The Row About Rowling

J.K. Rowling has gone where it would have been wiser not to go last night when she leapt into the whole trans debate on Twitter. It’s not that she shouldn’t have a voice or that these issues aren’t important to discuss but… on Twitter? Really? There are people on there still discussing the flatness of the Earth.

So many of the insults directed towards her appear unthinking. People have picked their position, which they’ll defend with insults rather than arguments. That’s much easier than addressing the logical contradiction that their position involves. It’s a contradiction that I’ve never seen resolved satisfactorily. How do you afford one person a right when it involves removing the same right from another? If some bright philosophical type could come along and explain that, we might get closer to answering the perennial question: should a trans-woman have the same rights as a woman? It’s easy (and extremely common, as well as reasonable) to say “yes” and that’s what so much of Twitter does without ever exploring the deeper weeds where they’d begin to lose their footing.

The most obvious example might be the easiest to solve. What if being born a man gives trans-women advantages in sport? It’s a subject that Martina Navratilova explored in an excellent BBC documentary recently. The answer might well be in the kinds of things that can be measured scientifically. Beyond that, however, we get into those tricky areas where it’s harder to find satisfactory answers. To be crude about this: are women wrong to be offended should they see a penis in women-only changing rooms? More problematically: what rights do women have around those spaces? It’s right for them to say that men (me included) shouldn’t have any input in the debate? If so, what about trans-women? Should they have a say?

There are, for the moment, no clear answers because culturally we’re trapped between two entirely reasonable positions. Many accept the right of people to self-determine their gender but there are also others worried about protecting those places and powers that women have finally recovered from a deeply patriarchal society. Doesn’t it just feel wrong, they say, that people born male now assume the right to take those places and powers back from women; that they are now telling women how they get to define feminism?

At some point, the argument descends into the sex vs gender debate which most people argue is simple (penises vs vaginas) but some experts can dismiss that by describing how the science is more complicated. These exceptions are then used to argue that sex can be as indeterminate as gender and therefore there are no absolutes. Then we’re back to square one.

Myself: I suspect there will never be an answer beyond whatever pragmatic solution society produces. Unless science intercedes, we’re not going to get rid of sexual differences, yet there’s no reason why we can’t become less hung up on gender. We’re already doing it in noticeable ways. It wasn’t so long ago that every young boy was given a plastic gun to play with and every girl was dressed in pink. These days we hardly see that, whilst the jobs market has become degendered. Multisex bathrooms are becoming more normal.

What we need, however, is more sensitivity around the issue, especially on social media where largely ignorant people scream at each other because they cannot see a different point of view. Sadly (and perhaps unsurprisingly), most of that invective is directed towards successful women, like Rowling, who express concern about the weakening of women’s rights. It feels like we’ve been here before. It resembles so much of the bullying I remember from the early days of feminism when jokes would be made about women “wearing the trousers” or “belonging in the kitchen”. If worries me because I sometimes fear that’s exactly what it is. We’re back to a world of “silly” women with their “irrational” fears and jokes about it being the wrong time of the month. That language goes back centuries but we were meant to have left it behind us. At a time when we’re all discussing systemic racism, perhaps it’s also time to remember that “systemic sexism” has never left us. It feels like another front has been opened up in the gender wars before the last battle was properly won. No wonder the crossfire is so intense.

4 thoughts on “The Row About Rowling”

  1. I’ve been mulling over whether I should comment on this or not since yesterday. I’m am going to try to tread very lightly largely because it has been known for people who’ve expressed views on this subject (*some* of which I share) to be visited by the police in relation to ‘non criminal hate speech (a terrifyingly Orwellian concept IMO.) Firstly I dont agree with you assertion that you ‘hardly ever’ see a girl wearing pink. You may have more of a point about boys having toy guns but surely theres much more to that than erosion of gender stereotypes? I believe we need an approach that is humane but also embraces science and evidence. Particularly where children are concerned.

    1. Oh, I probably understated the “pink” bit because I don’t see it but I was merely pointing out that people seem more sensitive to gender stereotypes and how destructive they can be.

      I suspect I’m on the same side as the argument as you because I also worry about writing about it, not simply in terms of knowledge but also tone. I had a conversation with an epidemiologist a few years ago who explained how much of his work is spent dealing with people who don’t match the “two sexes” argument, which I’d probably crudely put to him. It was humbling to hear him explain it but well beyond my understanding. It made me feel slightly ashamed that I’d casually dismissed that small percentage of people who face real difficulties. That’s probably why I lean a little too heavily into the “humane” response argument. I agree that so much around the debate it politically toxic (and nonsense) but it’s a bit like the antifa arguments we’re seeing around BLM. Making a point of going after the extremists only serves to ignore the more nuanced argument. I should also add that “gender” is not a subject that interests me too much. It only attracts my attention when it becomes a cause of online bullying.

  2. Hi David,
    Just wondering if you saw Rowling’s blog yesterday? I shared it. I thought it was excellent and very clearly argued and what’s more I agreed with it. What are your thoughts?

    1. Thanks Max. Just read it now and glad you suggested it. My quick reaction: probably the best thing she’s written (I always had a bit of a soft spot for her Potter books). Her argument is surely the argument that we need across the board: one about nuance, about shared humanity, about recognising that there’s a difference between the concerns we should have about real people with real difficulties coming to terms with their bodies, and that toxic political culture where language is weaponised and used to score points to boost your profile among an online mob.

      Her emphasis was on the science but I thought it was particularly interesting to read what she said about gender and the “pinkness” stereotype. Part of her problem as a teen (and I think the problem that many people face) is one of feeling like she had to be defined by these broad classifications that are laden with cultural baggage. I think we all have them to a greater or lesser extent. Hell, I spent my entire teenage years trying to figure out what was wrong me because I enjoyed doing artistic things in a culture where they were almost exclusively feminine. I can’t begin to understand what it must be to like to find your gender out of whack with your sex, and the pressure to reconcile them in a culture that remains hostile to difference. I’ve heard that before from teachers who deal with teenagers making these choices.

      Ultimately, though, it comes down to choice, freedom, and even the right to think independent of others. That’s what I liked about it the most. It was a brilliant defence of individual rights.

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It’s a cool domain name and it was available. Yes, I know. Available. Crazy, isn’t it?


Yes. It also helps that it’s also my favourite satire written by Alexander Pope, one of the most metrically pure English poets who also knew his way around a crude insult or two. If you’ve not read it, you should give it a try.

So this is satire, right?

Can’t deny it. There will be some. But it’s also an experiment in writing and drawing, giving work away for free in order to see how many people are willing to support a writer doing his thing. It’s the weird stuff that I wouldn’t get published elsewhere in this word of diminishing demands and cookie-cutter tastes.