At 7:00 in the morning on February 14th, 2023, Megan Phelps-Roper posted a tweet. “Last year @jk_rowling responded to a letter I wrote her. I’d asked if she’d be part of a conversation seeking to understand her perspective and those of her critics. The result is a new audio series from @thefp: THE WITCH TRIALS OF J.K. ROWLING.”
The now-complete podcast series by The Free Press, hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper, purports to bring together the “two sides” of the “debate about sex and gender,” meanwhile investigating tribalism, discernment, and humanity. It seeks to do this by having an open conversation with J.K. Rowling, a legend-turned-villain who’s “been the object of intense backlash,” according to Megan.
Like Rowling, Megan “knew what it was like to be an object of intense hatred. But I also knew the value of good-faith conversation, and the role it can play in bridging even the deepest divides.” Thus, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling was born.
The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling | Episode 1: Plotted in Darkness | Episode 2: Burn the Witch | Episode 3: A New Pyre | Episode 4: TERF Wars | Episode 5: The Tweets | Episode 6: Natalie and Noah | Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
Who is Megan Phelps-Roper?
Three years before Megan tweeted, almost to the day, I was sitting in my comfy chair devouring her book Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. I was, and am, an ex-Christian atheist, so I was inspired by her story. I gave a 5-star review on Goodreads.
Megan Phelps-Roper is best known for leaving her family’s, er, close-knit religious group in 2012 at age 26. Since then, she’s been an activist in that she gave a TED Talk, went on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and of course, wrote a memoir.
Megan’s memoir documents her childhood in the Westboro Baptist Church and her family’s deep love for one another. They saw no contradictions in holding signs with homophobic slurs while basking in the self-righteousness of knowing only they truly loved their neighbors.
Unlike her grandfather Fred Phelps, Megan brought the feud between Westboro and outsiders to Twitter, where debates with strangers led her to question everything she’d been taught to believe and ultimately leave the church.
It was a beautiful story. Readers like me saw that if we could just take the time to explain to those in hate groups that hate is actually wrong, bigots might change their minds. We just needed to see the humanity of folks like Megan and her mother who protested soldiers’ funerals using KJV Bible verses.
How to empathize with bigots
Megan’s book was essentially predicated by her TED Talk, in which the world first learned her feel-good story:
Sometimes the conversation [from Twitter] even bled into real life. People I’d sparred with on Twitter would come out to the picket line to see me when I protested in their city. A man named David was one such person. He ran a blog called “Jewlicious,” and after several months of heated but friendly arguments online, he came out to see me at a picket in New Orleans. He brought me a Middle Eastern dessert from Jerusalem, where he lives, and I brought him kosher chocolate and held a “God hates Jews” sign.Megan Phelps-Roper, I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left
This story is told in the book, as well. I remember loving this passage about an unconventional friendship. I shared a photo of it on my blog’s now-defunct Instagram page because of how well it encapsulated Megan’s entire story and the power of kindness.
But with the hindsight of who Megan is, what she has actually used her leaving-Westboro story for, how ubiquitous and real Christian anti-Semitism is, how these “friendly arguments” about God’s hatred must have felt to her friend David… it’s not a feel good story at all. It’s neither cute nor funny. Jewish people were a plot device in Megan’s story; David helped her become a better person. She helped him do what? Waste his time arguing with bigots on Twitter only for her merely stop and not really ever do anything to combat rising anti-Semitic violence?
Context with Caelan
Nonbinary YouTuber and fellow follower of Megan’s Witch Trials project Caelan Conrad helped me to gain this needed perspective about Megan.
The TED Talk revealed something about her mindset, something that would be echoed throughout her memoir. It’s always been about her journey, her growth, her redemption. And the marginalized people she harmed, abused, attacked along the way… They are but plot, NPCs that existed only to further her journey along the path to change. Whenever the discussion of her attacks on other people on Twitter come up, she looks back on those times almost fondly because the conversations on Twitter with the people who decided to give her dozens of chances and the benefit of the doubt were part of what started her down her road to lessening how extreme her views were.Caelan Conrad, The ALLEGED Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling (What The Megan Phelps Podcast Won’t Tell You)
This assurance that patient conversations with your enemies will cause one or both of you to see each other with compassion is the basis for her entire worldview—no, her entire brand.
This has been at the front of my mind lately, because I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. […] We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line. This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.Megan Phelps-Roper, I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left
It sounds nice, it really does. I loved her book… without the context that Caelan’s video and Megan’s new podcast provide. Caelan, having that context, said that reading Megan’s memoir was actually “incredibly frustrating.” (Trigger warning: suicide.)
I fundamentally disagree that being nicer to bigots makes the world better for anyone but the bigots, and that policing the way marginalized people speak only furthers their marginalization. Have you been on Twitter lately? You’re asking me to extend empathy and compassion in the face of systemic abuse, stochastic terrorism, and calls for my death simply for existing. We are in a fight for our actual rights, our lives. While the people you want me to show compassion, to gleefully send me death threats, recount the tales of my suicidality after being the victim of a hate crime, telling me that I was right, I should have killed myself. There’s no nuance, no context allowed in Megan’s framework. It’s simply, “Are you being nice? If yes, continue. If no, that isn’t who you want to be. Resist the urge to fight back.” I will extend empathy. Often. I will assume positive intent when there’s actually a reason to. But I will not spend my life trying to convince bigots that I deserve rights on Twitter.Caelan Conrad, The ALLEGED Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling (What The Megan Phelps Podcast Won’t Tell You)
Why is Megan Phelps-Roper famous?
When you put it into perspective, Megan’s level of expertise on the signs of and cures for hatred and bigotry are lacking. She was in a hate group in which she treated the violence she inflicted on others as a joke. Marginalized people online befriended her for some reason and she left the group once she started seeing them as as human as she was.
Because it’s such a feel-good story for those of us who see Westboro as a hate group (and especially for the antitheists who view all religion as hateful), we haven’t stopped to think that other than having been in the group, and leaving the group, Megan doesn’t really have legitimate qualifications to teach others about cults, authoritarianism, or an analysis of discourse beyond her own personal experiences. For 10 years, she has been telling the same story over and over and over again, never actually doing anything beyond asking you to be impressed that she’s not calling for the deaths of gay people. Congratulations on learning at 26 what most people learned in kindergarten and spending the rest of your adult life telling us what we already know.
It was only after years on Twitter spreading hate speech that people outside her family were actually able to shake her unwavering convictions by being kind, patient, and calm with her, as opposed to the people who shouted her down online and in person. [The TED Talk is] a milquetoast speech, and it never really asks any meaningful questions, let alone answers them. At the time, I didn’t look into it any further as nothing she said was even remotely novel. It was like listening to a kid explain how they learned to share. It’s very cute, but probably not something you’re going to walk away from with new insight like, “Oh my God, I never thought to be calm or ask questions before. Thanks, Meggie.” Her entire thesis is built around and centers her own experiences as the attacker, the bigot, the abuser.Caelan Conrad, The ALLEGED Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling (What The Megan Phelps Podcast Won’t Tell You)
A dangerous lens
Megan doesn’t see the world through a red, Westboro-tinted lens anymore. But the lens she has now is still dangerous. Having spent only 10 years outside the church, all that she really knows is to see anything that reminds her of it as harmful. Remember what she said: “We’ve broken the world into us and them, […] I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.” This is like seeing Black people creating their own spaces to be safe from racism as morally equal to white supremacists excluding Black people out of racism.
Caelan explains, “Her litmus test for whether something is good or bad is often reduced to, ‘Does this remind me of the Westboro Baptist Church?’ If the answer is yes, then the action is unethical. But her analysis lacks nuanced depth. It seems to happen in a vacuum.” Her entire moral compass is based on this question, which depends solely on her own personal experience. And knowing how bad she used to be, she seems incapable of seeing herself as anything but reformed, an angel by comparison to the demon she was in what she would like to think was another life.
So when the trans community’s response to J.K. Rowling’s transphobia made Megan Phelps-Roper’s Westboro alarm go off, she realized that the two sides just needed to do what Megan knew in her bones was the answer. They need to be civilized, talk, and find common ground.
Scrupulously good faith
In an interview with her podcast’s publisher, Megan explained how she thinks Witch Trials can do for others what folks on Twitter once did for her:
I remember writing to [Rowling] about noticing these two backlashes that she has faced and how I really wanted to make sense of them, to understand where people were coming from. I talked about how I know the value of real good faith conversation and how I felt like it was important to try to find that in the conversation currently happening on sex and gender, where it has just seemed impossible for years now, many years now. […] my belief in the power of conversation is so strong, it completely changed my life. I would not be here if not for that, if not for the grace and generosity that people showed me, and I really believe this, that that people really want to understand each other. They don’t want things to continue on as they have been for so many years now. And I wouldn’t have pursued this project if I hadn’t spent a lot of time talking with a lot of people, including many trans people, and hearing from them, and not just my speculation about the power of conversation, but this was something that they wanted. They wanted to be able to discuss hard things in public with grace.Megan Phelps-Roper speaking to Bari Weiss on Twitter Spaces
8 thoughts on “The Insidious Transphobia of “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” by Megan Phelps-Roper”
You keep using the word “equivocating”, I do not think it means what you think it means. What I think you mean is “equate”.
Oh my gosh!!! Thanks for telling me. Well they definitely equivocate too! 😅
Yes they do 🙂
It seems like your review of the podcast is mainly about Barry Weiss’s connections to problematic people. I can see why that might lead you to dismiss the podcast as a waste of time, but you say you listened to the whole thing. I’m curious what you found a chance phobic exactly about the podcast itself?
Hi, please see pages 2-9
Thanks for this post. It led me to actually listen to the podcast and move beyond the limited perspective I had received from the Sam Harris’ interview with Megan. It also led me to listen to the Contrapoints response, which was very helpful. I recognize the significant effort that goes into putting together a lengthy post like this. It was clearly a labor of love and you offer many good observations on how the podcast does not live up to the fair-handed intentions espoused by Megan. That said, some aspects of the post caught my attention for less noble reasons, so I want to offer what I hope is received as friendly, constructive criticism. I really don’t want to misrepresent you in any way, so if I have misunderstood something then please let me know.
To start, I want to note that your many valid points are more likely to be summarily dismissed by readers who think that you are acting in bad faith – which I assume you don’t want. Your passion comes through loud and clear, but it appears to come with a serving of hyperbole and speculation which can be easily interpreted as a less severe version of the bad faith activism that the podcast is critiquing. To clarify what I’m referring to, some examples that caught my attention are:
1. On the first page, you (drawing from Caelan) accuse Megan of selfishly using people as mere plot devices in her story, then go on to impugn her knowledge of how to counter bad ideas and equate it to what the rest of us figure out in kindergarten (more on this below – she may know more about this than you think).
2. For Episode 1, you speculate that Megan was coached by the Free Press on what to say and then question her honesty about the “highly, highly” doubtful origins of the letter for which you’re “almost positive” you know the origins. The dot joining which you use to reach that speculation is reminiscent of conspiratorial thinking.
3. For Episode 4, you reinterpret Rowling’s statement that biological women “require certain protections” into an assertion that trans women don’t need protections (I believe she acknowledged this need at some point), and interpret the discussion of Karen White instead of cis men’s crimes as evidence that “they’re not concerned about women’s safety” (rather than just the consequence of focused discussion), and take Goldberg citing the need for clear delineations as evidence that she “doesn’t care” “that trans people are fighting for their lives”. These do not read as fair and accurate interpretations. Beyond that, the listing of advertisers in this episode is, whether you intended it or not, going to be interpreted as an endorsement of “cancel culture” by virtue of being read as a suggestion to boycott them.
4. On the last page you claim that they (presumably Megan and Rowling) prefer a world in which “trans people stay at the bottom if they are there at all“. Regardless of your intention, this reads as if you think they might actually want to eliminate trans people altogether.
Again, you’ve made a lot of good points in this post, but I raise these observations because I assume you want those points to be received without being seen as misrepresenting people and acting in bad faith. Which leads me to my second critique…
I may very well be wrong, but it also felt to me like you were not only criticizing Megan’s approach in the context of the podcast, but were also leaning toward skepticism of the open dialogue strategy in the context of social justice issues in general. I infer this from the observations above, in the quotes you select from Caelan, and in your handling of Megan’s response to Natalie’s “indirect bigotry”. Though Natalie’s video shows how antagonistic activism isn’t anything new (contrary to many claims), the mere presence of that behavior in past successful movements does not infer that it was necessary for their success.
More practically, there has been a fair bit of work to study persuasion, in both the individual and larger social contexts. If you are not already familiar with David McRaney and his “You are not so smart” podcast, I recommend taking a look. If you want your activism to be effective then I suggest that he is a voice worth listening to. In case you haven’t already guessed it, the most effective strategies have a lot in common with Megan’s idealism and stand in opposition to more antagonistic methods. While it is important for a movement to grab the public’s attention, not all attention is good for the success of the movement.
Lastly, though I have no stake in being a Megan Phelps-Roper apologist I thought it would be interesting to try and steelman her approach with this podcast:
1. If she is in fact aware of the research noted above (as I would guess) then the grace she extends to the gender critical viewpoint can also be seen as her engaging in the kind of dialogue which is necessary to gain the trust of those who hold that perspective, which makes them more open to the alternative viewpoints that are shared.
2. While the series title does lend itself more to the implication that Rowling is the witch than the witch hunter, let’s not forget that (a) Rowling’s fame is based on witchcraft, (b) Megan’s background was deep in the anti-witchcraft era of Harry Potter, (c) witch trials are classic examples of mob justice, which is a prominent theme of the series, and (d) a catchy title is important to downloads. She has said the title was intended to be open to interpretation, including directly stating this in the first episode. In the absence of unambiguous indications to the contrary, we should not assume that is a lie.
3. As far as I know, Megan doesn’t have any kind of history that puts her in the same camp as Rowling on gender issues. Guilt-by-association is a precarious criteria for pigeonholing somebody, especially when the association is in a context where she explicitly tells us that she is trying to not take a side. Even if you think she failed in that goal, your perspective on that is not a reliable insight into her intentions.
4. Megan’s history of being heavily focused on the promotion of open, civilized conversation regardless of ideological differences is good reason to believe her when she says that her goal in this case is no different, even if the end result does not appear to be as balanced as she thinks it was. As noted previously, to say that she is the “epitome of bad faith” is mind-reading her intentions.
5. Rowling is the centerpiece of the project and its success is likely dependent on Rowling’s approval. If she pulled her support, it may not have ever been released. That’s a tough line to walk and will inevitably bias the result in favor of not alienating her.
6. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read you as saying that Megan’s past has given her a “dangerous lens” because it causes her to mistake the expressions of pain and hurt in the more aggressive interactions as equivalent to the expression of hateful dogma from her time at Westboro. The distinction between emotional responses and hateful dogma is fair, but it also does not mean that there is no dogmatic rhetoric to be found on the trans-activist side. I think Natalie did a good job of acknowledging this, and we shouldn’t assume that Megan is also not aware of this distinction even if it was not overtly addressed in the podcast (though perhaps it was and I just don’t recall).
7. While episode 7 does not feature Megan confronting Rowling with vigor, the questioning of Rowling was such that – in my opinion – Rowling was cast in a far less flattering light than she was in the first 5 episodes. If that’s a legitimate observation then that is a telling way to end the series.
Sorry for the length of this comment. I hope you can appreciate that I’m not trying to be adversarial and why I would think it was worth sharing these observations.
I left a comment here a few days ago that included a couple links and so was held for moderation. Wanted to alert you in case it slipped your attention.
WordPress had flagged it, so I didn’t see it. Thank you for taking the time to write it! I look forward to reading it when I have a little time 🙂