When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in the UK on June 26, 1997, the author was almost thirty-two. I myself had been that age since March. The seventh Harry Potter book came out ten years later. Though I do not remember when I heard that the series had become a sensation, I know I wondered if one day I would see for myself what made the books so popular.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, on a cluttered table

Now I have read the first two books in the series, in part because their author has become popular as a figure of hatred for people who adored her books as children.

In December of 2019, from somebody who had generally seemed sensible (and who still does), I saw the tweeted message that we should “unfollow JK Rowling” because “She is spreading dehumanizing & harmful rhetoric.” I asked the pseudonymous “Mangy Jay” for an explanation, and was told, “She said ‘sex is sex,’ which is meant to entail that trans women are not women.”

The tweeter has revealed herself to be Magdi Semrau, and she has written a good essay for the Washington Post (November 9, 2021) headed: “Think Democrats can’t talk about race effectively? Biden shows why that’s wrong.” If only somebody could talk about sex and gender effectively! Astonished by the negative responses to Rowling’s original tweet on the subject, I posted “Sex and Gender” on this blog. I later wrote several other posts in that vein. I also started reading the Harry Potter books.

Collingwood’s work in The New Leviathan (1942) on passion is relevant here. Passions are fearful or angry. What we love becomes fearsome when we learn that it does not always do what we want. I think we can see this in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (the sixth of which inspired the post called “Figs”). The first of the Elegies begins,

WER, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

In the translation of Edward Snow:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.

Yielding entirely to fear would mean annihilation. Anger is a way to survive. I don’t know that Rilke says this; but by Collingwood’s account, the Bible and the Republic do:

10. 51. The importance of anger as a bridge from the lower levels of consciousness where thought is at first merely apprehensive, capable of taking what is ‘given’ to it, and then merely conceptual, capable of framing abstractions from what is ‘given’, to the higher levels of consciousness where thought is first ‘propositional’, capable of discriminating good from evil and truth from error, and then ‘rational’, capable of understanding both itself and other things, has been long ago expounded in many different forms.

10. 52. I will mention two: one in Plato, one in the Bible; attested, as it happens, by documents nearly contemporary.

I continued with 10. 53 in “Nature.” The key book in the Hebrew Bible is the one named for Job, who gets angry with God. But then:

10. 6. In Christianity this conversion of the Old Testament fear-religion into an anger-religion is a fait accompli.

10. 61. It is more than a commonplace of Christianity, it is the essence of Christianity, that the God who made Adam and gave him a woman; and forbade them to eat of a certain tree; and exposed them to temptation by another of his creatures, the serpent; was responsible for Adam’s sin and was the agent who brought sin into the world and all our woe.

10. 62. It is the essence of Christianity that (as savages beat the gods who fail to answer their prayers) so Christians should vent their wrath and, as the poem of Job has it, with God’s own approval, upon God’s own wounded head.

It is remarkable what wrath people call down on J. K. Rowling’s head. Collingwood continues:

10. 63. When we show in our churches the likeness of our God scourged with rods and crowned with thorns and suffering the death of a criminal, and in the central rite of our worship commemorate, as some of us say, or as others say actually repeat that doing to death, we prove to the world that we hold God responsible for whatever evil there may be in the world; and think we cannot serve him better than by wreaking on him our inevitable wrath.

Nathan J. Robinson does his best to serve J. K. Rowling as he wreaks his wrath on her in “J. K. Rowling and the Limits of Imagination” (Current Affairs, July, 2020). It is a long article, with three parts, the gist of which I understand as follows.

  1. The Harry Potter books are the work of a great imagination.
  2. Their author still cannot imagine what it means to be trans.
  3. As the books reveal to an enlightened rereading, their author
    • “can’t imagine her way past myopic middle-class British values”;
    • “cannot imagine her way to questioning the deepest injustices of our time”;
    • “cannot imagine why people are offended when she says hurtful and ignorant things about marginalized people.”

All of this leads Robinson to lament:

many of us, as we grow up, have to leave these books behind, because to dwell too long in this world stunts our moral growth.

Are there books of which this is not so? I continue to read C. S. Lewis’s children’s books; I have also written “Narnia” and “Return to Narnia” about them, but this is partially in response to people who have not been able to “leave those books behind” in what seems to me to be the proper sense.

From “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues,” posted on the author’s website, Robinson quotes what may be a tone-deaf comment:

Again and again I’ve been told to ‘just meet some trans people.’ I have: in addition to a few younger people, who were all adorable, I happen to know a self-described transsexual woman who’s older than I am and wonderful.

It would seem to me that Rowling has indeed done what was asked; but for Robinson, this is not good enough:

Does she see that people will find this patronizing? Does she understand that the demand was not to see how cute trans people are, but to try to exhibit a greater understanding of those with experiences different than her own?

I agree that Rowling’s comments sound patronizing. This does not invalidate the concern that Rowling goes on to raise. “Being older” – the transsexual woman whom she mentions –

she went through a long and rigorous process of evaluation, psychotherapy and staged transformation. The current explosion of trans activism is urging a removal of almost all the robust systems through which candidates for sex reassignment were once required to pass. A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law. Many people aren’t aware of this.

As far as I can tell, Rowling is correct about getting a GRC; you are allowed to apply for one

by the standard route if all the following are true:

  • you’re 18 or over
  • you’ve been diagnosed with gender dysphoria …
  • you’ve lived in your acquired gender for at least 2 years
  • you intend to live in your acquired gender for the rest of your life

No surgical or pharmaceutical criterion is given for having “lived in” an “acquired gender.” That may be as it should be, but in any case, as far as I can tell, Robinson is not now interested in the facts as an influence on Rowling’s thought. He seems to have been seven or eight when the Potter books came on the scene, and he became a fanatic:

You can shit on Harry Potter if you like, but those of us of a certain age remember the midnight release parties and we remember how quickly we devoured the new installment through a frenzied night. Who else has ever been able to produce this intoxicating effect on so many children with mere words? Will anyone else ever do anything like it? J.K. Rowling made a contribution to the culture that will stand for a long time.

“But,” according to Robinson, “Rowling is also a bigot.” He is categorical on this.

Let us establish very clearly: J.K. Rowling is transphobic. This is beyond serious dispute.

Though it was not for a long time, it is now beyond serious dispute that Euclid’s fifth postulate is logically independent of the other four. However, I don’t think Robinson is making a mathematical assertion like that. He says,

like Ben Shapiro, Rowling simply does not understand the argument being made, believing that trans people deny the facts of biological reality when in fact what they deny is the traditional way of categorizing those facts linguistically.

Perhaps Rowling herself is not clear enough on this point, but I think her concern is not with language, but with who actually has access to the spaces that are currently reserved for the people called women.

I liked “The Cool Kid’s Philosopher,” Robinson’s 2017 essay on Ben Shapiro, who is Robinson’s senior by only about six years, but who, like old J. K. Rowling, “doesn’t actually seem to grasp what the left argument about gender actually is.” According to Robinson,

The argument made by the left is that … in the real world, we don’t form our understanding of whether someone is a man or a woman by their chromosomes. Instead, we form it by how they look and act … Transgender people do not “think they are a different sex.” Instead, they realize that their “gender” doesn’t match their sex.

That makes sense, as does the first part of what Robinson goes on to quote from a 2014 post on Slate Star Codex, the blog of Scott Alexander:

In no case can an agreed-upon set of borders or a category boundary be factually incorrect. An alternative categorization system is not an error …

Perhaps when I first read Robinson’s essay, I didn’t notice the contradiction in the last part of the quote from Alexander:

The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.

That sounds fine, particularly when, as Alexander says,

I’m writing this post today because I just finished accepting a transgender man to the mental hospital. He alternates between trying to kill himself and trying to cut off various parts of his body because he’s so distressed that he is biologically female.

Call that person a man if it helps save his life. At a social event, call a stranger by the name they give you. However, if you are a bank teller or security guard, you cannot take people at their word. If the border between men and women needs to be agreed on, this means it cannot be decided by each individual. Letting the individual decide would mean there was no official border. One may prefer that situation. Perhaps there should be no changing rooms, toilets, shelters, or prisons set aside for the exclusive use of women. However, I don’t think this is what Robinson wants.

In writing about Rowling, Robinson is trying to work out not what he wants, but what is wrong with her. What is wrong is that she is transphobic. He tries to say what this means, using work of Julia Serano. He says,

“transphobia,” like “homophobia” and “Islamophobia,” does not always refer to a phobia like agoraphobia or arachnophobia, though many people do have this kind of irrational aversion to trans people. Transphobia refers to a prejudice against transgender people, often manifested through “the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, experiences, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people.”

I am not sure what that last part means, but apparently it applies to the author of the Harry Potter books, because

Rowling says she is speaking up for women who oppose “allowing any man who says they identify as a woman into the women’s changing rooms” and that the “trans rights movement” is “offering cover to predators like few before it.” This is an incredibly dangerous thing to say, stigmatizing transgender people as predators and the enablers of predators.

I wonder if Robinson’s words count as misogyny by his standards; or does he also oppose the automatic admission of “any man who says they identify as a woman” into women’s spaces? I think Rowling’s concern is the possibility of falsely representing oneself as trans. People can be mistaken, and people can lie. Admitting this is why Thrasymachus lost his argument to Socrates in Book I of the Republic; but if you don’t admit it, you have nothing to argue about.

Making it easy to be taken officially as trans, even if you really are not, could lead to stigmatization of all trans people. In that case, Rowling is effectively trying to prevent the stigma from forming.

I am not sure what kind of stigma Robinson has in mind anyway. It could be something that is emotionally dangerous, for leading to despair and perhaps suicide; or physically dangerous, because people may beat you up or even kill you, with the excuse that you are the threat. In the latter case, it is probably men who would do that. The very question at issue is whether you cease to be a threat, just by declaring that you are not a man.

Rowling says,

When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.

Having quoted this, Robinson says of Rowling that

she does not consider that her own framework for bathrooms, by wanting trans women to use the men’s room, will create the exact abuse situations that she says she is worried about.

It sounds as if Robinson agrees with Rowling that men are a threat to women. The debate then concerns not whether to draw a boundary between them, but where to draw it. Again, drawing it cannot be up to the individual, since individuals can be mistaken or lie.

Rowling does not actually lay out a “framework” for bathrooms. It might be good if she did. Meanwhile, Holly Lawford-Smith lays out a good framework in “Should companies install gender neutral bathrooms?” I linked to this in “Sex and Gender,” but the link was to Medium, and as Lawford-Smith herself reports, in October, 2020, she was

Permanently suspended from Medium for ‘Hate speech’. No details provided, appeal rejected without explanation.

In June, 2019, she had been

Permanently suspended from Twitter for ‘Violating our rules against hateful conduct’. No details provided, and all appeals rejected without explanation.

Now she has her writing on her own site, hosted by WordPress, like my own blog, and what she concludes in her bathroom essay is,

There are a bunch of really good reasons to keep single-sex bathrooms in place, in particular that they are important for women … There are good reasons to add gender neutral bathrooms to the existing bathroom provisions … Taking single-sex spaces away hurts women as a way of helping trans and non-binary people, while adding gender neutral spaces in addition to single-sex spaces helps trans and non-binary people without taking anything away from anyone else. Gender neutral spaces as third spaces works for everyone.

This could be disingenuous, in the sense that Lawford-Smith surely knows that somebody will find a way to object to her proposal, not because of the cost, but because they want to be allowed to do everything that a woman can do, since, after all, they are women, despite what anybody else may think.

Lawford-Smith raises the question of what that could mean in another article that used to be on Medium: “Trans Men Are Men (But Transwomen Are Not Women)” (May 12, 2020). If a man says he “feels like a woman,” he can be

  1. insincere,
  2. deluded,
  3. mistaken about how he feels, or
  4. mistaken about what being a woman feels like.

Of these four options, we may well reject the first three, but we cannot deny the fourth possibility. Some people will try to do so anyway, as Lawford-Smith observes:

The sloganeer will want to say, that’s not fair, because those males are women. So what it is like to be them just is one answer to what it is like to be a woman. Transwomen have knowledge of womanhood by introspection. But this won’t do. Certainly there will be a way that transwomen feel. But to assert that this feeling is feeling like a woman, there must be a further claim to knowledge of what being a woman feels like. It is that knowledge that is used to justify the claim that this feeling is like that feeling. This is what makes transwomen and women the same.

Compare Collingwood’s argument, which I quoted in “Feminist Epistemology,” that “Cook Wilson’s central positive doctrine, ‘knowing makes no difference to what is known’, was meaningless,” because it required knowing something under two conditions, one of which was being unknown.

According to Lawford-Smith, since it’s a man’s world, even in its depictions of women, men are not going to have enough information to know what being a woman feels like; but women can know what being a man feels like, “or at least, as good as it gets without literally crawling inside someone else’s brain.” I would object here that literally crawling inside a brain will tell you nothing about how its owner feels.

Lawford-Smith seems to be questioning a point that Robinson attributes to Serano:

People often do not notice their transphobia. They do not notice that they are applying different standards to trans people than they do to cis people. For instance, Serano points out that transgender people are often accused of reinforcing sexist stereotypes about women by associating the process of becoming a woman with femininity and embracing a “caricature.” But since the majority of cisgender people do this too, why do trans women get the blame?

As I read Lawford-Smith, a trans woman as such can only reinforce a sexist stereotype, since that is all she knows of women anyway.

Another self-described gender-critical feminist is not so strict. “As a frequently gender-conforming woman,” writes “boodleoops” in A gender abolitionist in a non-ideal world on Medium,

I am complicit in the perpetuation of gender in order to survive the brutality of a rigidly gendered world. And crucially, I don’t see this as being very different from the complicity of transsexual people.

I asked a self-described “trans antiracist anarchist” about this, but got a generally negative response over several tweets.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, same cluttered table

Note added December 26, 2021. The original post had the words, “According to Lawford-Smith argues that”; I am correcting this. Let me take the opportunity to mention the argument of Nina Paley in her own blog post, “Why I Don’t Use ‘Preferred Pronouns’”:

Pronoun activists are conditioning everyone around them for authoritarianism. That is, they are training everyone to override their own perceptions, and replace them with what they’re told …

All of the great social catastrophes we are taught about – Naziism, Fascism, the Slave Trade – make us ask, “how could people DO that?” The answer is, BY DENYING THEIR OWN PERCEPTIONS.

In the fall of 1997, as a visiting assistant professor, I was a colleague of Paley’s father in the mathematics department of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; before that, I had enjoyed “Nina’s Adventures” in the Funny Times.

On November 13, 2021, I mentioned Paley’s blog post to Julian Baggini, in response to his tweet about his latest newsletter, where he says (with my formatting),

  • the most visible trans rights advocates hold the position that the categories ‘man’, ‘woman’ and other non-binary options, should be assigned purely on the basis of what each individual believes that they are …
  • gender critical feminists say that … the biological categories of male and female cannot be abolished and that in many situations, those are the categories that should determine the use of the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

Apparently I thought this too focused on what people are called, rather than why. I may have been nitpicking, or looking for a disagreement; but in his ensuing tweets, Baggini seemed to agree with my perception of his focus: “It’s not just linguistic but language is clearly a large part of it,” he ended up saying.

In his review of Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, Baggini says,

This is the nub of the issue. Is gender identity really all that should be taken into account when categorising people as male or female, men or women? Or does biological sex sometimes matter too?

Again it would seem to me that the important question is not whom to call woman or man, but why. I do share Baggini’s bewilderment (though I have not read Stock’s book):

After reading Material Girls, I remain baffled by this Manichean orthodoxy. Stock and those who agree with her might be wrong, but why are so many convinced that not only are their errors obvious, they are also hateful?

In his newsletter, Baggini seems right that a particular article is “question-begging” to assert from the beginning that Stock’s activism is “aimed at rolling back the rights of trans people in the UK.” The article is “Academic Freedom in the Media: Who Is Being Silenced?” (Liberal Currents, November 4, 2021) by Caitlin Green, described as “a linguist specializing in Discourse Studies and Pragmatics.” No academic affiliation is given, but Green professes to knows how one must do research:

Norms in academic disciplines help us socialize one another into the most effective ways of formulating and investigating questions, as developed over time by previous scholars. One such norm is the scientific method. When one changes research focus, the first thing one must do is familiarize oneself with the existing work in the new topic area. It is by no means required that one conform precisely to the norms of the new field, but when Stock moved from philosophy of fiction into gender and politics, she completely disregarded the work that endeavors to answer questions relevant to her interests.

This would sound patronizing, if accompanied by signs of actual authority. What Green calls socialization, Paley calls indoctrination that can lead to “social catastrophe.” Green tries to justify it:

Mental health research has been clear on this issue for quite some time now: all of the major national and international psychological and medical organizations agree that it is not only discriminatory, it is measurably dangerous for trans and gender non-conforming individuals to be deprived of acceptance for their gender identities … This is not a question of simple disagreement; for some people, social acceptance of their gender identity is a matter of life and death.

Baggini quotes that last clause, even giving it credibility by saying,

Stock is not nasty, but she could be wrong in ways that are very bad for trans people.

Apparently what Stock might be “wrong” about is whom to call a woman. Children are taught to chant – or at least my friends and I were taught –

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names can never hurt me.

I think we were given those verses for two reasons:

  • Names can hurt.
  • You have got to learn to deal with this yourself.

A younger generation may feel differently.

Note added April 13, 2022. I have done some slight editing.

Note added May 18, 2022. It turns out even members of an older generation may feel differently about “Sticks and stones.” The question was raised on Quora, “Is there any utility to the idiom ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’?” Here is the answer by David McPhee, who has doctorates in “Pastoral Psychology” and “Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology” and who “provid[es] educational/consultation services for colleagues, and general counsel where permitted by law”:

No. I heard it as a child—every child of my generation did. I understood it to mean that it was wrong, even shameful for me to show hurt feelings. It went with “Big boys don’t cry,” or the ridiculous injunction to an eight year old child “Be a man.”

I’m grateful to report that I didn’t hear any of those stupid, harmful things at home, I don’t think, but it was part of the culture of bringing up boys at that time. And girls too, in a different way. Things are better now, but the shaming lingers for some kids.

I read Quora sometimes, and the algorithm often shows me answers by McPhee. Since they are usually good, I am astonished at how bad this one is.

I shall have to assume McPhee is correct in reporting his childish interpretation of “Sticks and stones.” Perhaps it was taught to him by the same people who told him also, “Big boys don’t cry.” However, the two sayings do not automatically “go with” one another. An insulting name may make you cry; so may a blow to the head with a stick or stone. Call both the name and the blow a “harm” if you insist; but you have a chance to mitigate the effects of the name through thinking alone.

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Words « Polytropy on December 27, 2021 at 8:54 am

    […] in the Media: Who Is Being Silenced?” – discussed in what I added yesterday at the end of “Imagination.” I note a general concern that people like Stock are not getting with the […]

  2. By Sacrifice and Simulation « Polytropy on September 26, 2022 at 11:04 am

    […] J.K. Rowling to the new god they have found; but what I had to say about this, I posted as “Imagination.” The rest of what I gathered about sacrifice languished, till I rediscovered it when looking up […]

  3. By On Homer’s Iliad Book II « Polytropy on December 4, 2022 at 9:34 pm

    […] we cannot solve the problem by saying that feeling like a woman is actually being a woman. In “Imagination,” I reviewed the argument of Holly Lawford-Smith that somebody raised as a man is unlikely to […]

  4. By Parenthood and Sex « Polytropy on December 22, 2022 at 12:43 pm

    […] “Imagination” (on Nathan J. Robinson’s critique of J. K. Rowling). […]

  5. By Reading shallow and deep « Polytropy on January 26, 2023 at 8:16 am

    […] Edited January 26, 2023. Now I have read the first two Harry Potter books; see “Imagination” […]

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