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The New York Times launches uncivil war on JK Rowling

Sonia Sodha

Last month the New York Times released a new advertising campaign that included one of its recent subscribers, Lianna, “imagining Harry Potter without its creator”. Accompanying the video are advertising boards that show Lianna dreamily contemplating such a world.

What does it even mean to imagine a piece of literature without its creator? It seems a truism that without JK Rowling, Harry Potter wouldn’t exist. But the point of this ad campaign was not to pose a philosophical question about art, but to signal to potential new subscribers that the New York Times thinks JK Rowling is so hateful that she should be expunged from her work.

It is notable that the newspaper chose to centre a female author in this campaign and not, say, one of the number of male artists who have sexually abused children. What heinous crime does Rowling stand accused of that merits this nasty, unedifying attack? She is guilty of wrongthink: of expressing political beliefs about what constitutes womanhood that – despite being shared by a large number of people – are considered beyond the pale by the New York Times.

At the heart of this is the fractious debate between two competing perspectives: those who believe that the concept of self-declared gender identity can wholly replace biological sex as a category along which to structure things like single-sex spaces, including domestic abuse refuges, prisons and sports, and official data like the census. On this view of the world, anyone who identifies as a woman should be treated as one by society regardless of their biological sex, without exception. On the other side of the debate are those who believe that biological sex, which forms at least part of the basis of women’s oppression over the centuries, remains relevant, and that gender identity cannot replace it altogether.

All JK Rowling has done is to state that she is of the latter view. But proponents of the former have sought to portray this view as so intolerable that it is not a legitimate political perspective. People – usually women – have lost their jobs, been no-platformed, suffered awful levels of abuse, and been visited by the police for expressing perfectly lawful and legitimate political views as a result. Rowling herself has been subjected to a horrific online hate campaign, with people callously suggesting that her disclosure that she herself has been a victim of sexual assault is her way of “weaponising her trauma.”

The only way to resolve conflicts is through civil conversation, not by trying to tar one side as hateful

In the last couple of years, there have been a series of court judgments in the UK that have underlined just how harmful this behaviour is to democracy. “Gender-critical belief” – the belief that sex cannot be wholly replaced by gender identity as a social category – has been ruled a “protected belief” under the Equality Act by the High Court, meaning people cannot be sacked or treated differently to other employees for holding this belief. The Court of Appeal has ruled that in issuing warnings to those expressing gender-critical beliefs, the police have been unlawfully interfering with citizens’ freedom of expression.

Neither of these two competing perspectives – sex-critical or gender-critical – are inherently hateful. They are just two different views about how the conflict of rights between the wishes of some (not all) trans people and some (not all) women should be resolved. Conflicts of rights between different groups of oppressed people happen quite frequently in society. The only way to resolve them is through civil conversation, not by trying to tar one side as so hateful they should not even be allowed to express their point of view. By attaching itself to this world view, the New York Times has junked any commitment it might once have had to the democratic value of freedom of expression. How the once-mighty have fallen.

Childbirth

The NHS has finally announced that it is dropping targets for the number of pejoratively-named “normal births”. For years, NHS trusts have been incentivised to lower their Caesarean rates because this is seen as a good thing. But there has been a spate of scandals in NHS maternity care, from Morecambe Bay to Shrewsbury and Telford, Nottingham and Kent. In all of these hospital trusts, mothers and babies have unnecessarily lost their lives due to substandard care, adding to the UK’s maternal and infant mortality rates, which are poor when set against comparable countries – particularly for women of colour, who have a 40 per cent greater chance of dying in childbirth in the UK than their white peers. 

A common theme to emerge from the multiple inquiries is of midwifery and medical teams pressurising women to have a non-medical birth even when this comes at the cost of the mother’s and baby’s health. Women are refused Caesareans even when this is right for them and their baby, presumably because of the cost and because of some ideological attachment to the nation that “natural” is best. It isn’t. The only good birth is one that puts the needs of a woman and her child first. But evidence shows that right across medicine, women tend to be disbelieved when they say they are in pain and know something is going wrong. Maternity care is no different. Dropping the targets to suppress Caesarean rates lower than what they would naturally be will hopefully remove one of the barriers to women and their babies getting the care they need.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4

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