Episode 3: A New Pyre
Episode 3 is a total shock after the subtlety of episodes 1 and 2. It begins:
[Megan]: Can you talk to me about some of the threats that you’ve received over the past few years?
[J.K. Rowling:] There have been a lot, a huge amount, as every woman will know, who speaks up on this issue, a huge amount of “I want her to choke on my fat trans dick.” You know, like very sexualized abuse.Megan Phelps-Roper and J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 3: A New Pyre
This victimhood sets the scene.
For about 15 minutes, Megan and Rowling talk about Harry Potter‘s rise to fame online and the growth of its online fan community. They touch on MuggleNet’s trolls and the gay teenagers who found a home in the Harry Potter fandom; then they reminisce upon Rowling’s experience giving the Harvard commencement address in 2008. Here is the full passage from which Megan shares bits and pieces:
Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places. Of course this is a power like my brand of fictional magic that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise, and many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or peer inside cages. They can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally. They can refuse to know. I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters, for without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech
Searing, bitter irony.
Soon after, Megan is talking to Angela Nagle, whom she introduces as a “writer and internet historian.” Megan and Nagle, together with Helen Lewis and Katherine Dee, describe Tumblr as an early home for two things: child porn and the exploration of gender identities.
But it was taken to such an extreme that people began to describe this as the snowflake, the person who constructs a totally kind of boutique and unique identity for themselves, and then guards that identity in a very, very sensitive way and reacts in an enraged way when anyone does not respect the uniqueness of their identity.Angela Nagle, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 3: A New Pyre
They then take this odd but harmless community of young people exploring their identities, and say it was “somewhat similar” to 4chan, a site that has been a breeding ground for several mass shootings.
Notice how, even if they don’t come out and say “Tumblr and 4chan are equal,” the women speak of them in the same tone, poking fun at the silly identities on Tumblr and never once condemning the violent culture of 4chan. Both sites are treated as simply peculiar.
And at the same time, you had on the other side of the political spectrum, you could say the most insensitive culture imaginable, which was the culture of 4chan. And the culture of 4chan was really based around transgression and offensiveness and the kind of fun of being offensive. […] You know, the entire culture became a sort of a one upmanship of who can post the most outrageous or offensive thing imaginable. And so they’re going to make Holocaust jokes and they’re going to make Anne Frank jokes.Angela Nagle, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 3: A New Pyre
They share a soundbite of what’s presumably a 4chan user saying, “Making an ethnostate is hard work. You really should ask yourself, what eugenics programs are you going to use? What type of plumbing do you use in your internment camps?” before Megan says, “So 4chan, if you’ve never heard of it, it was actually somewhat similar to Tumblr in that it was largely anonymous and text and image based.”
A bad etymology lesson
While they don’t acknowledge the shootings that 4chan spawned, Megan recounts how 4chan users would steal and leak celebrities’ nude photos, concluding “So in a lot of ways the norms and mores of Tumblr and 4chan end up being these kind of mirror images of one another.” Nagle agrees: Tumblr’s “ultra-sensitivity” reinforces 4chan’s “anti-sensitivity.” Identifying as genderqueer is very similar to joking about internment camps, apparently. Lewis chimes in: “If you’ve ever heard the kind of right wing activist railing against woke culture, then you’ll be hearing them condemning phrases that were popularized on Tumblr.”
Unknown voices read, “Micro-aggression. Trigger warnings. Latinx, nonbinary, two-spirit, transgender.” Lewis adds, “Even the idea of being cis as opposed to being trans, you know, the idea that everybody was one of those two things.” Megan explicitly says, “Many of them can be traced back to their increased use on Tumblr,” and “you can go back and kind of watch how these ideas start to migrate outward from Tumblr.” Lewis again adds, “The idea of privilege was very big. You know, the idea that you have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege. That really came from Tumblr and has had a sort of odd effect on discourse ever since.”
I never said that
I share these quotes to show how frustrating it must be for listeners to ask Megan for clarification.
Others have noted this, but the observation was that many of these ideas were popularized on Tumblr, not that they originated there. And it’s not necessarily the ideas themselves that are outlandish, but the versions that emerged and evolved on Tumblr were more likely to be.— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) March 1, 2023
Instead of ever owning anything, admitting that something she says is wrong, or even discussing what she said, it’s always “I never said that.” It’s always “Heavily implying something is not actually saying it.” I wonder why they would even make the podcast when, conveniently, no one actually ever says anything, only shares their observations, when a critic tries to scrutinize their words. Why they would spend so much time focusing on how these terms feel like they originated on Tumblr, when they do not actually believe that, is beyond me.
(Angela Nagle’s book, which I’ll touch on in a moment, said somewhat more specifically that “Tumblr had put [Judith] Butler’s theory into practice and created an entire subcultural language, set of slogans and style to go with it. […] It was the subcultural digital expression of the fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas.” However, the only examples she gives are a list of unheard-of neogenders and the idea of checking one’s privilege.)
Milo and Michael
A lengthy discussion of Tumblr’s role in the invention of “cancel culture,” and Rowling’s framing as a victim in which cancellation “happened to her” (she was “hit with it” after writing a short story in 2016 depicting Navajo people with racist stereotypes), led Megan and Rowling to discuss the “authoritarianism” Rowling saw in the student protests against Milo Yiannopolous, “who was essentially the culture of 4chan in human form,” giving campus speeches.
And I’m watching from across the pond as he tries to speak on various campuses. And there are protests, riots. “We want him deplatformed. We don’t want him to speak at all.” And I thought it was a terrible strategic error. And my feeling was you are giving this man way more power than he deserves by behaving in this way. It made Milo look sexier and edgier than he deserved to look. I thought it was a strategically appalling turn. Get on that platform and eviscerate his ideas. Get on that platform and expose him for the charlatan that he is. You push back hard, but you’ve given him so much power by refusing to talk. […] I thought they were serving his purposes because he was able to walk away from that saying, look, they won’t even, they don’t dare debate me. This is how dangerous and edgy I am. And I don’t think we want to cast the alt right in that light.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 3: A New Pyre
(While Rowling talked, Megan also added that “Milo went from relative obscurity to being a regular on prime time television and political talk shows in just a few months,” which is false.)
This was released six days before Michael Knowles would go on CPAC and publicly call for “the eradication of transgenderism from public life entirely,” while the University of Pittsburgh, still, at time of writing, is slated for him to speak on campus on April 18th. This is why we cannot debate the alt-right. Not Milo Yiannolopous, not Michael Knowles. There’s no witty comeback to “I want to eradicate human beings.” If protesting people like that makes them look edgy and sexy, perhaps Rowling hopes that she can be perceived the same way online.
Kill All Normies
This talk of Tumblr, 4chan, and Milo Yiannopolous is actually taken pretty directly from Angela Nagle’s 2017 book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right.
This article about Nagle’s book is thorough, detailed, and loaded with context. Large sections of the article’s criticism of the book can also apply to this episode, such as when the author says Nagle “laugh[s] along at the alt-right’s chosen [Tumblr-liberal] scapegoats,” Nagle implies that an article filled with misrepresentations of rape allegations on college campuses is protected free speech, she cites a white nationalist’s dubious claims to justify why men become incels, insinuates that Gamergate was just a response to a terrible “SJW” game, and suggests that trigger warnings are unreasonable.
Finally, another Twitter exchange Megan had regarding this episode was telling.
It’s not about equating these two platforms. It’s about noticing and examining the dynamics within and between them—and the effects they’ve had beyond the confines of the platforms themselves.— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) February 28, 2023
That’s very much a phenomenon worth investigating, but this series is examining ones that are more subtle and pervasive than that. As an imperfect parallel, I think reporting on my former church was often worthwhile,…— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) February 28, 2023
She wasn’t equating them, she was noticing and examining the dynamics between them, you see. And when you try to call out the podcast for not acknowledging the real-world harm generated in 4chan (or anything else that Megan or Rowling obviously imply throughout the series), suddenly that’s not subtle or pervasive enough for this podcast. Not to mention that the counter-example that Megan brings up here, the fact that people who reported on Westboro Baptist Church when she was growing up didn’t simultaneously report on the murder of George Tiller 50 years earlier because his murderer was Christian, is worse than an imperfect parallel, it’s an entirely false equivalency.
Here’s how episode 3 ends…