Social commentary

Burning disagreement: the Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling

In the early 2000s, I worked for a large Christian charity where I organised an optional prayer meeting that started each working week. On one occasion, a colleague used a quote from Harry Potter as part of a reflection. As I recall it was Albus Dumbledore saying:

‘We are protected, in short, by our ability to love.’

Later that morning I received an angry phone call from another colleague who had not been there but was ‘deeply concerned that material about witchcraft’ was used at a prayer meeting. It was hard to ameliorate his righteous indignation.  He rarely came to the prayers anyway but he made clear we would not be seeing him in the future.


I was reminded of this when listening to the podcast The Witch Trials of JK Rowling.  It’s easy to overlook the controversies that Harry Potter provoked among Christians, especially in the US.

But Rowling’s difficulties with religious conservatives were mere skirmishes compared to the condemnation she would later receive from secular liberals after she spoke out in criticism of transgenderism. As a left-wing feminist whose books are so loved for their values of acceptance and inclusion, a tsunami of disappointment, anger and denunciation crashed down on her. Her books have been burnt by those on both the right and left wing.

Some have seen the title of the podcast as evidence of an inherent bias to Rowling and therefore ‘against’ transgender people. If that’s what you think, listen to episode 6 first which is an extended interview with two trans people, Noah and Natalie.

How we disagree

Of course, The Witch Trials of JK Rowling includes a lot of discussion about transgender issues and experiences. But it is chiefly about how we handle disagreement. As Rowling says:

“There is a huge appeal to black-and-white thinking. It’s the easiest place to be and in many ways the safest place to me. If you take an all-or-nothing position on anything, you will definitely find comrades, you will easily find a community.”

The presenter, Megan Phelps-Roper, is famous for having left the extremist cult of the Westboro Baptist Church. She has now rejected the bigotry she grew up into and has emerged with a deep commitment to encouraging genuine dialogue in a culture where this is increasingly difficult.

Intensity and bitterness

I learnt a huge amount from this podcast, both about JK Rowling’s views and those who passionately disagree with her.

I found listening to the experiences and reflections of trans people moving and powerful, especially as they explained the pain and alienation they so often feel. It helped me appreciate better the continual existential threat that many trans people feel and their bitterness with how Rowling used her huge platform. It was also scary to hear about how quickly a social media mob can turn on those previously considered allies.


I also found Rowling’s answers and perspectives thoughtful, researched and intellectually coherent. I was impressed by her willingness to prioritise her beliefs above comfort and reputation. The scale of condemnation and threats she has received is mind-boggling. Her support for others dismissed from academic, publishing and media jobs for publicly agreeing with her views is vitally important.

The incredible acceleration of teenagers seeking gender re-assignment in recent years means there must be open debate about gender ideology and policy. Shutting people down, shaming and cancelling others is both dangerous and counter-productive. We cannot simply trust the zeitgeist.  As with many social/political issues, it is the negligence of the liberal-left which feeds the extremism of the right.

‘A small and inconvenient voice’

Rowling’s words on conscience and certainty are worthy of reflection:

“We should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain. And we should question ourselves most when we receive a rush of adrenaline by doing or saying something. Many people mistake that rush of adrenaline for the voice of conscience: ‘I got a rush from saying that, I’m right.’ In my world-view, conscience speaks in a very small and inconvenient voice and its normally saying to you ‘think again, look more deeply, consider this’.”

Justice and humility

It is impossible to pursue justice without provoking disagreement. But activism corrupts when it loses humility and the possibility of redemption. As the Hebrew prophet Micah succintly put it:

‘Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’

We must disagree – even on this most sensitive of subjects – without seeking to silence, threaten or destroy others. To do so is not just wrong but counter-productive. To deny the legitimacy of questions, debate and discussion is to fan the flames of extremism.

So whatever your views or experiences, I would recommend this podcast. We can all benefit from listening to that small and inconvenient voice which says

‘think again, look more deeply, consider this’.

Listen to The Witch Trials of JK Rowling

Read: Listening to the ‘others’ we talk about

6 thoughts on “Burning disagreement: the Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling”

  1. In my last post (, I wrote about the reality that people with great strengths are capable of great wrong-doing.

    On the podcast, Rowling illustrates this same point by discussing the perplexed response of some fans to the moral ambiguity of her key characters:

    “The two characters that caused the most furious debate, quite literally, were Dumbledore and Snape. People wanted Dumbledore to be perfect: he is deeply flawed. But he is an exemplar of goodness, he did wrong, he learned, he grew wise. But he has to make the difficult decisions that people in the real world have to make – very difficult decisions.

    Meanwhile you have Snape. Incontrovertibly a bully, he can be mean, he can be sadistic, he is bitter. But he is courageous, he is determined to make good what he did terribly wrong. And without him disaster would have occurred. And I have had fans really angry at me for not categorising Snape in particular, just wanting clarity and simplicity, ‘let’s just agree this is a really bad guy’.

    People can be deeply flawed, people can make mistakes, people can do bad things – in fact show me the human being who hasn’t – and they can also be capable of greatness.”

    This reality of the flawed nature of all people is fundamental to the idea of respectful disagreement.


  2. Found the podcast very thought-provoking and as usual your blog brings issues into sharp focus for reflection.
    More power to your elbow Jon!


  3. Thank you Jon. Being the author of ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’ I couldn’t agree more (!). To understand how the extremism of ‘the left’ mirrors the certainty of ‘the right’, Umut Ozkirimli’s new book “Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke” is excellent.


  4. Having listened to the podcasts the most important theme that comes out is around freedom of speech and cancel culture, and hatred fueled by twitter storms. It relates how early JKR was demonised by Conservative Christians for promoting witchcraft and now is receiving similar stuff from trans activists.

    The views I heard from JKR on LGBT issues seemed quite nuanced ( would have seemed ultra progressive 30 years ago). I don’t agree with all of them, but I do agree with her that no one should lose a job or be threatened with violence for any view they express respectfully and without incitement to violence.

    I find it profoundly disappointing that some of the comments on social media are doing exactly what the podcast talks about.


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