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JK Rowling is not a “private citizen” in the public arena

On October 1st, the president of Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment Inc., David Haddad, held a company Q&A with his employees to address some of their recent concerns. Unsurprisingly, given Warner Bros own and oversee the global Harry Potter franchise, which includes the upcoming video game, Hogwarts Legacy, a particularly controversial topic reared its ugly head: that of Hogwarts’ creator JK Rowling and her recent foray into ‘gender critical’ rhetoric on social media. 

Haddad’s comments on the matter, published on Twitter thanks to Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier, vaguely detailed how although he “may not agree with her”, she’s a “private citizen” and as such “entitled to express her personal opinion on social media”. While Haddad’s statement is the sort of hazy, non-committal response designed to give the illusion of both disavowing and supporting Rowling, so as not to alienate any of their potential customers, it is fundamentally wrong. He is correct, Rowling is a private citizen, however, given her mammoth power, status, influence and wealth, this coveted private citizenry ceases to be once she steps into the public arena.

You see, Rowling is entitled to hold whatever sincere yet misguided beliefs she wishes. She can tell her friends all about how trans men are nothing more than autistic girls seeking a way out of a deeply misogynistic culture. She can head down the pub to inform her neighbours in the same breath she wants to provide safety for trans people, but not at the expense of ‘natal girls and women’. She can privately lament phrases such as ‘people who menstruate’ which seek to integrate trans men and certain non-binary individuals into the commercial conversation they fundamentally belong to already. These are all private beliefs she can and should be entitled to think, hold, and express. When these beliefs are to be challenged is the moment she steps atop her very tall platform and bellows into the global megaphone. 

On her Twitter platform, Rowling addresses some 14 million individual accounts (although one has to question what percentage of this number constitutes bots, trolls, spam, and dead accounts) which is no modest number. From her gilded, blue-checked parapet, the author proselytizes to a global public larger in population than the citizenry of Rwanda, Greece, Portugal, Cuba, Belgium, Israel. Is Carrie Lam not held accountable when she speaks to Hong Kong’s 7.5 million-strong populace? Are we not allowed to maintain a critical ear when Jacinda Ardern communicates with New Zealand’s 5 million residents? Should we not challenge Luis Lacalle Pou’s comments to Uruguay’s 3.5 million people?

Once JK Rowling enters the discourse, by virtue of social media platforms, there are immediately unequal power dynamics and she forfeits the ‘private citizen’ defence. She speaks to 14 million, but 14 million do not speak back. It is a hierarchy of communication: she is at the top, while the masses sit and listen. But they needn’t sit and listen obediently. 

In a global marketplace of ideas, it is our right and responsibility to challenge and push back against unscientific ideas grounded in fear and misunderstanding. Surely no one wishes to strip Rowling of her personal beliefs and the harassment and abuse she has received is deplorable, but these mustn’t be reasons to close down honest and thoughtful critiques of her ideological proclamations. Acknowledging her publicly expressed beliefs not only are harmful and isolating to an already marginalized community, but they legitimize more extremist lines of thought and action is not tantamount to abuse. 

A personal belief is a personal belief, until it meets power and influence, then it becomes dangerous.

03/11/2020

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Dan Siddorn