The Insidious Transphobia of “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” by Megan Phelps-Roper

The Insidious Transphobia of “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” by Megan Phelps-Roper

Episode 2: Burn the Witch

The first 15 minutes of episode 2 aren’t much more than a 90’s soundscape following a short, seemingly out-of-place discussion of witch hunts. We hear about gay rights, the LA riots, and the Bill Clinton scandal, until we’re able to make a pit stop at goth kids being prescribed Ritalin and Prozac. Megan makes a very clear parallel between the depressed teens back then and now:

There was a growing concern among many adults back then, just as there is today, that the cultural forces influencing young people were leading them to be depressed, anxious and antisocial. And in response to this, they saw a subset of the country saying that what these young people needed was medical intervention […] which sparked a national debate about whether to trust big pharmaceutical companies and the doctors who were telling parents that their kids needed these drugs.

Megan Phelps-Roper, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 2: Burn the Witch

The soundscape continues on through the Branch Davidian cult’s tragic shootout, the Oklahoma City car bombing, and the Columbine shooting that revitalized a narrative of Christians being persecuted by medicated Marilyn Manson fans.

Indebted to a wizard

From this mention of the Christian persecution complex we transition to the Christian parents and pastors who called for a boycott of Harry Potter. Megan reminds us that we owe the little protection that LGBTQ+ books have today to the 2003 Arkansas court case Counts v. Cedarville School District over whether schools could restrict students’ access to the Harry Potter books.

[Megan:] Would you say that these cases involving Harry Potter related book bans and restrictions are now the kind of precedent that is protecting LGBTQ books in public libraries?

[Brian Meadors (attorney who argued on behalf of access to the Potter books in the case):] Yes, I think that’s fair. The part of the legacy of Harry Potter is that it’s going to protect a lot of LGBTQ books. That’s right. And things like this are going to always happen, and they always have in American history, right? There’s always going to be some group that considers itself aggrieved. They’re going to try to shut down viewpoints that they don’t like.

Megan Phelps-Roper and Brian Meadors, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 2: Burn the Witch

Soon after, Megan asks the case’s opposing attorney, David Hogue, whether he would “say that the Christian parents were maybe part of a moral panic specifically around those books?” to which he replies, “Yeah, absolutely.”

Megan pleads the fifth

Although this example might feel like a stretch, the first three episodes have a very calculated way of equating these evangelicals with trans people. Both condemn Rowling, and neither have valid reasons. But Megan never comes out and says this. Actually, she never really comes out and says anything. Instead of calling the situation a moral panic herself, she asks this leading question to someone else, who will obviously answer in the affirmative after the long conversation they’ve been having about the (actually unjustified) Harry Potter backlash from evangelicals.

In doing so, readers will apply this straightforward implication from Megan that the first backlash was an unjustified moral panic with a suggestion that today’s backlash is as well.

They bring this up very intentionally because the anti-trans frenzy we are living through right now is the textbook definition of a moral panic (which is not unlike other recent moral panics).

In their classic analysis of moral panics, sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda outline five key characteristics: concern, or the belief that the behaviour of the group in question are likely to have a negative effect on society; ‘hostility’ – fairly self-explanatory – to the point where the group in question are seen as ‘folk devils’, that is, a group of people who are portrayed in media as outsiders and deviant, and who are blamed for crimes or other sorts of social problems; ‘consensus’, or widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society; ‘disproportionality’ – the resulting societal action taken against the group is entirely disproportionate to the actual threat posed by it; and, finally, ‘volatility’ – moral panics typically appear and subside very quickly; often vanishing abruptly because media and therefore public, interest wanes or a new panic supplants the previous one.

Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue p. 38, describing Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, pp. 57-65

But by insinuating that it is people like Rowling who are the victims of moral panics, when it is quite obvious that it’s the other way around, people like me are required to shoot back with an indignant, “No, you are!”

It’s all meticulously thought out. Megan’s approving response to one tweet is very telling.

These tweets were in response to how real witch trials were not “someone sat in a mansion while the poors complained about how rude they were,” although it can also apply to those who have taken the opening sentence of Megan’s article as equating Rowling and God himself: “J.K. Rowling is arguably the most successful author in the history of publishing, with the possible exception of God.” Even I see it as a stretch to say that Megan was really equating Rowling with God here, but it’s worth mentioning as it’s gotten some attention.

Show me the words, Jack

But this shows how carefully Megan can guard herself from being accused of saying anything, because I could probably count on one hand how many times she actually comes out in this podcast and says what she believes. While Rowling tends to be more direct, she uses this tactic to deflect accusations of transphobia as well.

Remember: the title is ambiguous. It could mean anything. It’s mysterious. Future generations will marvel at the uncertainty that shrouds this cryptic artifact.

There, truly, is the whole issue in a nutshell. If your bar for bigotry requires Rowling to say out loud, “I hate trans people,” then that bar will never be cleared. Even if Rowling feels that way, I doubt she’d ever say it that way; even conservative pundits know not to say it that way. There is simply nothing to be strategically gained by uttering such an obviously prejudiced sentence.

Monica Hesse, Listening to ‘The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling’ is exhausting work

16 thoughts on “The Insidious Transphobia of “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” by Megan Phelps-Roper

  • April 17, 2023 at 6:47 am
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    You keep using the word “equivocating”, I do not think it means what you think it means. What I think you mean is “equate”.

    Reply
    • April 17, 2023 at 8:46 am
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      Oh my gosh!!! Thanks for telling me. Well they definitely equivocate too! 😅

      Reply
      • April 19, 2023 at 11:54 am
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        Yes they do 🙂

        Reply
  • April 25, 2023 at 5:40 pm
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    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?

    Reply
  • May 9, 2023 at 2:36 pm
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    Hi Rebekah,
    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.

    Reply
    • June 15, 2023 at 11:46 am
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      Hi Travis, thanks for your comment and for waiting for my reply! I’ll do my best to address your points below.

      1. While I did speculate about the podcast’s origins, I don’t think it’s wrong or conspiratorial to do so. I laid out the clues that led me to that (tentative) conclusion because Megan’s alleged letter was never released, or even described in detail, and so I don’t think my hypothesis is a great stretch. But at the end of the day we don’t know for sure, and I wish we had more information.
      2. Rowling does acknowledge in her essay discussed in chapter 5 that “Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk.” Barring the obvious implication here that “trans people” are not women, she follows this whole section with “At the same time,…” leading into fear mongering about men in women’s restrooms. So that contradicts what she said here which is that “[our sex class] is the basis for our oppression” during a discussion about domestic violence. She implies that trans women cannot suffer the same oppression as cis women, which is based in their “sex class.” Regarding the listing of advertisers, you can interpret that as cancel culture if you want to. Brands should suffer consequences for being featured in transphobic podcasts. Finally, I disagree that the interpretation of correctional officers causing more harm than Karen White was not fair and accurate. I believe it was more than fair, and wholly accurate.
      3. Yes, I believe that they “might actually want to eliminate trans people altogether.”
        (Next numbered list!)
      4. Sorry but I don’t buy this explanation of the title as ubiquitous. Overall in your analysis I think you are taking Megan at her word too much. Maybe it’s not a scientifically provable fact, but I don’t think she is genuine—that’s probably the biggest difference between your view and mine. (a) I think HP being about witchcraft ties to the idea of Rowling being a witch even more (b) Megan said her family didn’t have anything to do with the anti-HP mania, and she was allowed to read it (c) I think this point also lends itself to Rowling being the witch, that’s why it’s a prominent theme (d) I agree. To your description of “the absence of unambiguous indications to the contrary” what frustrates me about the podcast as a whole is that there isn’t really anything unambiguous. It’s all open to interpretation, so this is my best educated attempt to interpret it.
      5. You might be interested in Caelan’s video. They list some transphobic or transphobic-ish tweets Megan’s liked in the past. I don’t think that proves anything, but it starts to raise a little red flag.
      6. I think that takes us back to the problem of making a podcast that is featuring J.K. Rowling in the first place.
      7. Of course, everyone has biases and their own dogma. Whether Megan is aware of the distinction or not, she really goes out of her way to exaggerate similarities between WBC and trans people/allies, which is not fair.
      8. I didn’t find episode 7 particularly interesting, but instead pretty predictable. I was surprised that Natalie was featured in ep 6 and that her good points were platformed here at all, so maybe there was no going back after her segment as seeing Rowling as positively as we might have in earlier episodes. My biggest problem with episode 7 is the way it was advertised as “Rowling’s opponents will feel they’ve been vindicated after hearing this!” which was not at all the case.
      Reply
      • July 24, 2023 at 1:01 pm
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        First time reader here, and I think Travis R made an excellent point about:

        “To ostart, 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.”

        What kind of blog is this? I found it on a top list of best skeptics blogs, but it reads more like bad faith activism to me. What I’ve read so far isn’t true skepticism, which makes me worried, because bad faith activism is dangerous to me and my feelings, in fact it is hate speech towards my feelings. I would like you to stop it if you would please.

        Reply
  • May 12, 2023 at 3:06 pm
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    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.

    Reply
    • May 12, 2023 at 5:41 pm
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      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 🙂

      Reply
  • June 16, 2023 at 6:21 pm
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    Rebekah,
    Thank you for responding even after all this time. I honestly never intended to spur any kind of debate with those numbered points. The first list was just an attempt to backup the claim that you were sometimes characterizing people with uncharitable attributions that go beyond the information we have, and which can therefore appear to be the kind of “bad faith” engagement that the podcast was in part critiquing. The second list was an attempt to show an example of how one could offer a more charitable interpretation of Megan’s position.

    Regardless, I want to highlight the part of the comment that was between those lists. If I could have a redo, I would drop the lists because those clearly were not helpful. I should take my own advice. The larger goal was to encourage you to become familiar with the research around persuasion and how people’s minds change because I sensed you leaning into a more antagonistic approach which I understand to be counterproductive to effective activism. You are welcome to disagree with that assessment, but I thought it was worth sharing that perspective. If nothing else, I recommend looking at adding David McRaney’s most recent book to your non-fiction reading list, and\or his podcast to your rotation.

    Reply
    • July 11, 2023 at 10:23 pm
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      I understand you think you know a lot about this subject matter because you listened to a podcast, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to you that your tone is very condescending and dismissive.

      It is certain that, at the very least, Phelps-Roper lacks the expertise or journalistic ability to provide a thorough portrayal of Rowling and the people who oppose her (VERY OBVIOUSLY) transmisist agenda. It is even more certain that Rowling herself hates trans people. I do not consider this language to be too strong. She is funding Posey Parker, a genocidal transmisist who is very open about her desire to force trans people to detransition, and if they won’t do that, throw them in prison. Or worse. And she is willing to throw absolutely everything else under the bus in pursuit of this goal, including women’s reproductive rights. She’s also willing to associate with a woman who started a sexual relationship with a minor (who could not consent under the law in many places) and got pregnant by that child, simply because that woman is as openly hateful of trans people as she is. Rowling is long past the “a few concerns” stage of things, and we should not allow her to pretend her motives are pure.

      Reply
  • July 5, 2023 at 7:44 pm
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    I think it’s important to critique ideas where important matters of justice are concerned, but to use the inflammatory words “insidious” and “transphobic” is so clearly hyperbolic that it makes you appear unserious. It gives off the aroma of click bait and performative outrage that is such a turn off to anyone not already convinced. If you are preaching to your own choir, I hope it’s gratifying.

    Reply
  • September 1, 2023 at 6:11 pm
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    I recently listened to the podcast. In many ways I was disappointed with it (and pissed off by it), as well as with Megan, considering her past. While she seeks to avoid repeating the sins of her past, she wound up in the opposite extreme doing the exact same thing. I’m also working my way through the series to analyze them deeper.

    I literally stopped episode 1 within about 15 seconds to investigate the sponsor. Fire (thefire.org). The first red flag for me was the free speech absolutism. This is often an indicator of an agenda-driven mission that claims high ideals, but is limited in it’s scope to just being anti-woke. I read the article on their lawsuit against CA. I picked a single quote to investigate, “persons that say they are ‘not a racist’ are in denial.”, and followed it down a rabbit hole. The first thing I noticed was Fire is extremely loath to link to outside sources. This tells me that seek to maintain control over the narrative, via echo chamber. The quote I picked was cut down from a much longer sentence (which is why I left the period in their quote):
    “Persons that say they are ‘not a racist’ are in denial of the inequities and racial problems that exist.” (Taken from I. X. Kendi’s book “How to be Antiracist”)

    Fire’s misquote means people who claims to not be a racist are denying that they are. The real quote means they’re denying the existence of inequities and racial problems. Those are two vastly different things. I don’t agree with the full sentence either, but Fire changing the context is outright lying and manipulation. (I don’t agree that saying your not a racist is denial of the problems. Racism, at it’s core, is literally the belief in the superiority of one’s race, everything else is a manifestation of that belief. One can simultaneously believe their race is not superior and know that inequality and racism exists. People who aren’t racist can also be infected with racist ideologies that permeate our society repeated ad nauseum – think “Affirmative Action is reverse racism” – and not even realize the origin or full context of these ideologies.)

    One shouldn’t be surprised about the lopsided presentation of the podcast given it’s sponsorship. Megan literally sold out. It’s funny how quickly she went down the “dark web” hole. It does have a tempting message that seems shiny and logical on the surface. Until one begins to ask certain questions and doesn’t take them at face value. Smart people are very intelligent at rationalizing their irrationality.

    I do believe that JKR doesn’t intend harm, but her extreme focus driven by her horrific past blinds her to the suffering of others (rather than enhancing empathy) and limits her “research” to only that which confirms her biases. Along with the huge array of logical fallacies she commits, she is incapable of understanding that the people who once vilified her didn’t become her allies, they’re using her to justify their hatred of LGBTQ people. If conservatives can separate the T from the rest (a tactic that has taken hold in recent years), then they can separate the rest and regain the ground they “lost” and usher back the pre-Stonewall era of bigotry and hatred that they enjoy so much. Many conservatives and christians don’t even realize that there are eugenicists hiding within their ranks. They play the long game and keep their messages of hatred alive. JKR doesn’t seem to even be aware how she continues to feed this insipid infection of society. I am in no way excusing JKR, ultimately, she made the choices that have hurt a lot of people and has continues to remain willfully blind to broader reality.

    Reply
  • September 9, 2023 at 10:43 pm
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    “The Free Press is an anti-trans publication with a record of distorting and excluding information that doesn’t fit their harmful narrative”

    The amount of projection in this diatribe is something to behold. Even more ironic, considering the latest blog titled, “On Writing White” is coming from a privileged white who regurgitates white talking points in the most white way possible.

    You came in with a conclusion, then perused through The Free Press looking for “evidence” to support your conclusion.

    Bari Weiss didn’t leave NYT because it was “not conservative—or centrist—enough for her” — she said she left because NYT did not defend her against alleged bullying by colleagues and caving into Twitter critics. This folks, is the self-described “critical thinker” and “skeptic,” who couldn’t bother to spend a few minutes to fact-check — but that of course, wouldn’t fit her narrative. She needs to smear her opponents (how dare someone be critical of my religion?) Then she goes on ranting about FIRE because, gasp, they support free speech! You know free speech — the thing that’s part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Well, little Miss whitey here doesn’t like free speech or Universal Declaration of Human Rights — it hurts her narrative when people can talk back and criticize her ideology. She prefers to go back to the 19th century when fanatic whites like her were free to proselytize and force her religion on others without resistance. Ah, the good ‘ol days!

    You know what is “harmful?” A “movement” where its members harass women, who regularly send death and rape threats to women, who use emotional blackmailing, who try to silence critics and get them fired. It’s not surprising that depression among girls and women has skyrocketed, and now white liberal women are the most unhappy group in the country. Congrats — this is the accomplishment of your “movement.”

    The rest of the non-WHITE Western world completely rejects your gender ideology — perhaps should stop excluding this information that doesn’t fit your backward narrative.

    Reply

What do you think?