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.
This hit me in just the right mood and I snort-laughed.😉 In this case, I totally get where the comparison breaks down—but when so many people are using that language, isn’t it worth investigating what they’re responding to? (My answer is yes, obviously. =)— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) March 7, 2023
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