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Free Speech When No One is Listening

August 2nd, 2023 | 11 min read

By Derek King

When Paul stood before the Areopagus, he began his speech to the Athenians on common ground: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17:22). His message was new and radical. The unknown God who sat on their pagan altars was, in fact, a crucified Jew from Nazareth. Despite the novelty, Paul saw their religion as a starting point from which to have the conversation.  

Paul at the Areopagus lingered in the back of my mind while listening to The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling. The podcast series tells the story of J. K. Rowling and the way she has been the target of relentless criticism from different directions.

American Christians born in the 20th century almost certainly remember the uproar over the release of Harry Potter. I was young when the Potter books were released. They were targeted at kids my age. I don’t remember the cultural uproar. But I do remember a lady in our church thought kids shouldn’t read them. She wasn’t a book burner. She was kind about it. But she thought the books were dangerous for kids. Maybe it was because I had the rare experience of being raised by a professional magician, but I never saw what the big deal was. I was just trying to figure out how to pronounce “Hermione.”

But the controversy passed. Christians seemed to have made their peace with Potter and seen it—like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia before it—as a quality story that can provoke the Christian imagination rather than suppress it.

Rowling is back in the news, however, as a subject of controversy. Once again, there are public calls for book burnings or her books to be removed from public libraries. Once again, there are concerns that the books are dangerous for kids. But outrage is not from Christian conservatives. It’s from trans activists and advocates. Once a darling of “the left,” Rowling is now the target of online attacks from her tribe.

“The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling” tells the story of how we got here. The show is hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper. Phelps-Roper, for those unfamiliar, has retained the “Phelps” despite its unsavory connotations. She grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist and is the granddaughter of the group’s founder Fred Phelps. On Twitter, of all places, Phelps-Roper had her Damascus Road moment. The hateful scales fell from her eyes and she severed all ties with her family and community. Since, she’s been an advocate for the opposite of what she left behind: reasoned, open-minded discourse and acceptance of all. The show’s website describes her work since leaving Westboro as aiding “deradicalization” and working at “the intersection of safety, free speech, and the value of dialogue across ideological divides.”

The “witch trials” refer to the treatment of Rowling over the past several years, but also the first time around. Of course, witches in historical witch trials are not the loveable wand wavers from Rowling’s series. In the American imaginary, the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century have come to embody what is so troubling about witch trials. Women could be accused, convicted, and punished with little or no evidence of witchcraft. What we find troubling about witch trials is not that real witches were burned. What we find troubling is that “real witch” turns out to be a difficult standard to prove. “Witch trial” has thus found its way into modern vernacular: it’s when people are accused, convicted, and punished with little to no evidence of their crime. Whether the offense is actually criminal is irrelevant.

Phelps-Roper wants to know: how can Rowling incite so much hatred from a community that once adored her? How did Rowling move from inclusive hero to the left’s she-who-must-not-be-named almost overnight?

Rowling, a self-proclaimed feminist and liberal, is no longer liberal enough. She has taken stances deemed “transphobic” by many trans individuals. In response, there have been book burnings, calls to remove the books from libraries, and the like. But instead of the content of the books, the pyre is being lit because of tweets from their author. Rowling’s original sin was when she famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) weighed into a debate on Twitter about the firing of school teacher who claimed that “woman” is a real category and not merely a self-identified one. Since her fall, Rowling has proved an activist for a position derogatorily known as “TERF”: trans-exclusionary radical feminist. She is, in other words, a liberal feminist, but one who resists some of the implications of transgenderism.

As she has made clear many times, Rowling is not opposed to anyone self-identifying as whatever gender they please. She also seeks to stamp out trans-bullying. So, she considers herself, on balance, an ally of the trans community. She has received the title “TERF” because she also thinks that some spaces—like women’s shelters or women’s prisons—should be reserved for biological females. To allow a man to self-identify as a woman and be included in all female spaces is, on her view, to put women at risk. Parts of the transgender movement, in other words, undermine the advances of hard-fought feminism over the past several decades.

Many trans people disagree. Phelps-Roper interviewed Natalie and Noah, who shared their experiences as trans people (Natalie has since renounced the podcast). They shared their stories of transition and why they think Rowling’s actions are harmful. While the podcast is full of extremists shouting at Rowling, Natalie and Noah were both willing to engage Rowling’s views with care and nuance. They also shared Phelps-Roper’s concern with online backlash. But they were acutely aware that “online backlash” can be a bit of a red herring. And Rowling’s concerns, they think, are more fearmongering than based in reality. After all, can’t a man already walk into any bathroom he pleases and assault a woman?

In response, Rowling displayed empathy but remains resolute in her convictions. She insisted that she had listened. She’s heard. But she still disagrees.

The culture wars over gender identity, however, are only ostensibly the theme of the podcast. More than anything else, the podcast is an ode to free speech. It’s a defense of debate and discussion, and a censure of “cancel culture.” Rowling, like Phelps-Roper, has spoken publicly about the need for dialogue despite differences. While Rowling’s books preach inclusivity and tolerance, she insists her haters have misunderstood them (and her): they are just as much about the dangers of cancel culture and authoritarianism as inclusivity and tolerance.

Rowling insists, for example, there is no place for a book burn or ban. Ever. Though the Potter books are among the most-banned—and probably burned—books of all-time, Rowling says there is no book she would burn. Instead, the kindling for a bad idea is an argument. The gasoline is a good argument. And good arguments happen in relationships. Rowling speaks candidly about her friendship with a Catholic. She and her Catholic friend disagree about abortion. But they respect one another’s arguments. More importantly, they respect one another. Our society has lost that, says Rowling, and we must recapture it.

Perhaps Rowling’s best character is Severus Snape. What draws us to Snape is he’s not easily categorized. Agree with her or not, Rowling is difficult to categorize and there’s something admirable about her criticizing her own team when she thinks they are wrong. While the world spirals toward extremes, we seem increasingly unable to see when our opponents might actually be right—perish the thought! “Only he-who-must-not-be-named deals in absolutes” (isn’t that the quote?).  It's true, of course, that there are absolutes. But not everything is absolute. You may think Rowling is insidiously, hatefully, demonically wrong. But one thing we should all agree on: we must be willing to pursue truth at all costs, even when it means criticizing our team. As a wise man once said, “it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

But I kept coming back to Paul at the Areopagus. Face-to-face with “his enemies,” Paul “became all things to all people” by finding a point of agreement. And that’s why Paul kept coming to mind. What does common ground look like here?

Free speech can mean a lot of things. As an “agree to disagree” mechanism, maybe it works well enough (though mobs usually don’t observe laws). But the characters in this story imagine something more robust. Free speech is here understood as the pursuit of truth through reasonable, respectful discourse among those who disagree. We shouldn’t just protect free speech because it legally protects people saying terrible things. We should protect it because it’s our best hope to get them to stop. To put it another way: open minds in rigorous discussion is the best way forward.

I am deeply sympathetic with Rowling and Phelps-Roper on this point. Charitable arguments, respectful debate, and nuance are on the decline. And these are the backbone of a pluralistic society. Whatever the content of their respective beliefs, Rowling’s vision of society is more attractive than the one presented by her far-right or far-left cancellers. If we demonize our opponents, we’ll live in a world of demons. Because we’re someone’s opponent, too.

And yet there are questions that need answering. Rowling mentions her “worldview” several times. The word struck me. One, because it’s a word I hear less and less of. But, more so, it struck me because it acutely describes something about the situation in which Rowling finds herself: Rowling and the trans-activists that detest her do not just disagree. They live in different worlds.

In his recent work Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman traces the development of views of personhood. He makes an intuitive distinction that, I think, religious conservatives and LGBTQ+ activists would both agree describes important differences in worldview. Our world is torn between a mimetic view and poietic view of the self. The mimetic view (from the Greek world mimesis) assumes that the world is a given. We do not choose what we are, but we receive it. True flourishing comes from accepting our limitations and living well within them. The poietic view (from the Greek world poiesis, meaning “to make”) assumes that the world is what we make it. We self-create. We determine who we are. True flourishing comes from defining our own limitations and doing what makes us happy. The relevance, I think, is clear enough. Certainly, the absolute extremes of either position are untenable. But it’s clear how both “sides”—Rowling and her judges—map onto this distinction. Is my gender given to me? Or is it something I create, through an act of my will?

At least on this question, Rowling assumes something like the mimetic view. If a trans woman’s claim “I am a woman” does not describe reality in the same way that Rowling’s claim “I am a woman” does, then she assumes something was given to her at birth that was not given to a trans woman. This remains true even if she thinks trans women ought to be treated as women most of the time. She is willing to draw some difference in the givenness of nature. This difference pinpoints, to my mind, the source of disagreement. But it’s deeper than that. It’s not just that Rowling and her critics disagree. They inhabit radically different ways of seeing the world.

In a powerful sequence, several Potter fans frustrated with Rowling are asked, “what would you like to say to J. K. Rowling?” One fan says, “I would say I know you have a lot of strongly held beliefs. And I would just like you to listen to us a little more and hear what we’re saying.” The implication seems to be: if Rowling could only understand why they believe what they believe, then surely she’d repent, lay down her wand, and admit her mistakes. Rowling parries the charge. People assume she’s not listening when, in fact, she simply disagrees.

The podcast seems to say the disagreement is what’s important. We recognize we disagree then we talk about it. Phelps-Roper, for example, says “debate and conversation…is the only thing that can change hearts and minds.” Outside of violence, it’s our best path for change. Rowling, for her part, shares a similar optimism about conversation. Early in the podcast, she voices her conviction that they best way to defeat a dangerous idea is to win the argument. But what does “winning the argument” look like when the two sides live in different worlds?

It may seem like this question is of limited relevance. “Okay,” I can imagine an objector saying, “sure, the gender identity debate is polarized and there are some fundamental worldview differences. But isn’t that really it?”

The controversies of the last several years shout otherwise. Is COVID a dangerous disease that warrants government mandated lockdowns? Are black people in the West discriminately harassed and murdered by police officers, thus warranting massive police overhaul and reform? Is climate change a real and present existential threat? Contradictory answers to these questions will insist they are on the side of facts and data. What the last several years have exposed is not simply that we are polarized or disagree. We’ve always been polarized. What the last several years have exposed is that we can inhabit a different world entirely from our next-door neighbor.

Put more pointedly: What of free speech in a world in which our opponents aren’t listening? Better yet: what of free speech when our opponents can’t listen?

The challenge of free speech is we no longer speak the same language. And this is the challenge “The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling” pointedly raises. Without some shared assumptions about human nature or what sources are trustworthy, what hope is there that respectful dialogue will end with respectful agreement? It may seem like this challenge is nothing new. You may think that differing sides have always disagreed radically on issues, and different worldviews have always existed. That’s true. But something is different.

A good candidate to explain that difference is that we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “a secular age.” Unlike our ancestors, our age has gradually lost our sense of the transcendence. Along with our lost transcendence, we’ve lost a shared foundation on which to have discussions. “God is dead,” said Nietzsche—and we have killed him. Worst still, we have not recognized the implications of our deed. God has been replaced by “I.” “I” am the new god of our age. And there are no atheists in this age.

That we are becoming more secular or losing our sense of the transcendence is likely not surprising to most. That we are gradually losing shared assumptions about how our world works is also nothing new. But few seem to appreciate how this is a rising challenge for free speech in the modern world.

As I’ve already made clear, I’m very sympathetic with the objectives of Rowling and Phelps-Roper. We should pursue a more kind, charitable, and nuanced discourse. That would solve some problems. But only some. If that’s our end, there is an enormous piece of the puzzle missing. I’m not sure Rowling recognizes that it’s not included in the box. We’ll have to look elsewhere.

To put it bluntly, short of radical worldview transformation, Rowling will never convince a trans activist that a trans woman isn’t a woman (full stop). The reason she won’t has nothing to do with the quality of her arguments. And that’s the point. When they are trying jointly to answer the question “what is a woman?” they are already too far downstream. Because far upstream, there are all these vastly different assumptions about the nature of reality. Who determines what is real?

Pointing out a difference in foundation may seem an old or tired criticism. But it’s old for a reason. Rowling and Phelps-Roper will not find what they seek in our universe or in themselves. Their claims are, literally, baseless. They seem to think the argument is about the rules of the game. But the argument is actually about which game we’re playing. And that makes it a lot more difficult to have fun.

Perhaps this is a bleak picture I’m painting. But I see more reason to hope than despair. Rowling herself suggests a way forward on the podcast. During the darkest, pre-Potter days of her life, she says she hit rock bottom. But she adds that she needed the solid foundation of rock bottom to get on her feet again. Maybe that’s what we need, as a society. We need to hit rock bottom. Paul envisioned that kind of radical shift for the Athenians. If they accepted his message, it would turn their worlds upside down. It required nothing less than a re-orientation of what they worshipped. When we hear “rock bottom,” we typically think of the mire of life. I don’t know what that looks like for a whole society. But I imagine a re-orientation of what we worship is a good place to start.

Francis Schaeffer famously said that the modern world has “both feet planted in mid-air.” The first step is to realize that we’re in mid-air. Let’s fall until we hit something solid.

Derek King

Derek King is the Scholar-in-Residence at Lewis House, a Christian Study Center on the University of Kentucky campus.