What Is Cancel Culture and Should I Stop Reading J.K. Rowling Because of It?

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I’m a huge mystery reader. I love a murder plot with a few red herrings thrown in and lengthy descriptions of characters, the places they inhabit and even the food they eat. Because of that, I’m a huge fan of the Cormoran Strike series. Written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, the five books in the series star a couple of London private detectives adept at solving seemingly impossible crimes.

The latest addition, Troubled Blood, was released on September 15, 2020. Unlike with previous Cormoran books — or even Harry Potter titles before that — I didn’t preorder Troubled Blood so that it would be ready to read that same day. Instead, I was puzzled and in disbelief.

In June of last year, Rowling had gone public with her transphobic views about keeping bathrooms and changing rooms separate for cisgender women. Some of the arguments she makes as a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor should be heard. But what made me and others cringe was Rowling’s determination to speak about “biological sex” and her belief that the term gender is replacing the eroded legal definition of sex.

At one point during her +3,500-word essay, the writer complains of “never, ever expect a nuanced conversation” on Twitter. Yet, she used that same platform to simply dismiss the phrase “People who menstruate,” which was used in a news headline. Rowling preferred the use of the less inclusive and less precise term “women.” Well, not all people who menstruate are women and not all women menstruate.

I think Professor and Director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan, Lisa Nakamura, put it better than most when she advised Rowling via Twitter to stick to fiction. “Gender theory is not your thing,” she added.

I sure wish she had stuck to literature. I still can’t comprehend what possessed her to be so vocal about such a complex issue, one in which she’s no expert. She could be using her voice for so many positive things instead. One of my favorite authors has been canceled.

What Exactly Is Cancel Culture

The term cancel culture, or canceling, has been so broadly used lately, that Merriam Webster already added the new use of the term to their definition. “Canceling and cancel culture have to do with the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work.”

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Some examples of cancel culture include movie critics expressing their problems with Woody Allen after the accusations of sexual assault against the filmmaker resurfaced in 2017; Queen Elizabeth II stripping Harvey Weinstein of his title of Commander of the British Empire after he was accused of rape, sex abuse and sexual misconduct by several women; and Lucasfilm firing Gina Carano from The Mandalorian for her “abhorrent and unacceptable” remarks on Twitter.

Personally, quitting Allen’s movies has been an easy thing to do. His films were first fed to me by college professors who praised his writing, comedy and directorial style. I remember seeing Manhattan (1979) at 18 or 19 and being a bit uncomfortable with Allen’s character in the film: He was 44 at the time and dating a 17-year-old played by Mariel Hemingway. But I dismissed my initial reaction as provincialism. Who was I to judge a revered filmmaker?

“When we like something we sort of [go]: ‘Oh yeah. He’s a genius.’ We can let that slide. Or you can go the other way. Now that I know he’s kind of a jerk, it’s making me reinterpret what I thought was just an ordinary bit of storytelling,” says Mary Beth Willard in a video interview. Willard is a writer and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Weber State University. She’s recently published the book Why It’s OK to Enjoy the Work of Immoral Artists.

My J.K. Rowling Dilemma

I contacted Willard because I’ve been trying to decide whether it is appropriate to keep reading Rowling’s books since I found out about the author’s opinions on gender. Giving up Allen was easy. He’s a filmmaker I never loved in the first place — although I had a soft spot for Midnight in Paris (2011) and Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008). Sticking to my beliefs and giving up on Rowling’s new book, especially during a pandemic that made me yearn for escapism, was another matter. It was a difficult decision to make even if I fully support the transgender community and I believe Rowling’s views on the subject are wrong. What’s worst, her decision to voice those opinions from her public platform is simply irresponsible.

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“Boycotting is the least creative option,” Willard tells me about the options we have as consumers. But she points out how a revelation about someone can make us reinterpret their whole body of work. And I agree: I’ve been reading or watching the works of specific artists under a completely different light after learning certain bits of information about them.

“The joy we get out of engaging with artwork is actually more substantial and a bigger part of our lives than we think it is,” Willard adds. The philosophy professor talked about the significance that a certain work of art can have for a person and how it allows us to lose ourselves in it for a bit. Finding something that captures our imagination that way can be rare.

Precisely because of that connection we sometimes find in art, Willard says, if we feel the need, we can balance out certain decisions we make as consumers. I could decide to read Rowling’s books and donate time to an organization that helps trans people or make sure people know I’m a safe person to talk to about gender. “That might mean that you don’t publicize the fact that you’re reading J.K. Rowling. There’s no moral obligation to put everything that you do on the Internet. You can just shut up sometimes.”

A very interesting distinction Willard made during our chat is my responsibility as a consumer versus my responsibility as a journalist. “Just talking about the person or failing to talk about them is a big deal. It’s the old line: ‘We don’t tell you what to think. But we tell you what to think about,'” she says. “There are lots of people competing for your entertainment attention. It’s no problem just to give it to somebody who isn’t assaulting somebody,” she added when we were talking about Allen.

So as consumers we may or may not silently keep consuming certain titles. Cancel culture can affect how we interpret someone’s work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we always need to boycott them. But as a journalist, I need to make sure that I know as much as possible about the authors I’m writing about.