It was Gotham City’s ill-fated district attorney Harvey Dent who proclaimed, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Though the line didn’t come from a Harry Potter novel, it’s been lived out with unnerving literalness by J. K. Rowling. The uber-successful Potter author has run the gamut of public perception: from a transgressive, witchcraft-normalizing genius in the early 2000s, to a celebrity progressive in the 2010s, to a hateful, “dangerously” transphobic bigot in the 2020s. As my friend Shane Morris once quipped, “A lost time traveler in the early 21st century could just about pinpoint the year by asking who hates J. K. Rowling and for what.”
Rowling’s unexpected journey has many layers. As a new podcast series The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling suggests in its very title, the criticism she now faces for dissenting from the most fringe wings of transgender activism has reached a censorious fervor. Narrated by former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper, the series is an intelligently constructed reflection on the power of ideology; the danger of myopic, totalitarian thinking; and the peculiar challenges facing free speech among the emerging adult generation. The well-executed podcast elicits both sympathy for Rowling and sobering bewilderment at the social revolutions of our age.
But like many stories about Rowling’s showdown with transgender activists, Witch Trials misses something important: the digital polarization game was one that Rowling played and was winning—until she wasn’t.
Rowling, more so than almost any other author, leveraged the expressive individualism intrinsic to the social media age to craft, and sell, a narrative about herself and her stories. In an age in which activists will cancel and decry pop culture artifacts for being insufficiently political, Rowling’s history illustrates the danger of pandering to this phenomenon and the way both art and political discourse suffer accordingly.
Much of the power of the Witch Trials podcast comes from the way it features Rowling herself. Her interview with Phelps-Roper shapes the entire series; Rowling’s traumatic and inspiring life story, her account of the unexpected success of the series, and her perspective as a progressive feminist are established early. “I know what it is to be a vulnerable woman,” Rowling says, explaining how her suffering at the hands of an abusive husband, and the poverty and desperation she and her children experienced once they got away, shaped her worldview.
Rowling’s story is as famous as it is inspiring. Pinching pennies as a single mother, Rowling endured several publishers’ rejections before finally getting her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (changed to “Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S. version) accepted. The rest is, literally, history.
Though the Potter stories aren’t political allegories, themes from Rowling’s personal life are evident: neglect and mistreatment at home (the Dursleys), the saving power of friendship (Hogwarts), and the necessity of doing what’s right even when it’s difficult (confronting Voldemort). It’s this last theme that Rowling and Phelps-Roper tie to the controversies over gender identity.
The podcast retraces the vitriolic criticism Rowling endured for publicly tweeting her support of policies that restrict transgendered women (biological men) from being admitted into women’s shelters. For Rowling, this stance—not against transgender ideology itself (she’s careful to say) but against the elimination of public distinctions between biological men and women—is her own personal Potter-confronts-Voldemort moment.
At multiple points, Phelps-Roper reads tweets or plays YouTube audio clips from Rowling’s critics. The content is genuinely shocking: as hysterical as it is hateful, a dizzying collage of logical fallacy and violent threats. The podcast absolutely doesn’t shy away from portraying the transgender rights movement, particularly online, as extremist.
Rowling, for her part, insists she’s always been open-minded politically. She compares Voldemort to a political dictator and casts sharp criticism on anyone who wants to shut down debate. In episode 2, Rowling says,
A sense of righteousness is not incompatible with doing terrible things. You know, most of the people in movements that we consider hugely abhorrent, . . . many, many, many of the people involved in those movements understood themselves to be on the side of righteousness, believed they were doing the right thing, felt themselves justified in what they were doing.
I suppose for me, book burners, by definition (predictably), to me, have placed themselves across a line, across a line of rational debate. “I’m simply going to destroy the idea that I don’t like. I can’t destroy it, so I’ll destroy its representation. I will burn this book.” There is no book on this planet that I would burn. No book, including books that I do think are damaging. Burning to me is the last result of people who cannot argue.
Two things can be true at once: Rowling can be exactly right that suppressing speech instead of debating it is harmful to a free society, and yet it can also be the case that Rowling is rewriting her own story here. As Witch Trials makes a compelling case that the internet has helped erode the free exchange of ideas, it neglects to observe how Rowling herself often played into this dynamic.
Double-Edged Sword of Social Internet
Starting around the time of the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling leaned into rising political polarization and online fan culture to stoke in her supporters the very same tribalistic impulses she now fends off.
It was Rowling who declared (in a Q and A session in New York) that Dumbledore was gay. This revelation thrilled many, but it represented a cynically opportunist posture toward her own work. Time magazine’s Lev Grossman blogged gratefully about the announcement, but added, “If she really wanted Dumbledore to be gay . . . why didn’t she just write him that way?”
Indeed, Dumbledore’s sexual orientation was announced ex cathedra; the books themselves don’t say a word about it. Was Rowling being genuine, or was she trying to score a political point with no threat of commercial risk to her already finished anthology?
As Witch Trials makes a compelling case that the internet has helped erode free exchange of ideas, it neglects to observe how Rowling herself often played into this dynamic.
This is hardly the only example. Rowling, arguably more than any other famous novelist, has used social media to shape her public political image. She has called Donald Trump “worse than Voldemort,” compared supporters of Scottish independence to the murderous Death Eaters, and referenced her own characters to defend politically leftist views. While Rowling’s interview on the podcast suggests someone who strives for good-faith argument and open-mindedness, her track record is that of someone who’s been every bit as ideological as her critics.
Why is this? Fascinatingly, episode 3 of Witch Trials focuses on the role the internet has played, not just in the transgender movement but also in the Harry Potter fan world. Phelps-Roper painstakingly charts the growth of the online fandom and observes that the generation raised most passionately on the stories was also one of the first generations raised with the web. Not only did this create a strong network effect among Potter fans, but it led to Rowling’s personal involvement in many of these online spaces.
And here’s where the gender revolution and Rowling’s own story intersect. The social internet is what allowed Rowling to cast herself and her stories as progressive totems, and the social internet is what cultivated and weaponized transgender ideology. Digital technology’s power to polarize us is intrinsic to its nature. Through its disembodying effect, and by giving us the power to curate and control our experience of the world, this technology offers the illusion of total self-creation.
What Rowling’s story shows is that this power is a double-edged sword. When the “self” we create finds favor with the audience we’re trying to reach, it serves us well. But when our projected self is out of step with that same audience, the power of the social internet turns decidedly against us. Live by the social media sword, die by the social media sword.
Tools We Use Use Us
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote that television not only gave audiences a staged view of the world but that, by virtue of its nature, it suggested what the real world ought to look like. As TV “re-staged” the world, Postman argued, modern people started to expect their information, their conversations, and even their religion would more closely resemble the trappings of entertainment.
As I write in my forthcoming book, online technology similarly “re-stages” the world. With our hearts conditioned by the internet’s capacities and values, we begin to expect that offline reality—our politics, our relationships, even our very bodies—becomes infinitely customizable. And when things don’t yield to our command, we respond to those realities the way we respond to something unwanted on the screen: trying to erase or mute that which challenges us.
Digital technology’s power to polarize us is intrinsic to its nature.
Of course, what makes online technology so valuable is how it connects us to each other. This is what the young fans of the Potter series report in Witch Trials: the stories stirred something in them, and the internet helped them find others for whom these stories also resonated. And this is why Rowling, by her own testimony, started to go into these websites and community forums, both officially and anonymously. She was overwhelmed by seeing how her books had comforted and delighted so many.
Yet we can see how both Rowling and her fans became sucked into a whirlpool of digital polarization. Rowling reinvented herself and reinterpreted her stories to play better and better with the emerging, progressive generation. Her fans appropriated these stories as parables for their own identity quests and political beliefs, with some eventually embracing the self-creation narrative of transgenderism.
The story of J. K. Rowling’s journey from hero to villain isn’t just a story about changing political winds. It’s a story about expressive individualism, technology, and the inevitability of clashing personal narratives in a post-Christian world.
Rowling’s personal saga reminds Christians that the language of human rights becomes nonsensical when untethered from first principles. Defending the vulnerable isn’t a magic pastime. It’s a virtue rooted in transcendent truth: the intrinsic value of all human beings created in the image of a holy Maker. Rowling’s, and the West’s, political progressivism isn’t enough to protect women and girls in a digitally deconstructed society.
But it also reminds us that the tools we use may be using us. In our post-Christian age, screens do more than connect us. They teach us. Our reliance on disembodied technology to create the message or the movement we want is shaping that message and movement in ways we don’t always understand.
For J. K. Rowling, it’s been a lesson more than a decade in the making.