US author steps back from ‘cancel culture’ letter due to Rowling involvement

Author Jenny Boylan has distanced herself from an open letter against ‘cancel culture’ after discovering that another writer – believed to be JK Rowling - was a co-signatory.

JK Rowling has come under fire for tweets she made about an article that did not use the word "woman".
JK Rowling has come under fire for tweets she made about an article that did not use the word "woman".

The American transgender activist was one of 152 writers to sign an open letter denouncing the “restriction of debate”. The letter said that recent protests for racial and social justice are a “needed reckoning” but decried what they describe as the weakening of open debate in favour of “ideological conformity”.

However, Boylan, who has written 15 books, including literary thriller Long Black Veil, tweeted this morning that she “did not know” who else had signed it.

Rowling came under fire last month after she retweeted an article referring to “people who menstruate” and questioned why the story did not use the word “women”. She was subsequently accused of being transphobic, which she has denied.

As well as Harry Potter creator Rowling and The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, others to put their name to the statement include academics and intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem and Garry Kasparov.

Boylan, who transitioned in 2000, wrote: “I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming.

“I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”

Rowling hit back with a tweet referencing Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which is about witch hunts in both the 17th century and the times of American politician Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for suppoprters of the Communist Party in the US in the 1950s.

She wrote: “You’re still following me, Jennifer. Be sure to publicly repent of your association with Goody Rowling before unfollowing and volunteer to operate the ducking stool next time, as penance.”

The letter, published in Harper’s Magazine, comes amid a debate over so-called cancel culture, where public figures face criticism for perceived acts of offence.

It states: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

“While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

The letter criticised the current state of public debate and the “swift and severe retribution” dealt out to any perceived wrongs.

It said: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.

“More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”

It adds: “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.

“We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”

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