I have saved things that I have written over the last few months and not published them because I was worried that they are not the right things to say or that people will judge me for my feelings about what’s happened. Who am I to think that I have valuable thoughts about cancel culture or speech or class or politics?
I admire people who tweet and write and produce content because they seem to have some intrinsic belief in themselves and that what they say matters. I have a deep seated belief that what I have to say is obvious and not additive in any way.
But I have to stop doing that. Stop believing that my perspective is not valuable or true. Stop worrying that I will say the wrong thing because I AM wrong. I work so hard to tell my kids that when they make mistakes they might have done something bad but THEY ARE NOT bad themselves. I don’t like the behavior, but the person I love.
I might say the wrong thing because we all say the wrong thing, or fail to communicate effectively or DO bad things. But I do not believe that I AM BAD. I have to believe I’m a good person or there is not much point in trying to do better. There’s no way to really change and grow because I’m already bad so it can’t be fixed.
This is not to say that there are no consequences for doing bad. If I say something offensive or hurtful there are consequences in that it affects how others see me and how they feel about me. Whether they choose to be in relationship with me.
And that is scary.
That is the true power that every individual has – the choice of whether to be in relationship with another person or organization.
Speech is free but it has consequences.
I firmly believe that each individual can say anything that they want. They can use the most hurtful and offensive language and no one can stop them. That is their right. It is MY RIGHT to stop being in relationship with them or to feel differently about them or to not buy their product. That is not shutting down speech or stopping free expression. It is consequences.
Speech is free but it is NOT without consequences.
I realized this when I read about JK Rowling denying the femininity of transwomen. Do I wish she would not choose to say that? That she would not use her enormous platform to deny who people are? Yes. OF course. But it’s her right to react to her trauma in a way that feels helpful and purposeful to her. To say what she wants.
But there are consequences and part of the freedom to say what you want must be a willingness to bear the consequences of that speech. For JK, one of the consequences is that she hurt fans deeply. She’s allowed to do that. She has to accept that she did that as a consequence of saying what she wants.
For me, the consequence is that I know read her books differently. I always thought that one of the fundamental tragedies of the Harry Potter series was that the fear of the muggle community (of which I suppose I am a member since there was no letter in my mailbox when I was 11) was that we had to live in a world without magic that we get to see and experience. Magic is wonderful, even if you can’t wield it, but it’s also powerful and scary. Difference can be scary. Trauma is scary.
The price of fear, in the Harry Potter world, though is loss. The muggle community feared magic used against them and that meant they lost the ability to see and experience it. Voldemort feared death and therefore lost the ability to really live. I read that as a sad thing in the books. That it was sad that the magical community needed to hide itself away to protect itself. Yes, it was evidence of trauma, but it resulted in a smaller more insular magical world and a smaller, less fabulous muggle world.
I always felt sorry for Petunia Dursley because she pushed away that which could have opened her world to love and wonder. She pushed away a sister who loved her and could have shown her magic if only she could have let go of her fear and jealousy. Her need to be just as special in exactly the same ways (rather than finding her own ways to be special and realizing that special is not a zero sum thing).
Reading what JK tweeted and then wrote in her longer explanation of her thoughts about transwomen. I heard her saying that hiding and boundaries in response to trauma are positive and good. I heard her talking about real and painful trauma and I am so sad that she experienced what she did. She has every right to want to feel special and unique and to believe that to be a woman is a source of power not weakness.
She has a right to say what she believes.
But the consequences of her speech are that it changes how I read her work. How I feel about her work. I can’t help but read her work telling me now that it was ok for Petunia to push Lily away because she needed to feel better about herself by keeping away a person that loved her, because Petunia needed to feel that being a muggle was special and good. That a thing I read as a tragedy was the very thing that Rowling is believes is justified and fair.
As a muggle I don’t feel strength in living without magic, it’s sadness. I think every child that ever read the books and wished they could go to Hogwarts was wishing for a world with magic. That’s why the books are so beloved – they imagine a world with magic.
I’m sad for JK that she doesn’t see a world with magic. In the books Magic is synonymous with love and adventure. In the books, those who are different are celebrated. Those who challenge tradition are admired. Hermione Granger looked at difference as a source of wonder and sought to understand how all living things can identify with each other and with each other’s struggles – her unceasing efforts to treat the house elves as equals springs to mind. I always thought of JK as a Hermione – documenting and welcoming new comers into this magical world. Wondering with us at its charms.
I always loved that Hermione and Luna Lovegood taught us that we don’t have to be like everyone else. And, more importantly, that we should not see other people’s specialness as a loss of our own. Hermione and Luna never looked at Harry’s status as the chosen one as diminishing their own specialness. Building walls and deciding who does and does not belong is not a trait that Hermione and Luna share, but it is one that JK Rowling has espoused.
It is heartbreaking to me to discover that all along JK Rowling was telling us that she identifies more with Petunia Dursley than she does with Hermione Granger.