Sunday 28 May 2023

JK Rowling and Posie Parker

You can think of this article as JK Rowling part 1.5 if you like, but it involves a significant digression which I thought deserved an article of its own.

I've worked through the whole of The Witch Trials of JK Rowling, and there's a lot to talk about. My initial thoughts about the podcast are this:

  1. Megan Phelps-Roper, the presenter, has an absolutely beautiful voice, which is a complete pleasure to listen to. Interestingly I had never heard JK Rowling's voice before I started listening to the podcast, and it wasn't quite the voice I expected.
  2. The podcast has a very American slant to it. It presents many of the events of Rowling's life and career set against a backdrop of American cultural trends and events. There is some discussion of things which happen in the UK or the wider world, but not very much. This is understandable--but disappointing.
  3. The Guardian reviewer (that I quoted in my previous article) is right: the podcast is too long and meandering. JK Rowling herself isn't actually in it very much--certainly not as much as I thought or hoped--and doesn't appear at all in Episode 6. I found myself wishing they would skip past what Americans all thought about Harry Potter and get back to what JK Rowling was actually saying. And I wished that they would stop cutting away from what Rowling is saying to put in little asides and quotes from other people. Thankfully there are transcripts available, which feature only what Rowling says, at the Rowling Library.
Posing as Parker: Keen-Minshull
New Zealand had a recent visit by a British woman who calls herself Posie Parker. Her real name is Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, and she is a mother of four who styles herself as a woman's rights activist, and an anti-trans activist. I had never heard of her before a couple of months ago. It turns out that her star seemed to start to rise in 2018. She's very active (and vocal) online, and also takes part in rallies and other events, in Britain and, increasingly, the USA.

Keen-Minshull announced in January of this year her intention to travel to Australia, and across here to New Zealand, in March. This stirred up some pretty fierce opposition, both from the Aussies (they let her in, and neo-Nazis came to her rallies) and the Kiwis. Various petitions were made.  Immigration Minister Michael Wood spoke about her “inflammatory, vile and incorrect world views”. Ultimately, however, it was agreed that Keen-Minshull was not considered a risk to “public order or public interest”.

Gender Minorities Aotearoa, InsideOUT Kōaro, and Auckland Pride filed for a judicial review in the High Court. They sought an interim order to stop Keen-Minshull from entering the country until the judicial review could take place, but the following day a judge ruled that it was unlawful to keep her out.

Keen-Minshull had planned two events: one was going to be in Auckland, in the large Albert Park on 25th March; the other in Wellington.
Keen-Minshull: They [the rallies] are outside because too many venues will cancel us.
Hounded: Keen-Minshull
Nobody was under any illusions about what was going to happen. She was going to get up on a podium, with a microphone, and make anti-trans speeches, and that's what she tried to do. However, there were large organised protests against her (some of my friends went in carloads to Auckland to protest) and they chanted loudly and blew whistles and trumpets before her appearance. While she had 150-200 supporters, the protesters were far more numerous, thought to be about 2000.

Ultimately she never got to speak. A protester called Eliana Rubashkyn poured tomato juice over her hair and she was escorted away by police and security officers. Watching the events on YouTube, the mood of the crowd was angry and hostile, and it definitely looked as if the protesters outnumbered the supporters. Keen-Minshull was jostled and jeered by the protesters, and the YouTube footage shows her security team had quite a hard time getting her through the crowd to the police and safety.

Keen-Minshull decided to cancel her Wellington rally the next day, and left New Zealand instead, announcing that it was the "worst place for women she has ever visited", and apparently vowing to return to NZ to "win this war". And JK Rowling voiced support, tweeting that a mob had "had assaulted women standing up for their rights".

There was general rejoicing here; certainly among the rainbow groups. A bad lady from another country had come here to spread hate speech and was sent packing with her tail between her legs. There seemed to be general congratulation aimed at an unrepetentant Eliana Rubashkyn, who was charged with common assault but is still awaiting sentencing. No other arrests were made; no injuries were reported and no property was damaged. My impression is that the general feeling is that no great harm has been done, as this cartoon from the Otago Daily Times suggests.

But was this the right outcome after all?

One of my correspondents expressed disappointment with the way Keen-Minshull had been treated, and said she should have been allowed her platform to speak. At first, I have to say, I disagreed. However, a few things made me reflect about it a lot more.

The first was that, while trans people and supporters were in great evidence at Keen-Minshull's rally, and officials seemed to be on our side (Finance Minister Grant Robertson wrote "As a country we need to keep our trans community close, and support them through this time"), there was a sharp rise in anti-trans hatred online in this country. Was this because she was perceived to have been maltreated here? Would the hatred have been worse if she had been allowed to speak? I cannot say.

Otago Daily Times cartoon
The second thing was something JK Rowling herself said, in episode 3 of the Witch Trials podcast (which was made before Keen-Minshull's NZ trip). The italics are mine for emphasis of particular points.

Rowling: I was starting to think about this a lot, subcultures that have their own rigid rules, acceptable beliefs, non acceptable beliefs, everything becoming very reductive. (...) And I was becoming really concerned.

I think the first time I became really interested in what was going on, sort of culturally, it was Milo Yiannopoulos. The alt-right provocateur, I suppose you would call him. And I’m watching from across the pond as he tries to speak on various campuses, and there are protests, riots. You know, "We want him de-platformed, we don't want him to speak at all". And I thought it was a terrible strategic error.

And my feeling was, you are giving this man way more power than he deserves by behaving in this way. It made Milo look sexier and edgier than he deserved to look. I thought it was a strategically appalling turn. Get on that platform and eviscerate his ideas. Get on that platform and expose him for the charlatan that he is. You push back hard, but you’ve given him so much power by refusing to talk.

(...) In fact, I thought they were serving his purposes, because he was able to walk away from that saying, “Look, they don’t dare debate me! This is how dangerous and edgy I am!". And I don’t think we want to cast the alt-right in that light. But inadvertently, [that’s what they’re doing].

And this is definitely true. Immediately after returning to the UK, Keen-Minshull gave an interview with (conservative-leaning) Spectator TV, where a very sympathetic interviewer (musician Winston Marshall) gave her a very free platform, and every opportunity to spin the narrative entirely in her favour without challenge. For example, they both speak of the "violence", when there wasn't any (nothing like what happened with Milo Yiannopolous's rallies in the US). They play a clip (starting at 0:44) of Keen-Minshull being jostled by the crowd, which was filmed by her own phone. In the image, you can see a hand firmly around Keen-Minshull's neck, appearing as if she is being choked--but the NZ Herald footage shows that the hand round the neck was one of her own security guards. It makes it very easy for her to claim that she was the victim, when to trans people and our supporters, she was the aggressor.

Keen-Minshull: I don't know if some latent trauma [from these events] is going to come along and bite me soon, but I'm OK. (...) 

What they inadvertently did, they did two things. Number one they whipped up a frenzy, but the other thing they did is they told everybody my name on a repeating--like so many times that people were like "Well, what is this woman? What does she stand for? How can I-- like, why are we stopping her from coming into the country?" And then they look me up, and then they agree with what I say, and what I stand for. So it had, em, you know, they did me many favours".

Oh dear! How could it have turned out like this?

How could we have done this better?

As always in my articles, a little discussion is in order.

First, where does the name Posie Parker come from? I haven't been able to find out. I assume it's some sort of online identity, so that Keen-Minshull can't be identified, although since she has come out so publicly, everyone knows her real name and identity now anyway. So why keep it? Is it because it's plainly easier to say than Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull? Is it a play on the name Nosey Parker? I can't imagine the actress Parker Posey is all that thrilled by the potential association. If anyone knows, please post below in the comments.

Self-made martyr
Second, I am forced to agree with Keen-Minshull (and JK Rowling): by not letting her speak, we have empowered her. We have given her publicity. We have given her an enduring image: looking upset, hair covered in tomato juice (symbolic blood!). As sure as eggs is eggs, she will display that image whenever she wants to appear like she is the victim of those violent, dangerous trans activists. In short, by not allowing her to speak, we've done her "many favours".

Third, where does free speech fit into all this? In retrospect, I think the decision to allow Keen-Minshull into the country was the correct one. She has a right to freedom of movement, and freedom of speech. That freedom exists, as several government officials have pointed out, even for people whose views we may disagree with. What she is not entitled to is a platform; she is not entitled to an audience; she is not entitled to not have protesters at her events (although clearly the protesters seem to energise her). NZ Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, would not respond directly to her comments, except to say that he thought they were the "comments of someone who just wants to get a headline", and I think he is right.

How could we have done it better? I'm not sure. In retrospect, it's always clearer to consider what we should have done. If nobody had made a fuss, and Keen-Minshull had turned up to a crowd of twenty people with placards, and given a speech, and then nobody would really have taken much notice. Instead, she got a large jolt of publicity in her favour.

I think it's right to protest against speech we disagree with. JK Rowling's solution is "Get on that platform and eviscerate his ideas. Get on that platform and expose him for the charlatan that he is." That sounds so easy; so reasonable. But Keen-Minshull didn't come here for a debate! She didn't come here to listen to opposing views, consider them respectfully, and potentially modify her opinions--and she certainly didn't plan to share her platform with her opponents. Instead, she came to stir up trouble. It was made very clear to her that she was not welcome, and she chose to come anyway.

And she's vowing to come back to "win this war"--a war that she, and people like her, are perpetuating, rather than suing for peace. Instead of listening, debating, discussing, they are on the offensive. We cannot simply ignore her: she is too vocal now; too well-known online; too active, and with quite a large following. How can one counter an adversary, civilly and with dignity, who isn't being either civilised or dignified? It's an election year, so it's very likely that the government--and the opposition--will be very careful to try to position themselves favourably on issues of both trans rights and free speech.

I have no easy answers; feel free to add your own in the comments.