Three bad ideas are fueling the backlash against J.K. Rowling. The first, that a human’s biological sex can be changed. The second, that believing otherwise tarnishes one’s character. The third, that artists must conform entirely to leftist standards lest their work be deemed unworthy of consumption. Each of these bad ideas is rooted in notions both ascendant and troubling.
Rowling, an outspoken leftist, made headlines just about everywhere on Thursday for tweeting in support of Maya Forstater, an academic who lost her job at a think tank over tweets affirming the reality of biological sex, including, “men cannot change into women.” The “Harry Potter” author used her platform to weigh in:
Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 19, 2019
As we noted in June, the far left has long suspected Rowling sympathizes with TERFs, “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” based on Twitter accounts she follows and posts she likes.
I won’t spend much time arguing against the notion that humans can change their biological sex, or that biological sex differences are insignificant and fluid. If this is not abundantly obvious, I recommend considering the work of psychiatrists like Paul McHugh and Allan Josephson. (There’s a reason far-left feminists like Rowling dissent on this issue.) It is, however, worth recognizing Rowling is only in the news because the denial of biological reality has become increasingly normalized, particularly among media members who make coverage decisions.
As to the second bad idea, that people who dispute new leftist teachings on gender are of poor character, Rowling is an instructive case study. While it remains baffling that any of this is a matter of debate at all, there are perfectly decent people on either side of the conflict.
The left, however, insists this is impossible, and has deliberately crafted arguments to cast detractors not as well-intentioned ideological opposites, but bigots. Say something along the lines of “men cannot change into women,” as Forstater did, and you’ve “denie[d] the basic humanity” of transgender individuals or provoked violence.
Thus there is exactly zero space for reasonable disagreement, because disagreement, by this logic, is dangerous. Those who perpetrate such disagreement are willfully complicit or deliberately harmful.
If you accept that line of thinking, you may also believe Rowling’s wrongthink necessarily tarnishes her books, because she’s bad, and bad people should not be among the artists you patronize. Not only is such a standard impossible to uphold, especially given the left’s efforts to equate political disagreement with poor character, but its adoption would deprive the public of countless great works.
Artists are as complicated as any of us, and it’s their ability to explore those complexities that makes them great. I’ve written before that it’s legitimately fair to consider whether patronizing the work of bad people harmfully increases their wealth and power. But as Camille Paglia once noted, “Great art has often been made by bad people. So what? Expecting the artist to be a good person was a sentimental canard of Victorian moralism.”
All this is to say the Rowling backlash is a tangled knot of unfortunate trends: The normalization of ideas that reject biological reality, the leveling of character attacks against anyone who upholds that reality, and the proliferation of a standard that pressures artists to conform to progressivism lest they be banished from polite society along with their work.
Rowling will weather this storm. Will the rest of us?