Tranny Potter and the Chamber of Death Threats

This is the second post in a series; the first can be read here.

In the penultimate passage of her TERF Wars essay, J. K. Rowling rejects the label of victim: “The last thing I want to say is this. I haven’t written this essay in the hope that anybody will get out a violin for me, not even a teeny-weeny one. I’m extraordinarily fortunate; I’m a survivor, certainly not a victim.” The distinction between the label of survivor and that of victim is the difference between activity and passivity, but each comes with the implied existence of an aggressor – a villain.

Narratives of aggressors and targets (a term I’ll generally be using here as a more neutral alternative to victim/survivor) run through the essay, the most prominent being the narrative of Rowling as target of online harassment. She identifies this harassment as beginning when she clicked “like” on a certain tweet:

All the time I’ve been researching and learning, accusations and threats from trans activists have been bubbling in my Twitter timeline. […] On one occasion, I absent-mindedly ‘liked’ instead of screenshotting. That single ‘like’ was deemed evidence of wrongthink, and a persistent low level of harassment began.

Then, after she followed Magdalen Berns, “dots were joined in the heads of twitter trans activists, and the level of social media abuse increased.” (As I pointed out earlier, Rowling frames Berns herself as a target of aggression, ignoring that Berns has also been an aggressor with targets of her own). The essay presents each new step in Rowling’s engagement with gender-critical feminism as having been accompanied by abuse and harassment. First, her open support for Maya Forstater:

I mention all this only to explain that I knew perfectly well what was going to happen when I supported Maya. I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation by then. I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.

Then, a later incident:

Immediately, activists who clearly believe themselves to be good, kind and progressive people swarmed back into my timeline, assuming a right to police my speech, accuse me of hatred, call me misogynistic slurs and, above all – as every woman involved in this debate will know – TERF.

And another:

Late on Saturday evening, scrolling through children’s pictures before I went to bed, I forgot the first rule of Twitter – never, ever expect a nuanced conversation – and reacted to what I felt was degrading language about women. I spoke up about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since. I was transphobic, I was a cunt, a bitch, a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death. You are Voldemort said one person, clearly feeling this was the only language I’d understand.

Rowling frames other women as having been targets: as well as discussing Magdalen Berns and Maya Forstater, she claims that Lisa Littman was “subjected to a tsunami of abuse and a concerted campaign to discredit both her and her work” after writing on the topic of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (something I intend to look at in another post in this series). There are other, more general statements about abuse faced by women, with the essay’s very last line framing “many millions” of women as targets, or potential targets, of abuse for their views on gender:

All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.

But Rowling’s essay is autobiographical, and so it is Rowling herself who is established as the central target in this narrative of abuse, harassment and threats of violence.

All of this prompted two wildly different categories of response from the public. Rowling’s supporters, of course, upheld the framing of her as the target of aggression. Her detractors, on the other hand, presented Rowling herself as an aggressor – with trans people as her collective target – and ignored or waved-away her account of having been harassed, abused and threatened online. This is not to say that her critics necessarily support any harassment she received, however. There’s a power dynamic in play here – and I’m not referring to trans-versus-cis.

Online harassment has become so prevalent these days as to have developed its own class structure. The upper classes are represented by Rowling, owner of vast wealth the likes of which most of humanity can only dream about – something that no amount of Twitter abuse will alter. In the middle classes we find the higher-profile targets of Gamergate: while not as privileged as Rowling, they were nonetheless able to build a degree of celebrity status from the harassment they received, making the proverbial lemonade from life’s sourer citrus.

The lower classes? Well, those are the people whose plights you’ll likely have never heard of, unless they happen to be in your personal circle of friends (or, alternatively, if you are one of the people harassing them). These are the poor schmucks, often less-than-savvy youngsters or people with mental health problems, who have found themselves the targets of some troll community or another.

This class structure is inseparable from the TERF Wars essay. Note that while Rowling gives brief descriptions of the harassment she reserved online, she never identifies any of her harassers or quotes them directly. This is a legitimate choice on her part: had she named names, she could be fairly accused of painting targets on the backs of people with far less social privilege than her (online harassment in general is notoriously hard to document in detail, as any coverage risks making the problem worse). But the inevitable result of her decision is that her harassers, the purported senders of violent threats, the instigators of this whole mess in the first place, are reduced to an abstract concept.

So, at the centre of the essay we find, not a case study with verifiable data, but a hole.

Some commentators have looked into that hole and been disturbed by the inky black depths: many people who took Rowling’s side doubtless did so not because they had any particularly strong opinions on transgender issues, but because they were dismayed at the thought of Rowling (a person known primarily as no more than the author of children’s fantasy stories) being hurled into those deep, dark depths – that pit of abuse and harassment (and many commentators will have feared that they, too, might be the next down the hole).

Other observers, meanwhile, will have found themselves asking exactly what the hole contained. How much of that verbal abuse was the sort that can be readily condemned – threats of violence, for example – and how much was simply garden-variety impoliteness, the sort of thing that is inevitable when a public figure passes judgement on a controversial topic? Was the pit really as bottomless as it might seem, or was it merely a shallow dip from which a person of Rowling’s means could easily climb out of?

It’s impossible to tell, because Rowling – as per the aforementioned paradox of online harassment – is restricted from taking in detail about the people abusing her.

There is another gap in the essay’s discussion of abuse, harassment and transgender people: namely, the abuse and harassment suffered by transgender people.

Rowling mentions accusations of prejudice against trans people, only to dismiss them (“I expected… to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate”; “accusations of TERFery have been sufficient to intimidate many people, institutions and organisations I once admired, who’re cowering before the tactics of the playground. ‘They’ll call us transphobic!’ ‘They’ll say I hate trans people!’”).

When she casts trans people as victims rather than aggressors, Rowling typically portrays them as victims of transgender advocacy, as when she mentions being “concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning”, or claims that the trans movement has created “a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.”

There are three paragraphs in which the essay discusses abuse and hatred directed at trans people; these can be found near the end, arriving after 2,629 words of the 3,670-word post:

If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.

I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.

So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.

Notably, however, this section avoids mention of online harassment (the focus of the essay’s autobiographical content) and ultimately segues back into the topic of natal women and girls as victims of transgender advocacy. The question of how to help transgender people without – in Rowling’s view – letting down natal women is left unanswered; just another hole.

These holes account for the sharply divided reactions to the TERF Wars essay. The dichotomy is best summed up by responses to the section of the essay in which Rowling comes public for the first time about her past relationship with an abusive partner:

I’ve been in the public eye now for over twenty years and have never talked publicly about being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor. This isn’t because I’m ashamed those things happened to me, but because they’re traumatic to revisit and remember.

Rowling describes living through “moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.” She notes that “the scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, and no matter how much money you’ve made” (thereby addressing the issue of social privilege) and explains that her ordeal gave rise to a “perennial jumpiness” that has left her “hating sudden loud noises, or finding people behind me when I haven’t heard them approaching.”

In ordinary circumstances, this would be the main story: a figure of Rowling’s stature going public for the first time about such a deeply personal subject. Yet, in the context of the TERF Wars essay, Rowling’s candid testimony about her life with an abusive husband received a remarkably varied range of responses. Some commentators picked it out as the central point of interest in the essay, while others ignored it altogether as overshadowed by her comments on transgender advocacy. This tweet says it all, really:

Screenshot_2021-01-20-14-20-22-1

There is one more aspect to Rrowling’s discussion of abuse that needs to be mentioned. In her TERF Wars essay she portrays the two distinct forms of abuse that she has received – the physical abuse of her former partner and the online harassment by transgender activists – as having a single root cause: hatred of women.

This is where Rowling puts the F in TERF, and will be the main topic of the next post in my series: Tranny Potter and the Misogynist of Azkaban.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s