JK Rowling: the enigma

by Peter Lynas

The new Scottish hate crime law has got many people talking, including the Harry Potter author. Although she remains an enigma, Rowling has opened up the space for fascinating conversations – even amongst Christians – says Peter Lynas.

“April Fools!” wrote JK Rowling at the end of a lengthy Twitter thread. She had just listed 10 people who identify as women before noting that they were in fact all men. She dared Scottish police to arrest her and criticised those behind the new Scottish Hate Crime Act for placing a “higher value on the feelings of men performing their idea of femaleness, however misogynistically or opportunistically, than on the rights and freedoms of actual women and girls.”

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act came into effect on April Fool’s Day, but it is no joke. It consolidates existing hate crime legislation and creates a new offence of, “stirring up hatred” against those with certain protected characteristics. However, women have not been given protection under the law and many have been critical about the potential impact on free speech. Rowling has promised to stand with any woman calling a man a man, saying she will repeat the words so she will also be charged.

For more than 20 years Rowling has been in the public eye and has often been the subject of controversy. In a recent podcast series, she discussed how her books were criticised and often banned by Christian fundamentalists on the right. Now, she noted, it’s those on left who have labelled her a transphobe and sought to have her ‘cancelled’.

The trans conversation seems to be everywhere at the moment. As I travelled through Belfast City airport recently, I noticed an advert for a major consulting firm. There were seven large images of some of their staff each with their preferred pronouns. Northern Ireland has a dark history around identity labels. Your school, your sports team, even how you pronounced the letter ‘h’ could be used to label, divide and worse. Now people are loudly proclaiming their allegiance to a new ideology – essentially a new religion – which decides who is in and who is out.

Of course, people are free to state their preferred pronouns, but others don’t have to use them, that is Rowling’s point about free speech. And what if you hold gender-critical beliefs and don’t agree with preferred pronouns? Are you free to avoid their use all together? I also wondered what people with other protected characteristics could put in their bios or email signatures – what would happen if someone put ‘Jesus follower’ instead of ‘he/him’ after their name? Are all identities equally valid?

As you read this, you probably have a view on these stories – we have all been shaped by our own stories, experiences and the culture we inhabit. Your view might also depend on your age, education and increasingly, your sex. New research across 20 countries has revealed that young people are diverging politically, with women becoming more liberal and men more likely to be conservative. Figures from the Financial Times in January showed a 25-point gap in the UK between increasingly conservative young men and liberal female contemporaries. Researchers suggest the reason is that for younger woman, a more liberal society has continued to open up educational and employment opportunities while reducing the pressure to marry or have children. Whereas for men, these same trends have made education and employment more competitive and made it harder to attract a girlfriend often triggering resentment.

All of this feeds into the strange moment we are living in. We cast off one set of identity labels, only to replace them with another. We reject one form of fundamentalism and its associated book banning for a new form and its attempts to limit free speech. JK Rowling moves from darling of the left to hero of the right without changing her views!

Personally, I think the trans conversation is one of the most critical in our culture. It provides the clearest example of objective scientific evidence being abandoned in favour of subjective feelings. Safeguarding is sacrificed for the idol of identity. A social contagion is promoted by media outlets and virtue-signaling commercial firms. In the midst of all this, those genuinely struggling with gender dysphoria are played like pawns and lose out on the care they desperately need.

But it is also the moment when reality bites back. Bodies matter, they cannot simply be remoulded at will. There is a dawning recognition that we have gone too far. Like smoking, the evidence is there for those who want to see it and we will look back at this moment with horror and wonder who allowed children to be given puberty blockers? While the NHS has belatedly banned the practice in the UK, private practitioners can continue.

Rowling’s interventions have prevented the conversation in the UK fracturing on traditional political lines. France, Sweden and Denmark are among the countries rolling back from a simple affirmative approach – hardly the bastions of right-wing thinking! Resistance is coming from a mix of feminists, lesbians and Christians. That mix alone should cause people to pause and think.

I was at a swim gala some time ago. A mum came over and said, “I don’t agree with all your tweets (I’m guessing she probably meant sexuality), but I am so glad you tweet about this,” pointing to the pool where our daughters were swimming. “It’s not fair that they might have to swim against boys, and it is definitely not right that they might have to change with them.” And so began a conversation about why this issue was important to her and why it mattered to me. It provided common ground for a deeper discussion on what it means to be human.

JK Rowling is an enigma, but she has opened up the space for some fascinating conversations.

[Peter has written more on the subject of gender identity, which is available here]

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