While freedom of speech is an amazing right that is uber protected in the US thanks to the Bill of Rights, generally speaking, reasonable people think death threats are bad. The first amendment does have exceptions for “true threats of violence,” but proving that something is a “true threat” can run up against the defense of hyperbole, and that gets tricky. So, let’s just agree: death threats = bad. Why am I bringing this up? Welcome to the US News Cycle, 2022. It’s happening, a lot. The recent stabbing attack against Salman Rushdie makes for a fascinating example. The attack  was all over the news. What many US residents didn’t see is the back-and-forth between two other prominent British authors, JK Rowling and Joanne Harris, that played out primarily in the UK media. Spoiler: there are A LOT of death threats involved. 

How it started: On Friday, August 12, 2022 Salman Rushdie was stabbed while preparing to participate in an event being held in the amphitheater in Chataqua, New York. If you haven’t read the news or need context for why this is a big news story: Mr. Rushdie was forced to go into hiding back in 1989 when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his death because of certain passages in his novel Satanic Verses. For more information about the fatwa here is a pretty complete rundown. At any rate, unsurprisingly, the stabbing resulted in multiple authors expressing support for Mr. Rushdie. He’s a prominent author and has been an outspoken advocate for free speech rights. You should read one of his amazing books if you haven’t yet. But the story doesn’t stop here because many of the authors who expressed support for Mr. Rushdie also received death threats in response to their tweets of support, including…

JK Rowling, no stranger to having her own personal ideas critiqued, sometimes with violent threats. Her tweet read: “Feeling very sick right now. Let him be OK.” A person tweeting from an account that has since been suspended replied: “Don’t worry you are next.” Such threats not only violate Twitter’s terms of service, they are also just generally inappropriate and unnecessary in literary discourse. While context makes clear that this tweet came from a supporter of the initial fatwa, it’s worth noting here that the next step in this string of events is going to involve conflating the fatwa-related death threat with the other threats Ms. Rowling regularly receives for her beliefs related to “trans exclusionary radical feminism” (TERF) which is a transphobic ideology. And I think, here, it’s worth repeating that death threats = bad. No reasonable person thinks either of these writers should be killed for their beliefs, including Joanne Harris… but this is where it gets tricky because: 

Joanne Harris is the Committee Chair for the Society of Authors, which is a UK-based trade union for authors. She is a best selling author in her own right. She has not sold as many books as JK Rowling, but, to be fair, very few authors have. Ms. Harris’ son happens to be trans. She almost certainly has beliefs that are in direct conflict with those held by JK Rowling. These two authors would almost certainly disagree about a lot of things and also probably “like” tweets from their private accounts that reflect their differing ideologies. One thing they do agree about: JK Rowling should not be subject to death threats for her beliefs. JK Rowling, however, has accused Ms. Harris of not being opposed to death threats enough? Of not reaching out personally to express concern for the death and rape threats she’s received? This is the bit that’s hard to parse, and different sources explain the situation differently due to framing. Ms. Rowling has spoken through interviews with the press, whereas Ms. Harris has made her statements directly through Twitter. Ultimately, the root of Ms. Rowling’s beef does seem to be that Ms. Harris has a clear bias and that this bias makes her ineligible to support the work of UK authors who advocate TERF ideologies through her Society of Authors work. So, what this is is a CONVERSATION ABOUT WHETHER INDIVIDUALS WHO HAVE BELIEFS DIFFERENT FROM THEIR OWN ARE CAPABLE OF CARING ABOUT OTHERS WITH WHOM THEY DISAGREE. This seems to be incredibly relevant to those of us who are expected to help folks with whom we disagree on the regular… which is, ahem, exactly what library work is.  

At any rate, this is what is clear: 

  1. Ms. Harris did post a poll on Twitter asking authors if they’d ever received death threats. She says that this post was in response to the violence against Mr. Rushdie and not to the threat Ms. Rowling received subsequently. Those who do know about the difference in the two authors’ views on trans individuals assumed that Ms. Harris was doing something along the lines of saying: “yeah, you and me both” to Ms. Rowling with this poll. While non-scientific, the poll Harris conducted does indicate that death threats are disturbingly common on Twitter. And, again, death threats = bad.  
  1.  Ms. Rowling and the TERFs with whom she rolls have flat out stated that Ms. Harris is using her trans son to endear herself to the “woke” mob and is not competent to defend the free speech rights of those with whom she disagrees in her role as Society of Author Chair. They have not identified specific things that Ms. Harris has done incorrectly during her stint as chair, except, perhaps, in that she has not been loud enough addressing the specific threats made against Ms. Rowling.  

People can believe more than one thing at a time, and it is definitely the case that disagreeing with Rowling’s gender critical positions AND believing that she should not be subject to death threats for those beliefs are not, at their root, in conflict with each other. It is not required that Ms. Harris agree with Ms. Rowling about TERF-y stuff for her to support her right to continue to live death-threat-free. But now Rowling and other TERF-y authors have decided that Ms. Harris should no longer serve as chair because of a viewpoint disagreement that they say makes it impossible for her to support their needs as authors because she is NOT NEUTRAL. (PSST: no one as an individual is neutral… not a one of us, but we work in the roles that we have in society to meet the needs of all we serve, even those with whom we disagree… like at the library.)  

Here’s more coverage of this exchange. Here Ms. Harris speaks for herself in a thread. I would provide a similar link for Ms. Rowling, but there isn’t really one. Researching the different sides in this conversation is like a hall of mirrors of finger pointing. Yes, everyone will forget about this by next month because it’s nothing like as catchy as a milkshake duck or even an attorney with an accidental cat filter, but it’s an interesting case study in how weird conversations about cancel culture can get. 

To sum up: you don’t have to agree with someone to defend their right to freedom of speech. Mr. Rushdie, Ms. Rowling, and Ms. Harris all have made statements to this effect publicly. We as a society seem to have developed an inclination to distrust those with whom we are not aligned. And this is how we connect all of this drama to libraries. We, library workers, as individual humans, are not without bias… but we also, like Ms. Harris, know that our role is to support all members of our community in their information-seeking needs.