February 15, 2023 - 10:05am

Cults need enemies. Nothing else can explain the irrational level of hatred directed against the novelist J.K. Rowling in recent years. Her lawyers have taken on the worst offenders, prompting reluctant apologies, but the latest development is a terrifying example of where the forces of malice and unreason have been heading. In tweets that are too vile and defamatory to quote, trans activists are now accusing Rowling of being responsible for the death of a teenager in Warrington at the weekend. 

And not just Rowling, although she is the principal target; gender critical feminists have also been accused of having ‘blood on their hands’ in a series of crowing tweets. Obviously there is no connection between Rowling and the fatal stabbing of a transgender girl, which has left a family shocked and grieving. But there is a live police investigation, which means that strict rules exist about what can be reported. Anyone with an ounce of decency would respect those rules, for fear of obstructing a trial or causing further distress to the family. But this awful event is being shamelessly exploited by trans activists, who are using it to attack women who have spent their careers campaigning against various forms of violence.

It is clear that abuse of Rowling has shown an alarming escalation in the last few days. Last week gender extremists denounced a new video game, Hogwarts Legacy, because it is based on her Harry Potter novels, accusing it of being a ‘genocide simulator’. People who throw around words like ‘genocide’ have already robbed language of all meaning, but the latest attack on Rowling reaches new levels of spite. She has claimed in a podcast, The Witch Trials of JK Rowling, to be released next week that her critics “could not have misunderstood me more profoundly.” The idea that these people are merely showing a lack of understanding is perhaps charitable. 

The near-fatal attack on Salman Rushdie last August was a horrible reminder of the dangers attached to turning authors into hate figures. The assault happened 34 years after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, demonstrating that the risk created by demonising someone never goes away. Rowling has become the target of a savage campaign that seeks to deny her humanity, a horribly familiar step which threatens to remove the usual restraints that protect us from one another. 

Pointing out that she has not said anything ‘transphobic’ long ago ceased to have any impact, because a wildly distorted version of the novelist exists in the minds of trans activists. Prominent people who should have robustly defended her have remained silent or offered support to her critics, refusing to listen to warnings about the violent, intimidating behaviour many feminists have witnessed.

Instead, ordinary people have faced demands from political parties and employers to express support for what amounts to the beliefs of a cult. It’s just been reported that the Scottish Government spent £33,000 on ‘trans-inclusive’ badges for NHS staff to wear at work. Doctors and nurses are not expected to wear badges expressing support for a particular religion, so it’s hard to see why they should be expected to show support for a contested ideology. As it happens, almost half the badges have gone unused. 

For too long, politicians and other public figures have failed to examine the ideology to which they’ve signed up. Feminists have been slandered, doxxed and threatened with sexual violence while Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens fall over themselves to be ‘trans allies’. Now one of the country’s most famous authors, who is also a generous philanthropist, is being smeared in a way that shames everyone who remains silent. Will they finally speak up — or are they too afraid of losing their shiny pink-and-blue badges?

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.