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When a fire is raging, you have a choice

June 12, 2020
Robert E Lee Monument, Charlottesville, Virginia

Who’s the odd one out from Christopher Columbus, Fawlty Towers, JK Rowling and William Gladstone? No prizes for the answer. It is, of course JK Rowling. The rest are being decapitated, taken off the TV, de-plinthed or subjected to a modern version of damnatio memoriae. The creator of Harry Potter has found herself on a different battleground.

I have most sympathy for Rowling, who is the target of vicious abuse on the social media because she had the temerity to point out that there was a difference between trans women, who can’t menstruate, and those women who can.

The abuse is typical of the kind of stuff people feel free to express within the safety of their own homes, behind the shield of aliases, or both. Would they be brave enough to come face to face, one-on-one with Rowling, a fragile human being like themselves despite her riches and renown, and repeat the abuse? In the vast majority of cases, I very much doubt it. And if they were prepared to call her all the names that they happily trot out online, it would probably be because they had a baying mob of sympathisers behind them.

Jo Rowling is entitled to her opinions. Whether we should treat trans people the same as those whose gender they have chosen is clearly a touchy subject. I choose not to have an opinion on that. But what the hounds of hell who pursue her are telling me is that there are many people in pain. Just as there are even more people in pain over the discrimination, casual insults and in some cases physical damage they have suffered because of the colour of their skin.

The author of Harry Potter probably knew that by her remarks she would stir up a hornet’s nest. So did Germaine Greer when she expressed similar sentiments a while ago. So why did they choose to speak up? Because under the principle of free speech they were entitled to do so, and because they cared about the subject? Did they expect to engage in a rational argument with people who were prepared to argue on a rational basis? You’d have to ask them.

But if I was in the same position as them – admired, respected and widely listened to – I think I might be a little more careful in choosing my battleground. But perhaps that’s why I’m not in the same position as them.

I might also be reluctant to point out that if you wanted a rational argument, now is not the time.

If you wanted to express the opinion that the statues of Confederate heroes were erected in the Southern states of the US not as a provocation but in a spirit of reconciliation after four years of bloody conflict, so that the defeated whites of the South should not be bereft of heroes, and that they should not feel like downtrodden losers, now is not the time.

If you wanted to point out that Africans and Arab traders were complicit in the slave trade, that the foundations of Western society were built on slavery, that slavery was an institution somewhere in the world in every century of the Christian era and that reparations would be hideously complicated, now is not the time.

If you wanted to point out that there are more ways of dealing with racism than anger and protest, and that ridicule and irony can also play a part, now is not the time.

And if you wanted to screen a few episodes of Till Death Us Do Part in order to demonstrate how laughable Alf Garnett’s racist views were forty years ago, and how far we’ve come since then, now is not the time.

Because now is a time of anger, fear, frustration and pain. And when such emotions are given a channel, be it though protests, statue-toppling, iconoclasm or bilious discourse in the social media, they’re hard to control until they die down of their own accord, or until another focus of rage emerges. As it surely will, given time.

So you have a choice. Either to throw fuel on the fire or to be a quiet voice of reason. Or, as the path of least resistance, to remain silent.

I know which option I prefer.

3 Comments
  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    Could you please indicate to me where I can see what J. K. Rowling said? I would much appreciate it. I’ve seen comments, critiques and complaints, but I’ve not found the original.
    In re: your paragraph about the Confederate statues, did you mean that as irony?
    The other three seemed to me to be reasonable: the first as a reminder of fact, the second as one suggestion of a way to move the discussion, the third as reminder of complicity.

    • Will respond tomorrow. Kinda busy tonight!

    • Re Rowling, see https://news.sky.com/story/jk-rowling-faces-online-backlash-over-anti-trans-comments-12002690. Concerning the Confederate states, I was quoting an argument that might be put forward by apologists of the statues. My view is that they should have been removed from their places in town squares long ago. Likewise the Confederate flag should not be used in the military or by states and cities, even though it now seems to be as much a symbol of identity used by white supremacists as evidence of nostalgia for the days of secession and slavery. Maybe I’m wrong. And it’s not my country!

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