Euan McColm: The folly of begging to differ with JK’s right to disagree

The trouble with freedom, as the old saying goes, is the trouble it brings.

JK Rowling was the most controversial signatory to the Harper's letter. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/Getty
JK Rowling was the most controversial signatory to the Harper's letter. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/Getty

If we are to enjoy free speech, the right to assembly and protest, and the right to follow the religion of our choosing, we must, of course, extend the same courtesy to others. It’s a bother, I know, what with other people’s opinions so often being terrible, but it is the best and most democratic option available to us.

And when this freedom leads to difficult, even fierce and divisive, debates, then that is part and parcel of the deal.

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If we cannot agree to disagree, in good faith, on this or that matter then the foundations on which our freedoms are built begin to list. If we try to restrict (beyond legal boundaries) what others may say and do, we should not be at all surprised if the same fate befalls us. We may take our freedoms for granted but the truth is that they are fragile and require protection.

When more than 150 writers, academics and artists – including such names as Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood – last week signed an open letter published in the US magazine Harper’s cautioning against what they see as a rise in censoriousness and “an intolerance of opposing views”, I welcomed their intervention. Like those signatories, I believe that the defence of the foundational principle of a liberal society – open debate and freedom of thought and speech – is vital.

Not everyone – including, bafflingly, some signatories to the letter – agrees.

As soon as the letter appeared, so did the attacks. The gist was that this was an example of people of privilege protecting themselves and their right to say whatever they damned well please without consequence.

The writer Jennifer Finney Boylan quickly revealed herself as an idiot on a majestic scale. Having signed the letter, she tweeted her regret.

“I did not know,” she explained, “who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming.”

After naming some fellow signatories whose company she was happy to keep, Boylan apologised for her inclusion.

Another writer, Malcolm Gladwell, responded elegantly to this nonsense thus: “I signed the Harper’s letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harper’s letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harper’s letter.”

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In the days since the publication of the letter, there has been a stream of outrage of the shudderingly hysterical variety.

The reason for this, it seems clear, is Rowling’s presence among the signatories, Her recent remarks about women’s sex-based rights have made her a target.

Rowling (for the sake of openness, a dear friend, though I would be writing this were she not) is now a hate figure for a particular breed of transgender activist whose modus operandi is to attack anyone (but especially women) who dares suggest that biological sex matters. Her concerns – shared by many – about proposals that would allow people to self-identify as the sex of their choice are heresy to some activists. As far as they are concerned, the questions asked by Rowling and countless feminists are not pro-women but anti-trans.

It takes a strong stomach to tell feminists who have spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of women that they are, in fact, hateful bigots but, rather than engage with the questions they raise, many men seem happy to do just that. And a glance at social media quickly reveals that they often do so in the most revolting ways.

For her temerity in speaking up, Rowling – who has spent much of lockdown interacting online with young fans who’ve been sending her drawings of characters from her newly published children’s story, The Ickabog – has seen her Twitter timeline bombarded with hateful attacks and pornographic images.

Now, perhaps some of these people really believe that the Harper’s letter isn’t a defence of free speech and is, instead, a “transphobic” attack. Those people will have to explain to themselves why people who disagree with Rowling on those particular issues saw fit to sign it. Success may have brought Rowling influence and a degree of power but I sincerely doubt that she is able to manipulate, for example, the magnificently defiant Atwood, whose views on potential conflicts between trans and women’s rights differ from hers.

The “cancel culture” which the signatories to the letter warn against has already claimed a substantial number of victims. From no-platforming in debates to the destruction of careers, many women have paid a heavy price for sharing their concerns.

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Recently, the writer Gillian Philip, was hounded out of a job as part of the writing team behind a series of fantasy novels published under the Erin Hunter pseudonym for declaring on Twitter that she stood with Rowling.

A Twitter mob bombarded her publishers with complaints and she was dropped. Those who orchestrated and celebrated the destruction of the career of a middle-aged feminist may think themselves righteously progressive (though I am increasingly of the view that those who participate in these pile-ons enjoy the buzz of the kill as much, if not more, than they care about whatever view it is they claim to find unacceptable) but others may wonder how we came to the point where women who have spent decades fighting male oppression should now be considered fair game for attack by young men. Sending tweets to women instructing them to shut up and suck your f***ing dick isn’t progressive, no matter how fashionable your haircut or skinny your jeans.

The great irony is that those attacking the Harper’s letter are able to do so because of the freedom its signatories urge us to protect. Rowling, Rushdie, Atwood and every other person who put their names to it are not defending only their own rights but the rights we all enjoy.

And that’s why I stand with JK Rowling, just as I stand with anyone who respectfully disagrees with her.

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