media: it is the fact that all week the Rowling story has been whipped along by the pronouncements of people who to a greater or lesser degree owe their careers to J.K. Rowling.
The first to break was Daniel Radcliffe. Of course, Daniel Radcliffe owes everything to Rowling. He isn’t an especially accomplished actor, even after all these years of practice. He isn’t noticeably good-looking either, or in any other way naturally fitted for the screen. His superstar career has come about because, at the age of 10, the director of the first Harry Potter film spotted him and thought he was perfect for the role.
So you would have thought that a certain amount of solidarity or even simple gratitude might be in order. But no. On Monday, Radcliffe issued a statement through a Trans charity called The Trevor Project denouncing the woman who made his career. “While Jo is unquestionably responsible for the course my life has taken,” he stated: “as someone who has been honored to work with and continues to contribute to The Trevor Project for the last decade, and just as a human being, I feel compelled to say something at this moment.”
“As a human being.” Unlike Rowling, obviously.
Radcliffe went on to spout the usual dogma, declaring that “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases etc etc…” Just to further make clear where he stood, he even had the audacity to address some of Rowling’s readers. “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you.”
As Radcliffe must have expected, this led to worldwide headlines, all coincidentally portraying him in the best possible light. “Daniel Radcliffe speaks out” and “Daniel Radcliffe calls out JK Rowling’s anti-trans comments” were two typical headlines. All of these cast both actor and author in a very specific light — Rowling had done something terrible, while Radcliffe was boldly, heroically and one might also add bravely, calling her out.
Next up was Eddie Redmayne, who played some less-memorable character in the interminable Fantastical Beasts movies, also based on Rowling’s work. Perhaps Redmayne felt especially compelled to speak up because he had previously pretended to be a trans person onscreen in The Danish Girl. A movie from just five years ago that would undoubtedly now lead to questions about why a cis male should presume to approximate the feelings of a trans person by playing one on screen. Anyhow, Redmayne, too, felt condemned to criticise Rowling, and in a statement issued to Variety magazine he said:
“Respect for transgender people remains a cultural imperative, and over the years I have been trying to constantly educate myself. This is an ongoing process. As someone who has worked with both J.K. Rowling and members of the trans community, I wanted to make it absolutely clear where I stand. I disagree with Jo’s comments. Trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid.”
Like Radcliffe, Redmayne was rewarded with headlines describing him as ‘speaking out’ and the like. So brave. Once again the media portrayed him as being on the right side against an unspeakable position taken by his elder.
Finally, out came Emma Watson, who like Radcliffe owes her career to Rowling. Since becoming known as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, Watson has often used her platform to advocate for all the correct causes of the hour. And so perhaps it was inevitable that she should condemn Rowling for her views — but the framing of Rowling was instructive.
“Trans people are who they say they are,” she wrote, making no mention of Rowling’s own revealed traumas: “and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t what they say they are.”
By now it was not just that Watson, Remayne and Radcliffe had ‘called out’ and ‘spoken up’ about Rowling’s views. They had spoken up — as reporter after reporter put it – against Rowling’s ‘controversial’ views. It is a very interesting thing this modern use of the word ‘controversial’, often and indeed usually put in front of a person who holds views which are in absolutely no way controversial.
In fact what polling there is on trans issues suggests that while it is ‘controversial’ to believe that a person who was born a man is exactly the same as a woman, it is not remotely controversial to believe (as Rowling does) that while they are deserving of exactly the same rights and respect as everyone else, trans women are not the exact same thing as biological women. So the commonly held view is the ‘controversial’ one, while the ideas of a small number of campaigners are held up as the only acceptable and non-controversial opinion to hold.
Because of some of the personal revelations made by Rowling in the last week, not least about her own experience as a domestic abuse survivor, there has been a tiny amount of pushback against the three actors who have benefited so much from the work of J.K. Rowling. But the most important lesson has been entirely missed.
None of the three needed to say anything. None of them needed to release a statement. None of them needed to string the story along for another couple of days by denouncing the author in succession. All will doubtless claim that they felt that they needed to in some way, and this claim will most often be backed up — in private — by a plea that they were coming under enormous pressure of some kind.
It is possible that they were. That some of the unbelievably demented activists who operate in this area made the actors feel that their silence was complicity, to use one of the Stalinist phrases which has embedded itself in our culture. But here is the thing — they didn’t need to say anything. They could have remained beautifully silent, as Redmayne has in the past admirably suggested that actors should on political topics. But they didn’t.
As individuals, we all have friends who have opinions great or small with which we are in disagreement. Yet a civilised person does not feel the urge to publicly call out, shame or in any other way have it out with somebody who is a friend or who has been good to you. At the least you will shrug. At the most you might pick up the phone and speak to the person. But the modern instinct is not to do this; the modern instinct is to go nuclear and denounce them in public. It is one of the most unhealthy habits in an age which needs less of them.
I suppose we should be grateful that, at the time of writing, at least the Weasleys haven’t kicked off.