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J.K. Rowling: "The attempt to intimidate me is meant as a warning to other women”
The myopic cancel culture take that won't go away
A celebrity says something problematic. Twitter goes nuts. The celebrity faces the real or potential loss of income and status. Eventually the dust settles, and the celebrity continues to enjoy the trappings of fame and wealth.
Does that mean cancel culture doesn’t exist? For many, the answer is yes.
Writing in Persuasion in December 2021, I described how skeptics often frame the issue:
In the wake of the controversy surrounding his latest Netflix special “The Closer,” Dave Chappelle received an Emmy nomination for his 2020 special “8:46.” Many have gleefully declared that the nod proves that cancel culture does not exist. “Only one grammy nom[ination] each for Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, and Louis CK!! Cancel culture strikes again!!” snarked Buzzfeed reporter David Mack.
More recently, Chappelle received Emmy nominations for “The Closer.” Maybe that means cancel culture doubly doesn’t exist!
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Bad arguments often remain persistently popular. In the world of sports, celebs ranging from Lamar Jackson to Jerry West receive positive reinforcement when they respond to critics with ad hominem attacks. No need to address the substance of an argument, because fans will swoon when you shoot back at your interlocutor with, “Well, you’re bad at sports!”
Likewise, if you point to a famous person who tangled with the mob and still receives some of the goodies of fame, you can declare that cancel culture doesn’t exist, spike the ball, and enjoy the roar of the crowd (Mack’s tweet has nearly 7000 likes).
Such observers fixate on the seen, but overlook the unseen. Cancel culture is not primarily about the splashy spectacle everyone’s talking about, and it’s not primarily about the celebrity in the crosshairs.
Yes, it’s partly about that person, and even someone as mighty as Dave Chappelle can suffer. He may lose income, awards, opportunities, status, friends, and so on. He may fear for himself or his family. He may get attacked on stage.
Even the most successful author in the world can suffer.
Activists and others call her a “transphobe,” but New York Times columnist Pamela Paul says the charge against J.K. Rowling falls flat. Paul bases that verdict on her own investigation and that of former Rowling critic E.J. Rosetta, who on Twitter declared, “You’re burning the wrong witch.”
But those who thirst for justice don’t always have time to consider evidence. The Leaky Cauldron, one of the biggest “Harry Potter” fan sites, turned on Rowling, as have some of the young actors whose careers she helped build.
Other critics have advocated that bookstores pull her books from the shelves, and some bookstores have done so. She has also been subjected to verbal abuse, doxxing and threats of sexual and other physical violence, including death threats.
Now, in rare and wide-ranging interviews for the podcast series “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” … Rowling is sharing her experiences. “I have had direct threats of violence, and I have had people coming to my house where my kids live, and I’ve had my address posted online,” she says in one of the interviews. “I’ve had what the police, anyway, would regard as credible threats.”
The backlash is frightening, but cancel culture’s most important impact will be felt elsewhere. Rowling reflects on those who overlook the powerful, but less obvious chill generated by the controversy.
“The pushback is often, ‘You are wealthy. You can afford security. You haven’t been silenced.’ All true. But I think that misses the point. The attempt to intimidate and silence me is meant to serve as a warning to other women” with similar views who may also wish to speak out, Rowling says in the podcast.
“And I say that because I have seen it used that way,” Rowling continues. She says other women have told her they’ve been warned: “Look at what happened to J.K. Rowling. Watch yourself.”
Paul points to one woman who had to watch herself. Joanna Cherry, a Scottish lawmaker and lesbian, says she faced workplace bullying, death threats, and a demotion after publicly questioning new transgender legislation.
The impact of the Rowling row spreads far beyond Cherry. Its chill touches everyone from industry up-and-comers to gatekeepers who decide what kind of content reaches the masses.
They self censor and hush up, and that quiet response emboldens the next snarkster to quip about cancel culture’s nonexistence.
Ted Balaker is a filmmaker, and former network newser and think tanker. His recent work includes “Little Pink House starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn,” “Can We Take a Joke?” featuring Gilbert Gottfried and Penn Jillette, and a forthcoming feature documentary based on the bestselling book, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
Twitter Doesn’t Represent Reality
Above I reference The New York Times column, “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” by Pamela Paul.
With 6,131 recommendations, here is the comment at the top of the “Reader Picks” list:
Knoxville, TN Feb. 17
Ms. Rowling arguably did more to promote children's literacy than any other author in history, and that should be considered her greatest contribution to the world. Her views are not transphobic, they are pro-biological women, who still don't enjoy full equality or representation in any space. Bio women can be supportive of Trans persons AND want spaces for bio women only, like sports competitions. Demanding equal access to every space when bio women don't yet fully have that is like jumping to the front of a very long line and then screaming at everyone who calls you out for it. Bravo to Ms. Rowling for using her clout and position to speak out. Signed - a pro-LGBTQ liberal bio woman