Comment

Disagree with JK Rowling all you want – you have no right to wish her dead for telling stories

The ‘new moralists’ of today want to constrain what we can imagine, think and feel. Such illiberalism must be stopped

Once again, the writer JK Rowling is under fire for supposedly purveying 'hatred' in her fiction
Once again, the writer JK Rowling is under fire for supposedly purveying 'hatred' in her fiction Credit: AP

Fiction allows us to imagine the lives and feelings of others. It takes us out of ourselves into other places and positions, the better to return to our everyday dilemmas and thoughts. Without imagination, we are lost. 

Yet fiction today is under siege. Writers are being attacked for imagining characters who don’t resemble them, as if all fiction must be a form of autobiography – or for creating fictional people who are deemed morally unpalatable. JK Rowling has this week been targeted on Twitter, by the hashtag #RIPJKRowling, for daring in her new Robert Galbraith novel, Troubled Blood, to write about a male murder suspect who at one point wears a women’s coat and wig – something that has happened many times before, both in fiction and in reality. Rowling is accused, yet again, of “transphobia” – even though a man wearing clothes typically associated with women is not trans.

The attacks on Rowling are alarming. Nothing she has said publicly or written in fiction has demonised trans people, yet she is repeatedly accused of having done so by people keen to make a witch out of this successful, self-made woman. More generally, the discussion around sex has been mind-bending in its wilful cruelty towards those women, in particular, who have suggested that there might be something to discuss in the moves to change the legal and metaphysical implications of words such as “woman”. Rowling is repeatedly accused of holding “hateful” views, although nothing she has said shows this, while the same people who accuse her feel free to wish her dead. 

We are not in the realms of literary criticism here: this is full-on scapegoating. The right of Rowling and others to imagine other worlds must be defended against calls to kill novelists and other artists. Nobody, you would hope, seriously wants the state to legislate on what can and can’t be thought and depicted, yet every day the ability to understand the world imaginatively becomes apparently weaker.

One wonders whether the people feeling “outraged” by a book they most likely haven’t read feel genuinely put out – or whether this is simply a kind of performance, an excuse to exorcise whatever demons might be haunting them in other ways.

Rowling's new novel (as Robert Galbraith), Troubled Blood, has prompted online outrage Credit: Reuters

The death-wishers and cancellers can and should be ignored, but anyone interested in thinking and feeling has to show courage in the face of such narrow-minded literalism. Repressive regimes over the ages have tried to circumscribe what kind of art can be made, and in which style. The new moralism strives to similarly censor unpalatable ideas and images, on the basis that they might cause offence or harm: but life is not safe, and the imagination is filled with potentially upsetting ideas. To attack someone because they write about things you don’t like is childish: to demand an image of the world that conforms to how you would like it to be is positively demonic. 

There is a tradition within philosophy of arguing that we are far more moved to feel empathy and proximity with other people through fellow-feeling than if we are ordered to do so on the basis of reason. Philosopher Richard Rorty suggests that a “sentimental education” through literature and other cultural forms is one of the hallmarks of a properly moral culture. During the last two centuries, Rorty suggests, “it has become much easier for us to be moved to action by sad and sentimental stories”. 

To demand that a writer “stay in their lane” and write only characters that look like them is actively dangerous for the following reason: if we cannot imagine what it is like to be someone else, to feel their pain, their suffering, their thoughts, their desires, then we cannot empathise with people in the real world. So much of today’s politics is divisive, teaching people that we are incommensurate with one another, that we can’t possibly know what it is like to be someone else – but this is how dehumanising begins. 

Under the guise of “goodness”, many of today’s activists promote the idea that we are all radically different from one another. But we are not, and fiction is precisely the place where, at a slight remove, we can see this. To feel with and for characters in plays, novels, films is to feel ourselves too: alive and in the world, with others. 

Rowling is a public figure and a fiction-writer: to attack her personally for telling stories, or for expressing views you do not like, is to avoid listening to what she has to say. You can easily choose not to read her work, or her public declarations, but to wish her dead demonstrates only how small and resentful your own worldview must be.