In the wake of JK Rowling’s recent transphobic tweets and the abolition of Baroness Nicholson’s role in the Booker Prize Foundation, “cancel culture” is at the forefront of the industry.
The issues boil down very simply: should authors be “cancelled”, or otherwise denounced on social media for their views? As the publishing industry in general supports marginalised groups, it is both disheartening and frustrating to see the “establishment” within publishing supporting or rationalising these views. JK Rowling ignited this discussion through tweeting, “people who menstruate: there used to be a word for that.” Obviously, this comment raised issues; on the surface, it appears an attack on people who identify as women despite their assigned sex, but the responses to this assumption have refuted this. JK Rowling claims she is a feminist, and this is why she has been labelled a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist).
Baroness Nicholson, on the other hand, has acknowledged that her views were wrong, apologised for them, and vowed to change going forward. However, when the Booker Prize discussed Nicholson’s dismissal, the Foundation claimed that it was not to do with the Baroness’ personal views, but that they felt that honorary members of the Foundation were no longer necessary. This opens the discussion: how valid is the option to “cancel” someone who displays opposing views? Though we support freedom of speech, when this is displayed, we are quick to condemn. But, how can we hold these predominantly white, middle-class authors to rights without this “cancel culture”?
The industry has responded to Rowling in various ways. In response to some employees’ reluctance to work on The Ickabog, Hachette stated:
“freedom of speech is the cornerstone of publishing. We fundamentally believe that everyone has the right to express their own thoughts and beliefs. That’s why we never comment on our authors’ personal views, and we respect our employees’ right to hold a different view.”
A number of actors involved in the Harry Potter franchise have also voiced their concerns. In a statement to The Trevor Project, Daniel Radcliffe expressed his support for the trans community. He implored readers:
“if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred”.
However, many critics on Twitter have likened Rowling to her own characters, or worse, with the author receiving death threats and pornographic images.
This has led to a discussion in the industry about where to draw the line. An open letter, published by Harper’s Magazine and signed by authors including Rowling, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, asked for an end to the “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” They claim the new trend of “cancel culture” is stifling any form of free speech and open discussion, and we need to preserve the space for experimentation, risk-taking and even mistakes. However, in JK Rowling’s case, is this an excuse to take the blame away from her harmful tweets?
So, what is right and wrong in this scenario? First and foremost, there is a need to separate an author’s views from their work. We need to preserve the artistic license to explore difficult ideas, and we need to realise that the views presented in fiction are not necessarily those of the author. The beauty of a story is that it can evolve beyond the author’s intentions and mean different things to each of us.
Secondly, we need to differentiate mistakes from sustained harmful behaviour, and we need to be able to have reasoned discussion about what is said and the potential consequences. As we can see from the examples of Baroness Nicholson and JK Rowling, the first openly apologised for any harm they’d caused and expressed a desire to learn, whereas the second has continued in her beliefs, despite many people telling her how harmful it is. Is it, therefore, right that Nicholson is stripped of her position as vice-president of the Booker prize, while Rowling is awarded The British Book Awards 30from30 for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone?
Thirdly, and more importantly, we need to put a stop to internet abuse and “cancel culture”, as it is only harming the discussion. If we are to create a more effective dialogue, we need to listen to one another and have debates to call out harmful behaviour; otherwise, the extremists will always be used as an excuse. This is difficult but worthwhile work.