Content warning: This piece discusses transphobia.
The older I get, the more I find myself being loud. After years of being told that women shouldn't be angry—that we shouldn't be loud and disgruntled and ugly in public—I've found myself like a kid banned from drawing on the walls: all the more willing to do it.
However, the older I get, the more I understand why doctors take the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. This isn't to say I've given up on spite and anger in my writing—the opposite is true—but I know I've been wrong before. I want to do my best to not be wrong again.
So, in an effort to protect myself and others from harm, the "Don't Be A Dumbass" Rule was born. It comes in 3 parts.
Part One: Identify whether you're writing about a private or a public opinion.
For example, my private opinion of "Fuck J.K Rowling, you TERF," could get a lot of air time. But it wouldn't particularly make a good essay*, just like her anti-trans writings don't make a good essay either. Hatred doesn't have many facets.
(*By this, I mean it wouldn’t make a good essay for me to write because it’s not my story to tell and would be pretty one-dimensional. I will happily read “Fuck J.K Rowling” essays by others.)
Alternatively, an essay about how Rowling breaks all three elements of the "Don't Be A Dumbass" rule could contribute to a broader discussion about harm reduction in our public discourse and, in my humble opinion, is a fair use of the public sphere.
There are plenty of things I think and say in private that aren't suitable for public ears because I err on the side of avoiding harm. Part One is what stops me from outing r*pists when a survivor isn't ready. It's what stops me from writing defamatory articles (a certain 2.9 million dollar defamation award comes to mind) and it's also what stops me from writing articles about things that don't need my voice. It's not my place to debate LGBTQIA+ rights—and it certainly isn't J.K Rowling's place—because neither of us are personally affected by the outcome. We cannot and should not debate the humanity of others. This is also why I don't qualify my critique of government policy with a value judgement on the person who enacted it ("I'm sure Daniel Andrews is well intentioned, but..."). It's unethical, it's morally ambiguous and above all, it does harm.
Part Two: You must protect your own humanity while writing.
For me, this is first and foremost a safety check. I'm pretty easy to find on the internet—I'm also pretty easy to contact—and when I've been loud, ugly and angry in the past, people have reacted badly. I've had to become more careful about where I aim the anger in my writing and consider whether it could incite violent acts from its recipient.
Part Two is also a reminder to consider my own limits. It's too easy to respond to the world with fear when the news cycle so often picks you up and drags you to a hellscape. But fear warps truth and it is only when we step beyond that that we can actually speak with honesty and understanding for the broader picture.
When J.K Rowling says she's afraid of assault in public bathrooms, I think "I too am afraid of assault in public bathrooms", but I also know the perpetrator of that harm isn't other women. Our trans sisters are also afraid in public bathrooms: they're scary fucking places. Fear isn't a reason to blindly and incorrectly place blame. Rowling needs to get her head around the fact that fear doesn't justify discrimination. She must be accountable to her harmful beliefs.
Our fear isn't our greatest weapon. Our empathy is.
Part Three: Do the "Don't Be A Dumbass" Proofread.
Every time I finish a rant piece, I go and make myself a tea before sitting down at my desk and doing my final read: the "Don't Be A Dumbass" Proofread. It's not that hard to do. It's actually as simple as the name suggests. I ask myself a few questions:
Am I looking at this through an intersectional lens?
Am I using gender-neutral collective nouns?
Am I using inclusive language with regard to women, people with uteruses and non-binary folks?
Am I aware of how any personal anecdotes have been affected by my white privilege?
Am I implying that marginalised groups are innately "vulnerable" rather than directing my eyes towards an oppressor's actions?
Am I reproducing hate speech?
Above all, does this text have the capacity to harm marginalised communities and spread hate to the masses?
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty of ways to be a dumbass.
I ask myself all of these things: both when I write, as well as when I read, and J.K Rowling, let me tell you one thing: you fucking fail the "Don't Be A Dumbass" Proofread. You're an insult to its very premise. Your “essay” outlining your ‘opinions’ on the humanity of others breaks every single one of these rules and, frankly, you ignore the fact that you must first do no harm.
Rowling was one of 150 academics and writers who recently signed their names to a letter in Harper’s Magazine, criticising what they claim to be an increasing “censoriousness… in our culture”. The letter champions “freedom” and, as many of the signatories have since admitted, it is decidedly vague.
It doesn’t mention that while ‘free speech’ laws protect us from prosecution from our government, they were never intended to protect us from speech without consequence. We must be accountable to that which we speak and write because our words hold meaning. In J.K Rowling’s case, she must be accountable to the fact that her words are causing harm.
I have made so many mistakes as a writer and activist. I've been a real dumbass at times and it's in knowing that that I can insist on being a better person the next time I write.
J.K Rowling wrote 7 whole novels about a little boy who grew up always feeling different until he realised he was magical. Once he did, a whole community welcomed him in. Rowling is clearly a hypocrite and her beliefs are wildly incorrect and offensive, but she's also had plenty of opportunities to educate herself so I'm not going to waste time or air by trying to debate a community's humanity with her. It's unethical to repeat her harm in this space. What's worth noting, however, is that no matter how preciously she holds "ideological diversity", we must all first do no harm.
J.K Rowling is being a dumbass. It's time she shuts up.
This article is the continuation of a conversation in our most recent Penny Mint podcast. You can listen to the full discussion here.