Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
The final episode begins with Megan speaking with Stacy Schiff, who in 2016 wrote a book on the Salem Witch Trials because of the “obvious and not so obvious parallels between that moment and basically what we do today on social media,” and because “the ability to slander someone, to just really decimate someone’s reputation very easily was something that was a constant between 1692 and the world in which we were then [in 2016] living.”
Presumably referring to this interview with Schiff, Megan has told disappointed listeners that “the witch trials motif will be clearer by episode 7.” Together with Megan’s other comments about the title, it’s clear that she means that the title will be less one-sided—but there is only one group of people, and one person in particular whose “decimated reputation” we’ve spent any time talking about. In the previous episode, Natalie Wynn did tell Megan she’d been doxed and swatted and “received death threats, mutilation threats, anger, shaming, mockery, any kind of terrible online behavior you can imagine.” All Megan had to say about that was “Oh jeez.” (Notice that there was not a compilation of Megan reading these threats like there was for Rowling.) So I do not think Megan has done a good job of trying to make it sound equally likely that she sees trans people as the target of witch hunts.
This leads us to Megan’s final conversation with Rowling, at long last. It follows one more soundscape of various bits of conversations from the podcast, as if to remind listeners of all the fun we’d been having together over the past six weeks. Megan is here to talk to Rowling about discernment and sharing her own list of 10 “discernment” questions that she’s asked herself in order to be sure her beliefs are moral after how dismally immoral they were for her first 26 years. Megan had written in a tweet and shares in her Twitter Spaces interview with Bari Weiss that “people will be surprised by what she says.” So let’s see.
Digging an abyss
She starts off by asking Rowling, “What do you think is the crux of the difference between what you believe and what your critics say you believe?”
Oh, my God. I mean, the crux. There’s an abyss. I’ve been… I’ve been… I have to laugh because the hyperbole is… is so extreme. I’ve been told I wish for the genocide of trans people. I’ve been told, well, you want them to die. You don’t want them to exist.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
Unmistakably, Rowling is not dumb enough to say, “I want trans people to die,” or as Noah noted that she’s never said, “I’m better than trans people.” But as Monica Hesse said in her essay, it wouldn’t do Rowling any good to just say those things. And actually, just saying it may cause less harm than the things she has done: normalize violent anti-trans rhetoric, support TERFs tied to right-wing causes, imply over and over and over again to her 14-million-member audience that trans women are predators who do not deserve to go to domestic violence shelters when they are harmed, which she knows they disproportionately are.
It’s very entertaining to see Megan bring to Rowling the criticism of indirect bigotry that Natalie Wynn had brought to her:
Direct bigotry is the sort of thing that my family does, being openly contemptuous and using slurs and demonizing people, marginalizing people openly. And indirect bigotry is things like people are just asking questions. They’re just concerned. They’re engaging in debate. “Activists have gone too far. Political correctness. Cancel culture.” In other words, it’s the idea that there are bad actors who can hide behind virtues or less extreme rhetoric, but who are still undermining people’s rights.Megan Phelps-Roper, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
What is Rowling to say except “guilty as charged”? Well, there wasn’t really any way around it.
I see this constantly and that the most frequent example of that is they’re pretending to be concerned about children. It’s not about the children. They really hate trans people. Now, if you’re saying that indirect bigotry is asking questions where you believe significant harm is done, if you’re saying indirect bigotry is standing up for women’s rights, then you know, guilty as charged. I think it is a very bad faith argument to say that people who are asking questions are being indirect bigots, because you know that that itself, in my view, is a very bad faith position.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
Transphobia is not harm reduction
Transphobic talking points have always struck me as odd, because it feels like such a coincidence that all the things they care about—children’s safety, women’s rights—all involve taking away trans rights in order to solve the problem, and yet it’s not about hating trans people at all somehow. (They even said as much about allowing trans women in women’s shelters in an earlier episode.) Would someone otherwise be arbitrarily interested in the fairness of women’s sports and the safety of women’s prisons?
And even then, she’s really not. As I’ve said, prisons are not safe places. They should be abolished, but if you want to reduce the greatest amount of harm within them, you would remove the male guards and staff, not the handful of trans women who are even there. And if you want women’s sports to be actually fair, you would advocate for better funding for public education and extra curriculars, for better facilities in underserved neighborhoods, and fighting poverty in general so that girls and women have more time to spend at sports practice instead of working to support their families. It’s also strange that they never mention men’s sports, in which by their logic, trans men would always be losing, but they have no problem with that. In their world, the proper order of things is that trans people stay at the bottom if they are there at all.
Next, Megan asks if Rowling can understand the pain caused by her constant implications that trans women are not women, and her constant support of people who literally say they are not. Rowling replies that “women are the only group, to my knowledge, that are being asked to embrace members of their oppressor class unquestioningly with no caveat.” Which, again, is a way of saying trans women are not women. Trans women are not cis women’s oppressors. (White) cis men are.
Rowling also says more clearly a position which she and her TERF cohort have hinted at: trans women can be considered women, if and only if they have had full gender affirmation surgery. (But she has never advocated for this surgery being easier to get, only more difficult.) Megan never pushes her on it when she calls “pre-op” trans women “a man [who] may have had no surgery whatsoever, but feels himself to be a woman.” She never asks Rowling if she believes trans women are women. But that would be an asinine question at this point. We all know the answer.
Unsafe in your own home
(Trigger warning: sexual assault.) Rowling then cites a Sunday Times article on abuse in unisex spaces, information clarifying which has been public since March 2021, despite her claims to have diligently researched these topics. “The Sunday Times issued a Freedom of Information request from the government. 88% of sexual assaults happened in unisex spaces.” Megan did specify that the data “compared the rates of incidents that occurred in single sex versus unisex changing rooms.”
It’s not surprising that the number is this high when you compare unisex (as in, including cis men) changing rooms and women’s changing rooms. If you compare the percentage of assaults in the unisex changing rooms to the percentage throughout the whole facility as the Times reported, the number drops to 67%. As YouTuber Ponderful calls attention to in her video on this, Britain’s Office for National Statistics estimated that about 150,732 adults had experienced sexual assault in the year ending in March 2018, and The Times themselves had noted that the ONS had only found 120 incidents occurring in unisex changing rooms that same year. Of all reported incidents, 63% percent were in either the victim’s or offender’s home. 0.08% happened in unisex changing rooms. It’s not about keeping women safe.
Fueling the fascist fire
Megan then asks how Rowling would respond to those who say she is “giving fuel to the right.”
She replies that, in essence, “as the left becomes increasingly puritanical, and authoritarian and judgmental, we are pushing swathes of people towards not just the right, it’s pushing them to the alt right” by “defend[ing] the placing of rapists in cells with women.” She sees that “the left is making a tremendous mistake in espousing this kind of, in my view, quasi-religious, incredibly sort of witch-hunting behavior, because there will be people who will just feel when they’ve been shamed and abused and they feel it was unfair. Where are they going to go?” The only way I read it is that she describes herself, blaming her own accelerating journey to the far right on trans people trying to take more than they deserve.
Rowling goes on after the next question:
I haven’t yet found a study that hasn’t found that the majority of young people, children and adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria will grow out of it. Now that I haven’t found a single study that contradicts that and I have gone looking, the majority of children will, if allowed to go through adolescence, many of them will grow up to, not all, but many will grow up to be gay. And they will… their gender dysphoria will resolve. Why then, if that’s the evidence, are we immediately putting children onto an affirmative path?J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
They won’t. And they’re not. Desistance is largely a myth that comes from the model which views being trans as a disease. She clearly didn’t look very far. She does, however, cite Carl Heneghan who called gender affirming care an “unregulated live experiment on children.” He’s an anti-masker.
And I would ask proponents of gender identity ideology who are so militant, who are so determined on no debate, I would ask them, What if you are wrong? If I’m wrong, honestly, hallelujah. If I’m wrong, great! People aren’t being harmed. But if you are wrong, you have cheered on. You have come. You’ve created a climate quite a threatening climate, in which whistleblowers and young people themselves are being intimidated out of raising concerns.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
If you’re wrong, no one is harmed? You are wrong. The anti-trans bills that cite you, the TERFs that harass in your name, the parents who fall down the gender critical pipeline because of you and use Desist, Detrans, and Detox as a child abuse manual cause immeasurable harm. Because of you, we lose people whom we cannot get back.
A bit later Rowling actually says something that I agree with. Megan tells her that her critics say they just wish she would listen, to which she replies, “Because they think that nobody could possibly disagree with them if they heard what they were saying.” I think she hears her critics, and she does listen. She just doesn’t care. I never really followed Rowling or her work before this, so I don’t share the shock that many do that she would be this type of person. Well, this is all I’ve ever known her to be.
No one thinks they’re Umbridge
One widely-shared quote comes when Megan asks Rowling how she knows if they are “a Hermione or an Umbridge,” referring to the scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where:
Hermione, the hero, and Professor Umbridge, who is clearly in the wrong, have a showdown in class. Hermione says in a moment of defiance that she disagrees with something in her textbook and Umbridge berates her like, “Who are you to disagree with this expert who wrote this textbook?” and punishes her. Now, to anyone reading this, it is so frustrating and unjust, but I venture to say that no one thinks they are the Umbridge.J.K. Rowling, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 7: What if You’re Wrong?
Rowling concurs. “No one ever thinks that. No one else thinks they’re Umbridge.” Megan tells her that “You have these younger critics online, and they see Hermione as standing up to an older person with power, and they see themselves as standing up to you.” Rowling’s odd method of ascertaining that she is not Umbridge is not whether she is perpetuating harmful stereotypes about a vulnerable group, or decreasing human rights for people, or willfully ignoring evidence and statistics. Her way of knowing is simply, “Am I having a lot of fun doing it?” If you’re having fun, you’re Umbridge. She says she’s not, so she’s… not.
From here, Megan finally shares her questions about discernment that she made for herself after leaving the tight-knit religious group. Here are her questions:
- Are you capable of entertaining real doubt about your beliefs or are you operating from a position of certainty?
- Can you articulate the evidence that you would need to see in order to change your position? Or is your perspective unfalsifiable?
- Can you articulate your opponent’s perspective in a way that they recognize or are you strawmanning?
- Are you attacking ideas or attacking the people who hold them?
- Are you willing to cut off close relationships with people who disagree with you, particularly over relatively small points of contention?
- Are you willing to use extraordinary means against people who disagree with you?
As she explains in a tweet, Megan wasn’t really asking Rowling to answer the questions, which is convenient; she is more telling her what questions she uses in her own discernment process. And that’s good because Rowling doesn’t really give any answers anyway.
Finally, finally, it is over. I did ask Megan for comment and she didn’t respond to me. Regardless, she can no longer say to me, “Well, listen to the whole thing,” or “It gets better,” or “Wait till the end.” I have. And you have. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sitting through this stupidly long blog post. If you’ve made it this far, and you are feeling charitable, I ask that you donate to either Mermaids UK or The Outside Project.