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If you find yourself, as I did, in Edinburgh, Scotland,
and you walk west from Lawn Market, up a cobblestone street to Castle Hill,
there, in the shadow of an ancient castle, on most days, you’ll find a tour guide wearing a black, pointy witch’s hat.
Now, aren’t we so lucky? We live in a time where we’re free to say the word witch,
to even be witch, if we so wish. Others throughout the ages were not so lucky, as you will find out.
The tourists gather around her, forming a little half-moon, as they pull out their phones and cameras
to take pictures of a small stone monument.
Now, here we’ve got the Witches’ Well. This is a little monument put up in order to honour
all of those people who were executed as witches.
The Witches’ Well commemorates an especially deadly series of witch hunts,
and is dedicated to those who were put to death, many in this very place, centuries ago.
They were tied to stakes, they were strangled, and then they were burnt as witches.
Throughout Scotland, more than 4,000 people were accused of being witches,
and more than half of them were executed.
We don’t know exact numbers, because in some accounts it just says,
Sundry Witches, not even dignifying them with a name.
These sorts of witch trials have occurred throughout human history and around the world,
where someone, most often a woman, was accused by her community, by her neighbours,
sometimes by her own husband or children, of being a witch,
which left her with a terrible decision.
She could confess and beg for mercy from the authorities,
which, in some cases, spared her life.
But in others, only confirmed her guilt, and led to her execution.
Or, she could stand firm through her interrogation,
and often torture, and say to the crowd,
I am not what you say I am.
Though this was often seen as a prideful lack of repentance,
which could also lead to her execution.
Regardless of her choice, she was a witch.
Regardless of her choice, one feature of many of these witch hunts
was that the very accusation itself was ultimately her condemnation.
Hi, Stacey. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
I’m delighted to join you.
This is Stacey Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer
and author of The Witches, Salem, 1692.
Stacey, you published this book in 2016,
and I just wonder, was there something specific that made you want to
research and write this book about witch trials at this specific moment in time?
There just seemed to me to be so many obvious and not so obvious parallels
between that moment and basically what we do today on social media.
And I think what I was most struck by was the sense that
oral culture and social media were very similar,
and the ability to slander someone,
to just really decimate someone’s reputation very easily,
was something that was a constant between 1692
and the world in which we were then living when I started writing.
In America, the witch trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts
are by far the most infamous.
It was there that a zealous group of fundamentalists, the Puritans,
turned on one another,
and in the span of months, accused over 200 people of witchcraft.
And as Stacey writes in her book,
one of the forces behind this panic
was an almost paranoid sense of constant danger.
One can’t overstate how important was the concept of watchfulness.
You were meant to be always watchful, always vigilant,
not only for the sake of your soul,
but obviously in the Massachusetts incarnation,
for the sake of your safety.
The Puritans believed that evil was lurking all around them,
constantly tempting them with sinfulness that could damn their souls.
But also, because they were living on the edge of this new colony,
in a land whose native people were hostile to their presence,
they were also living constantly on guard
against a real threat of physical danger.
But there was always a sense that you were under assault,
or that you were likely to be infiltrated,
or that the enemy was just beyond your means.
So there is this constant sense of being on the watchtowers.
And needless to say, when you’re watching for something,
and you’re watching vigilantly for something,
you often see something.
But Stacy’s book makes clear
just how different the people of Salem were
from the image of the ignorant, pitchfork-wielding mob.
In fact, they could be obsessive about reading and legal theory.
And the witch trial judges themselves were well-educated men,
a number of them at Harvard.
I think one of the oddities about New England in the 17th century
and the question of witchcraft
is that you’re talking about one of the most literate communities
in the history of the world,
possibly the most literate community
in the history of the world until that time.
It was imperative that everyone pray,
and in order to pray, one had to read.
So the literacy rate was tremendously high.
Moreover, the people who were the witchcraft experts that year,
which is largely, to say, the clergy,
are all of them immensely erudite people,
who have read everything that was to be read
on the subject of witchcraft.
So it’s a funny paradox in the sense that you have
the members of the community who are invested most
in this, what we would today call, delusion.
Those individuals are, in fact, the best-read,
most highly-educated members of the community.
And what role did courts and laws
and the concept of justice play in this society?
Justice is central to Puritanism.
The court records from the early years of New England
were incredibly comprehensive,
and you see that even in the absence of lawyers,
because there were no lawyers yet at this point
in Massachusetts history,
you have a very, very law-loving, court-loving society.
And because they were so literate and so litigious,
Stacey Schiff, in researching her book,
was able to read their letters, their journals,
their court records, and gain a deeper insight
into how they understood themselves.
In your best judgment, what do you think
is the most gracious understanding
of what they thought they were up to
when they prosecuted these witches?
I think that what we tend to forget
is how strongly the belief in witchcraft
really penetrates this community,
and how thoroughly, and I think profoundly,
everyone involved believed that he was doing something
that was good for the community.
We have some indication that they were unclear
about how to prosecute witchcraft,
and they will at times, one justice in particular,
they at times will appeal to the ministry
to ask what kind of evidence they can rely upon
in the courtroom, and how a witchcraft diagnosis
could and should be made.
And obviously, there were people here
who must have trumped up charges,
but for the most part,
all of the judicial techniques
that should have been followed were followed.
It’s really fascinating, again,
because when we think about witch trials,
looking back, we assume, I mean,
the idea that they would be strenuously adhering
to the rules of evidence and things
that they had in place at the time,
that they were really trying to do the right thing,
in other words, that’s not the image that we get.
No, but you can see them grappling,
you can see them grappling with their consciences,
and you can see them grappling with the testimony.
I mean, Arthur Miller actually makes
an interesting point when he’s talking about the crucible,
and he talks about something which is so true
of that year in Salem, which is that you,
in the course of these kinds of prosecutions,
you can take on the characteristics
of the thing that you abhor.
You become the thing that you most fear.
That’s really the scariest part of all this, right?
You could have people who are, again,
very smart, very well-educated,
very dedicated to the idea of justice,
to the idea that they want to do the right thing,
and to be searching themselves so deeply
for what the right answer is and how they should behave,
and to still come to this kind of horrifying conclusion
where you have 19 people hanged,
and it’s a terrifying thing to realize
about what it means to be human.
After you have done all of your homework,
asked all of the authorities for their help,
and essentially scoured your soul,
and you still can make that kind of colossal error.
I was so ill-equipped for what happened to me.
I was living in a state of real tension
that I couldn’t express to many people.
So, looking back, would you say that
the Christian parents were maybe part of a moral panic?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a scary world out there.
People can make mistakes. People can do bad things.
In fact, show me the human being who hasn’t.
You’re trashing someone, but you feel like you’re crusading.
I believe absolutely that there is something
dangerous about this movement.
Someone like her, she really is just truly at the heart.
Bigoted, hiding in this sheep’s costume,
pretending that she is an ally.
You’re trying to have your views challenged.
Completely. I’m looking at this,
I’m thinking, am I missing something?
Just the opposite of everything that she wrote into those books.
I have a lot of hope for her.
There’s a part of me that still cares what she thinks, you know?
Chapter 7. What if you’re wrong?
Months after my first visit,
my producers and I went back to Scotland,
back to Rowling’s home,
back to her drawing room
with her color-coordinated books
to have one more conversation with her for this series.
I wanted to ask her some of the questions from her critics
and to help me understand how she,
someone who has devoted so much of her life’s work
to exploring human nature,
grapples with the fact
that she might be wrong.
We’ve gathered here today.
To record round two.
Sounds good. Okay.
What do you think is the crux of the difference
between what you believe and what your critics say you believe?
Oh, my God.
I mean, the crux, there’s an abyss.
I’ve been accused.
I have to laugh because the hyperbole is so extreme.
I’ve been told I wish for the genocide of trans people.
I’ve been told, well, you want them to die.
You don’t want them to exist.
And that, I think, is where we become…
It’s not even infuriated.
Sometimes you feel a little despair.
You think, well, maybe we need the storm to break
and for people to say,
but wait a moment, we do need to ask questions.
We’ve seen thousands of percent increase
in young women trying to escape their physical bodies.
Should we not be asking why that’s happening?
I think the idea is that you have become,
for a lot of people, you know, the word is problematic,
that you might think of yourself as raising these valid concerns,
but they will criticize either the way you’ve gone about it
or the timing of it or the language you’ve used,
and much more.
But before we get into some specifics,
I did just want to ask, at this point,
how does it feel that there is this gulf
between how you see yourself
and how many other people now see you?
This will sound like an indirect answer,
but I promise you it isn’t.
If I think about the people I most admire,
actually, even the writers I most admire,
when it mattered, they stood up.
They didn’t sit at home and, you know,
worry about their royalties
or worry about their public image greatly.
Not that I seek to be controversial.
That’s as embarrassing as seeking to be some sort of perfect.
I never wanted to be famous.
If you’re very invested in that,
then, of course, this is going to destroy you.
I don’t say this in any self-aggrandizing way,
but I think it could have destroyed some people.
If that’s where you’re very invested,
what has happened to me in the last few years,
I think there’s no hope that you will come out of it
with your mental health intact
or that you wouldn’t be, you know,
offering fulsome apologies.
I’ve learned. I’ve done better.
Whether you mean it or not, you know that.
But no, I have learned.
I did my learning before I spoke.
Everyone can do better.
I don’t set out to cause pain,
but I see pain being caused
and I think damage being caused to women and girls,
and I just can’t sit here and not speak.
One of your critics is a trans woman named Natalie Wynn,
who goes by the name ContraPoints on YouTube,
and she made a long video essay critiquing your views
on trans issues.
And in it, she goes through how she understands bigotry,
which she breaks down into two categories,
direct bigotry and indirect bigotry.
Direct bigotry is the sort of thing that my family does,
being openly contemptuous and using slurs
and demonizing people, marginalizing people openly.
And indirect bigotry is things like
people are just asking questions.
They’re just concerned.
They’re engaging in debate.
Activists have gone too far.
Political correctness, cancel culture.
In other words, it’s the idea that there are bad actors
who can hide behind virtues or less extreme rhetoric,
but who are still undermining people’s rights.
I see this constantly,
and the most frequent example of that
is they’re pretending to be concerned about children.
It’s not about the children.
They really hate trans people.
Now, if you’re saying that indirect bigotry
is asking questions where you believe
significant harm is done, if you’re saying
indirect bigotry is standing up for women’s rights,
then you know what? Guilty as charged.
I think it is a very bad faith argument to say that people
who are asking questions are being indirect bigots
because, you know, that itself, in my view,
is a very bad faith position.
Do you think that some people do use those kinds of,
like, I guess I’m thinking here of, like, actual people
that most people would recognize as bigots?
Pretty much everyone in the world,
bar literal psychopaths and clear terrible predators,
are concerned about harm to children, okay?
So that’s a very common human trait.
It’s a human trait to want to protect the vulnerable.
And children are very vulnerable.
The trouble is, you see,
one may use concern about children
to justify other actions.
You know, QAnon felt that children
were being trafficked and raped.
One may be concerned about children and be correct.
People around Jimmy Savile,
the UK’s most famous predator,
believed children were being harmed,
but his celebrity and his ability to raise money
for charity was such that nobody wanted to look into that.
So I’m not sure it’s as simple as saying people are using it.
Some people may genuinely believe children are being harmed
and also genuinely not want anyone to be trans.
That is not my position.
You have said that you respect trans people.
You said that you would march with them,
that you think the transition is right for some people.
But you also say that there’s a real difference
between biological women and trans women,
and a meaningful distinction between the two
in their experiences.
And I think some of your critics point to that and say,
you’re essentially making trans women second-class women.
You know, like, you’re almost women.
Despite all of their efforts to live in the world as women,
as what feels right and authentic to them,
you are essentially saying, I’ll treat you as a woman.
You are an honorary woman.
But this distinction that you are emphasizing,
the biological distinction that you see as being so important,
it can feel hurtful to them.
Like, they are, you know, almost a thing, but not quite.
Like, something is being held back.
Can you understand the pain that that could cause?
Yes, is the short answer. Yes, I can understand that hurt.
The thing is, women are the only group, to my knowledge,
that are being asked to embrace members of their oppressor class
unquestioningly, with no caveat.
Now, on an individual basis,
and I think many people new to this argument
would see it on that level,
because many people of my generation particularly
think that we’re talking about old-school transsexuals,
sex reassignment, because of profound gender dysphoria.
And I feel 100% compassion for such people,
and I would absolutely respect their pronouns,
always have, always will,
and would want, as I say them, to have comfortable, easy lives.
This movement, though, is pressing for something different,
This movement has argued, continues to argue,
that a man may have had no surgery whatsoever,
that he feels himself to be a woman,
the door of every woman’s bathroom, changing room,
rape centre should be open to him.
And I say no. I’m afraid I say no.
And we are in a cultural moment where that individual’s hurt
is being prioritised over the hurt of women
whose rights and boundaries are under sustained assault.
And I think it’s interesting to ask why
the pain of one group is being prioritised
over the pain of other groups.
Yeah, maybe a simpler way to ask it is that,
is there a way in your mind to respect both pains,
even though at some point obviously there’s going to be
a moment where action or decision has to be made?
I do believe that there is a way forward
in which women and girls retain their existing rights,
and trans people are properly protected.
There is a way, absolutely a way, to respect both points,
but I think we’re currently unfortunately at a place
where that is very difficult to achieve.
I believe feminists have tried very hard
to have this discussion.
How do we ensure everyone’s rights and safety?
Where does fairness lie?
For example, in issues like sport,
this one that’s getting a lot of publicity at the moment,
feminists are asking for certain spaces,
rape shelters would be a very obvious example,
to remain female only, or to have separate provision
for both groups, because I don’t know a single feminist
who doesn’t acknowledge that trans people also, of course,
are victims of sexual violence.
But at the moment, there seems to be a very
black and white view on the other side of the argument.
It’s everything or nothing.
When it comes to the bathroom question,
we’ve heard from a lot of people that essentially
the risks just don’t seem very high to them.
Many of them can understand why males and females
shouldn’t be housed in the same prison cells,
but when it comes to bathrooms, there already aren’t
guards at the door and nobody’s checking before we go in,
and essentially a bad actor would come in regardless
I agree quite strongly on that. There is a social taboo.
There has been until very recently, historically,
there has been a social taboo, so that if my husband
decided that he wanted to use the ladies’ bathroom,
the women inside would feel confident in challenging
his right to be there, and I think,
in my view, most decent men watching
a man walking into the ladies’ bathroom
might well challenge him too. That is now being eroded.
So, we have statistics on this.
The Sunday Times issued a freedom of
information request from the government.
88% of sexual assaults happen in unisex spaces.
The Sunday Times data Rowling is referencing
specifically addressed reported sexual assaults,
harassment, and voyeurism in changing rooms
at sports centers and swimming pools,
and compared the rates of incidents that occurred
in women’s unisex changing rooms.
We have had multiple instances in this country
and in America, because I went and looked,
because I was thinking, well, does this happen?
And it happens. Voyeurism, sexual assault.
The men, particularly,
arguing that this isn’t a risk,
alarm me, candidly. Are they naive?
Do they not know what their fellow men do?
There are a lot of critics who say you
and your comments are giving fuel to the right.
Well, my answer would be, I think you’re giving
fuel to the right. This is why many
left-wing feminists in particular are sitting
with their head in their hands.
The right has wanted for years and years and years
to, not all of the right, but certainly
the further right and the religious right,
wanted to castigate the lesbian and gay
and bisexual movement as inherently degenerate
and part of the left’s broader degeneracy.
When you defend the placing of
rapists in cells with women, you are
handing the right a perfect opportunity
to say, you see, we told you the moral
degeneracy that would result if you say homosexual
relationships are okay. And I think for many
feminists, we are despairing of the fact
that people are, in our view,
colluding with a deeply misogynist movement
which is benefiting, politically speaking,
the far right.
And I worry very deeply
that as the left becomes increasingly
puritanical and authoritarian and
judgmental, we are pushing swathes
of people towards not just the right,
it’s pushing them to the alt-right. That’s what
scares me, that particularly young men,
when they’re being told everything in the world is their fault
and they have no right to a voice and they are
everything that is wrong with society,
it is unfortunately a human reaction
to go to the place where you will be embraced.
If the only place where you can make a joke or
be accepted is a place that is full of
poisonous ideas, then you’re likely to go there,
particularly when you’re young. So I think
that the left is making a tremendous mistake
in espousing this kind of,
in my view, quasi-religious, incredibly
witch-hunting behaviour because there will be people
who will just feel, when they’ve been shamed and abused
and feel it was unfair, where are they going to go?
That worries me very deeply. In my lifetime
we’ve seen such a shift on the left
and I still would define myself as of the left
but I was born in the 60s
when transgression really was the preserve of the left
when challenging authority and making the dark
joke and breaking societal norms was very much
the preserve of the left. I’ve lived
to see the left become incredibly
puritanical and rigid and
watching the alt-right, and this is a new phenomenon,
the alt-right is not the conservative right, with whom
I disagree on many, many things, but I’m just saying
we’re seeing the growth of something very much
facilitated by the internet that alarms
and disturbs me and it worries me that the left are
absolutely playing into that demographic’s hands.
You wrote a book, many books, where
young children have a lot of autonomy and
make very adult decisions and
some of them come with really great risks and
that’s like sneaking off into a dungeon or
running away to fight the most powerful wizard who has ever existed
and some of your critics wonder if there’s something
contradictory in saying that young people
are not old enough to know who they are
to make this decision about
whether to medically transition.
Those are fantasy books and the point of fantasy is
that we are allowed to explore in imagination
things that frighten us, challenge us,
we’re allowed to escape into a world that’s scary
but then we can come back, we can close the book, we can think about
what we’ve read, we can think about what it means to make irreversible decisions.
By contrast, we are dealing
with the real world here. We’re dealing
with children, in my view,
that a solution for
all distress is lifelong medicalisation.
That is real world harm.
There’s no closing the book and walking away, there’s no
playing with this, experimenting with this
and not suffering harm,
in my view. Now, people will say
perhaps that you’ve already said
that for some people this will be the answer and I will say
yes, for persistent gender dysphoria
I believe, I certainly hope
that for adults who have found no other way to resolve their gender dysphoria
transition may be the answer. I want to see those people protected,
I want their rights protected,
I wish them lives full of joy and fulfilment
but when we’re talking about children, I think that is
a very different question.
Now, you’ve said that you’ve been immersing yourself in a lot of reading,
memoirs and philosophy and academic literature
all around this subject and
I know that one thing that’s made this conversation about
minors medically transitioning so
contentious is that because it’s quite new
there aren’t a lot of authoritative studies
and so with the studies that are out there, the assertion is that
people on all sides are cherry picking
to fit their arguments. What evidence are you seeing
that makes you think that you are right to be worried?
I haven’t yet found a study
that hasn’t found that the majority of young people,
children and adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria
will grow out of it.
Now, I haven’t found a single study
that contradicts that and I have gone looking.
The majority of children will, if allowed to go through adolescence,
many of them will grow up to,
not all, but many will grow up to be gay and
their gender dysphoria will resolve.
Why then, if that’s the evidence,
are we immediately putting
children onto an affirmative path?
Can we follow the science?
There’s activism and
all activism isn’t equal.
I genuinely think that we are watching one of the worst
medical scandals in a century
and I believe that those who should have known better,
and I’m talking here not, God knows, about
trans people, gender dysphoric people, distressed young people,
I’m certainly not talking about them, I am talking about
medics and those who have cheered
this on unquestioningly, creating a climate in which
many people trying to raise red flags
have been intimidated and silenced.
And I would ask proponents of gender identity ideology
who are so militant, who are so determined
on no debate, I would ask them, what if you are wrong?
If I’m wrong,
If I’m wrong, great.
People aren’t being harmed.
But if you are wrong, you have cheered on,
you have created a climate, quite a threatening climate,
in which whistleblowers and
young people themselves are being intimidated
out of raising concerns.
I think it was in 2018, Professor Carl Hennigan,
who is of the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine,
and he spoke up publicly and he said,
we are watching an unregulated live experiment
on children. He was instantly
condemned as a transphobe by, I think,
the Oxford University’s LGBT society.
So when you say that people aren’t being harmed
if you’re wrong, you mean physically?
Because your critics say that you are harming people
with your words and with the ideas that you are promoting.
Well, actually, I received an email
right after I spoke out in which
a left-wing man I know emailed me and he said
a trans man had been killed
in Germany. And he said
to me, your rhetoric
contributes to an environment in which police are less likely
to investigate that crime.
Now, join the dots for me.
What I had said at that point is,
there used to be a word for people who menstruate.
Is he genuinely arguing
that by saying women menstruate,
police investigating murder
will say, well, better wrap up the investigation.
accusations are thrown at anyone who
challenges this ideology. Your words
will cause people to kill themselves. Your words
will stop police investigation.
Your words will cause men to be violent
trans women. Blaming women
for the violence of men is a hallmark
of something that is not normally seen as progressive.
That is misogyny writ large.
To go back to your concern
about the left feeding a backlash that might
help the far right, there has been a real
and rapid loss of public trust in institutions
of all kinds over the past few years.
And it sounds like this experience you’re having
is causing you yourself to have doubts about
the trustworthiness of some of our institutions
in this moment. Completely. And I think that this is
I mean, we’ve seen this play out in the last decade, this
undermining of experts. You know, the experts
can’t be trusted. The media can’t be trusted. Governments can’t be trusted.
And I would be lying if I didn’t say that I have
lost faith in certain institutions. I have
lost a degree of faith in what is
obviously the industry I know best, the publishing industry.
I’ve been shocked by the positions that
publishing has taken. I am
pleased and proud to say that my publisher has
taken, my editor in fact,
has taken a robust position on freedom of speech.
And I was relieved that he took that position,
not for my sake, but it was a declaration on freedom of speech
that I think publishing, if publishers stand
for nothing else, they should stand for plurality of views.
And the other institutions that I have
definitely lost faith in are educational institutions
who I think have taken a very dogmatic
position on this and are shutting down debate,
freedom of thought and freedom of expression. And I,
if we cannot look to those institutions to protect those very
precious things, we are in trouble. And I am
afraid I think we are currently in trouble.
Well, one of the concerns you voiced is around
language and institutions using phrases
like birthing people or cervix havers
or people who menstruate. And
some of your critics just don’t see a problem with this.
They see it as just making language more
inclusive. So for instance, in the world of journalism,
the Associated Press released a new style guide
explaining that when referring to transgender people,
phrases like is a woman are more
to the point than identifies as a woman.
Can you make the case to the skeptic,
why is this an issue for you?
That from the Associated Press is hugely
powerful. They’ve edged from identifies
as a woman. So a man identifies as a woman, which I think
we all understand what that means, into is a woman.
And that’s precisely the creep that I’m talking
about. We are using language
to make accurate definition
of sex difference unspeakable.
When I read news stories,
woman convicted of exposing her penis
on the street. Now I’m laughing, but it’s
not actually that funny. I hear myself saying the words and that
seems so absurd to me. But there is now a journalistic
convention that no matter the crime,
woman convicted of raping small boy. These are
real news stories. I see that
as political language.
I see that as an ideological.
I don’t believe it to be factual. There’s a body
of feminists who would say these are not our crimes. These are
not women’s crimes. And I would say something else.
I don’t believe you can accurately analyze sexual violence
or violence when committed by males. And we know that
98 to 99% of sexual violence is committed
by men. Women are
form 88% of victims of sexual violence.
How can we record accurate data?
How can we analyze this phenomenon without being
able to accurately talk about
who is the perpetrator and who is the victim?
So what you’re saying is that by changing the language there
to focus, especially around sex crimes,
to focus on gender rather than sex,
you’re obscuring an important fact, which is that
biology actually is implicated there.
One of the things that your critics say often is some version of
I wish she would listen. Why isn’t she listening to us?
They think that nobody
could possibly disagree with them if they heard
what they were saying. And I truly
believe that the notion that I have listened and I have read
and I have learned and I’ve looked at the theory and I’ve looked
at personal accounts and still disagree is
simply anathema. So what you’re saying is they think
they want you to listen when really they want you to agree.
I’m afraid that is exactly what I think.
And then the other extremely common question that comes up
and it comes off almost like a plea
is just why? Why are you doing this?
Why can’t you just let people be who they are
and support them the way that you do for these outsider characters in your book?
If one of those people is listening right now,
how would you talk to them? What would you say to them?
Can you speak to them?
I would say to them, you as a human being,
the self that you are, I have the utmost
respect for you. I want you protected. I want you safe.
I would treat you with respect, always.
And I would say
I’m worried that you
yourself may have got caught up
in something that may ultimately harm you.
But I’m asking some questions because I think
some vulnerable groups are being harmed
and that includes the gay community,
that includes vulnerable women
and it includes vulnerable youth.
Now, if you identify as trans,
if that is an answer for you,
then I’m with you 100%.
But we are seeing mounting evidence that this is not
the answer for everyone and that we may be living
through a cultural moment that we will look back on,
not with pride, but with puzzlement
that we let it happen.
We’ll be right back.
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I’m really interested in the question of discernment.
I think of this scene from one of your books,
it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,
and Hermione, the hero, and Professor Umbridge,
who is clearly in the wrong, have this showdown in class.
Hermione says in a moment of defiance
that she disagrees with something in her textbook,
and Umbridge berates her, like,
who are you to disagree with this expert
who wrote this textbook, and punishes her?
Now to anyone reading this, it is so frustrating and unjust,
but I venture to say that no one thinks they are the Umbridge.
No one ever thinks that. No one ever thinks they’re Umbridge.
And some people see you as the Umbridge.
You have these younger critics online,
and they see Hermione as standing up to an older person
with power, and they see themselves
as standing up to you.
Yeah, and I understand because they’ve told me
very explicitly why they have that interpretation.
How do you know if you are a Hermione or an Umbridge?
Well, if you’re having a lot of fun doing it,
and getting a huge sense of self-satisfaction out of it,
then I do believe you maybe want to stop and think,
am I getting a huge ego rush out of this?
That would be a good question to ask yourself.
You know, is this giving me pleasure?
Because I can say from my heart,
none of this has given me pleasure.
It has given me anxiety.
It has made me at times feel vulnerable.
So although I don’t regret anything,
I’ve had concerns for my family’s safety.
Some of the threats have not been too amusing to me.
There has been fallout in my life inevitably.
I still don’t regret standing up,
but it certainly hasn’t given me pleasure on any level.
You know, one of the key moments for me,
so you say, you talk about righteousness.
There was an incident in 2019, I believe, in which…
Here, Rowling mentioned the incident
that we spoke about in Chapter 4,
where in a nearby Scottish town,
a 10-year-old girl was sexually assaulted
by an 18-year-old trans woman in a public bathroom.
Some of the discourse I saw after that incident
really took me aback,
because one of the first things I saw was,
the TERFs love it when something like this happens.
Now, what thought process has led you to believe
that the TERFs, this demonised, evil group…
I mean, they just hate trans people.
They want them all dead. We all know this.
That’s who they are.
What leads you to believe
that we want 10-year-old children escape rape
by a hair’s whisker?
How has your black-and-white thinking evolved
to the point where you think that feminists like me
actively are gleeful when women are raped or attacked?
That’s great. We can use this to bash trans women with.
And I’ve seen that discourse,
and I think if you’re thinking,
is that it’s not just irrational.
That is such a bad faith position.
At no point do you stop and say to yourself,
there may be some nuance here.
Is this all moving pieces on a chessboard for you?
Is it all a game?
Does real-world hurt and harm not count at all?
There’s one other question that I had about discernment.
So how do you know if you’re fighting for something
that is truly righteous
or just something that appears to be righteous?
How do you know that the courage to call out an injustice
isn’t actually just a call to join an unjust mob?
So coming from Westboro,
where I believed so strongly that I was doing the right thing,
and then to leave and come to believe
that it was so destructive and harmful,
I had this moment in time,
and it lasted for many months,
where I was like, how can I ever trust my own mind again?
Because I was so certain.
And so I was looking for some kind of solid footing.
What leg do I have to stand on?
How can I trust my mind?
How do I not make the same mistake again and again going forward?
And so I basically came up with this list of questions
that kind of grew over time,
and a few of them you’ve alluded to already.
So these are the questions that I asked myself to see.
Am I starting to go down a bad path?
So the first question is,
are you capable of entertaining real doubt about your beliefs,
or are you operating from a position of certainty?
Yeah, and I think that that’s key.
I think it’s when we are most certain,
when we’re getting that rush of adrenaline that says,
God, I’m a good person.
That’s when we should most question ourselves.
That’s when you need to stop and ask yourself a question.
And the second point is, can you articulate the evidence
that you would need to see in order to change your position,
or is your perspective unfalsifiable?
We’ve discussed this already,
and I think that’s such a good question
because I asked myself that question on this issue.
What would I need to see?
And I could articulate what I would need to see
to move me from my position, my thought-out position.
Can you articulate your opponent’s perspective
in a way that they recognize, or are you strawmanning?
I think that’s excellent,
and I genuinely believe I could articulate my opponent’s position
because I’ve read their books,
and I think people need to read these things.
They need to understand what is being argued.
The fourth one was, are you attacking ideas
or attacking the people who hold them?
Always the ideas.
Are you willing to cut off close relationships
with people who disagree with you,
particularly over relatively small points of contention?
No, I’m not.
A difference of belief is nothing to me,
but I can imagine myself no longer wishing to have a relationship
with a person who behaved in certain ways towards me or towards others
because I do strongly believe it’s watch what people are doing,
not what they’re saying.
So certain behaviors would probably be a deal-breaker for me,
and that would include demonizing others for small transgressions.
That would be a revelation to me
that that person wasn’t who I thought they were probably.
And then the last one was,
are you willing to use extraordinary means
against people who disagree with you?
And by that I mean things like forcing people out of their jobs or homes,
violence or threats of violence,
or things like what my family and I did celebrating misfortune and tragedy.
I don’t know why, but that question has actually made me quite emotional
that you say that to me because I sit opposite you and I like you so much
and you’re such a humane and reasonable person,
and to hear you describing those behaviors is…
I can really understand why you had your long dark night of the soul.
One thing that you said to me earlier in our discussion really stuck with me.
You said to me that not long before you left,
you said to someone, an interviewer,
I’m all in, and you told me,
I believed that I had questioned myself and I was fine with everything,
but you said you hadn’t gone deep enough.
Trust and obey, right?
You’d never actually taken apart
the most fundamental three words of your belief system.
You’d never challenged those.
Can you talk about that? Because that really interests me.
Yeah, so I grew up in a family of lawyers, right?
So my mom is one of 13, and I think 11 of the 13 went to law school.
They were very, very smart, very analytical, very logical people,
which I think surprised a lot of people to learn
because it’s easy to assume that these are just kind of rednecks
with backwards beliefs or something,
and specifically with unexamined beliefs.
These are just their personal prejudices,
and they’re living them out in the world,
when in fact my grandfather was a well-known,
award-winning civil rights attorney.
He was somebody who had reason to believe
that he was on the right side of things on a lot of things,
and we were constantly looking around at what other people believed
and other understandings of the Bible
and then going back to the Word, right?
Going back to the King James Version of the Bible
and trying to show and memorizing chapter and verse
why everybody else was wrong, all the evidence.
So it was a constant process of examination, asking these questions.
But I realized before I left
that there were two fundamental premises of our ideology
that I never questioned.
I never truly questioned the idea that the Bible
was the literal, infallible Word of God
and that Westboro’s understanding of it was the right one
because, again, it was all laid out there for me.
And as many questions as I asked, from those two premises,
essentially everything else basically fell into place.
There were a few small contradictions
that outsiders were able to find on Twitter,
and I do wonder if not for some internal contradiction,
relatively small points,
if that had never revealed themselves to me,
if they’d never revealed themselves to me,
then I would have just accepted.
I would never have thought to question those two basic premises.
That actually is one of the reasons that I came up with this list
because if I asked myself all these hard questions,
what I imagined, I really thought I was digging in deep.
It was really terrifying to realize
even when you’re really trying,
even when it’s an earnest attempt,
and all of your intellect,
and, again, I’m surrounded by people
who are all incredibly intelligent and well-intentioned.
I know those people.
We would do anything for each other.
So it’s just the idea that such people
could still get to a place that was so wrong
and so harmful and so destructive,
it helps me, I guess, now
feel a lot of understanding and grace for people
even when they’re doing harmful things.
So it’s that question about,
are you talking ideas or the people who hold them?
That is very, it’s huge to me
because of the way that people were able to understand
that even though I was doing horrible things,
I was trying to do the right thing,
and that was something that they could tap into.
And so this is, for me,
even though it can be kind of scary
to see what people are capable of
even when they’re trying to do the right thing,
it’s also a hopeful thing because that desire to do good
is something that you can tap into,
which is why the desire to shut down debate and conversation
is so alarming to me
because that is the only thing
that can ultimately change hearts and minds.
And it’s, I think, the only real tool we have
outside of actual force and violence to make change.
Every crowd, every mob is made up of individuals,
and it’s reaching the individuals
and not allowing this to become mob on mob
that will change things for the best.
If we’re to have any hope,
and your story obviously is one of redemption,
and I love everything that you say
about the good in your family.
I truly do.
Okay, very last question.
Why have you been willing to talk to me?
What do you hope this does?
I’ve been willing to talk to you specifically
because you wrote me that incredible letter
and because I think I’ve had a hundred people at least say,
explain yourself, explain yourself,
but I felt that you and I could have a conversation
that interested me.
And in terms of what I hope this does,
I suppose I hope people enjoy the podcast, honestly.
I don’t mean this in any arrogant way,
and I don’t mean this in any self-pitying way,
but I feel that I’ve said what I’ve said,
and maybe when the mist clears,
some people will understand better.
Some will always hate me for what I’ve said.
I accept that.
I know I won’t ever regret having stood up on this issue, ever.
You know, that’s the price you pay.
If you want to be universally and eternally beloved,
then you must curate your image
in a way that I’m simply not prepared to do.
I’m not in the business of doing that.
And I’m not taking a long bet here.
I’m not thinking, oh, I think this cultural moment will pass
and therefore I will be vindicated.
I don’t know what the future holds.
I only know that I would have betrayed myself,
and I passionately believe I would have betrayed
a lot of women and girls if I had not stood up on this issue.
There are more important things in this world than being popular,
and that doesn’t mean it’s more important to me to be right.
It means it’s more important to me to do the right thing.
Jo Rowling, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Do you have anything else to say?
She haven’t got anything to say now.
Ha ha ha!
Ha ha ha!
You’ve been listening to The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling.
This series is dedicated to everyone out there
who’s trying to have difficult conversations,
trying to listen with empathy
and to speak with honesty and in good faith,
even when it’s hard.
So much has happened since we started our reporting,
and we’ll be back in a month or so with a bit of an epilogue,
so stay tuned.
But in the meantime, if this show has meant something to you,
if it has moved you or provoked you or inspired you
or maybe caused you to question some of your assumptions,
please share it with your community.
Share it with your friends or family.
Start a podcast club.
Join the public conversation,
as messy as it can be sometimes.
And if you think we’ve missed something
or have recommendations for our team,
we’re always happy to hear from you.
You can send us an email at witchtrialsatthefp.com
or send me a message on Twitter,
at Megan Phelps.
And if you would,
please leave us a review on Apple or Spotify
to help others discover the show.
And now for some thank yous.
The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling
was produced by Andy Mills, Matthew Bohl,
and me, Megan Phelps-Roper,
with production and editing support from Candice Mattel-Kahn.
The series is brought to you by The Free Press.
The show was mixed by Matthew Bohl.
Sound design by Andy Mills and Matthew Bohl.
Editorial advising by Barry Weiss.
Additional editing support from Emily Yaffe.
Original music composed and performed
by Peter Lelish, Kobe Bienert,
John Ivins, and Matthew Bohl.
The wonderful readings from Harry Potter
and the Philosopher’s Stone in episode one
were performed by actor Crispin Letts,
with special permission from J.K. Rowling.
Our beautiful artwork was created by Eliana Blazer-Gould,
with art direction by Susie Weiss.
Fact-checking by Natalie Ballard and me.
Special thanks to Stephanie Roper, Kate Fjelland,
Rebecca Salt, Noah Phelps-Roper,
Laura Floyd, Lucy Biggers,
Jonathan Hunt, Isaac Grafstein,
Alex Burns, Camille Foster,
Aaron Bohl, Katie Herzog,
Jesse Singel, Joy Neal,
Kat Rosenfield, Lacey Green,
Noah’s dad, Jay,
Maya Sulkin, Buck Angel,
Corinna Kahn, Marcy Bowers,
and Jonathan Haidt.
And to many patient and supportive members of my family,
including Joyce, Marlon,
Tor, and Solvie Lynn Fjelland,
Josh Phelps-Roper, Nancy Taves,
and Tom Kennett.
And of course, our thanks to J.K. Rowling
for inviting us into her home.
Last but not least,
our most profound thanks goes to everyone
who shared their stories with us,
and to our friends,
who listened and gave us encouragement and feedback
along the way.
Goodbye for now,
but we’ll see you all soon in the epilogue.
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