JK Rowling’s handprints outside the City Chambers are cleaned after they were covered with red paint (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
This article was first published in The Scotsman on 1st August 2020.
We are all familiar with the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I recited it to myself, endlessly, while being bullied in the school playground.
And as a mature woman, on the bus to work, I whispered the incantation every morning before clocking on to face another day of misery. This time at the hands of a younger woman whose harsh words were chosen with precision. When I left, almost broken, she moved on to another victim.
I learned at eight-years-old that words do hurt, and that their pain can last far longer than any injury caused by sticks and stones.
But words also have the power to heal. To change minds, as well as close them. Words can inspire us to greatness or urge us on to evil. Make us laugh. Cry. Fall in love. And vote for change.
‘Life shaped by being female’
No-one knows the power of words better than JK Rowling. Her magical ability to craft another world from nothing more than words on a page made her very rich. More than that, she created a generation of book readers and inspired a legion of women, heartened by her grit in the face of poverty, single parenthood and a sceptical publishing industry.
And she proved herself a hero again recently when she joined the increasingly nasty debate around transgender rights. Choosing her words carefully, she explained that biological sex is real and has “lived consequences” for women and girls across the world.
“I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them,” she wrote. “I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”
But many did choose to find her words hateful. In the strange world we now inhabit, where an American President can threaten democracy with a single sentence and once-revered progressives are dubbed right-wing for expressing an ancient, immutable truth – that women are adult human females – JK Rowling became a pariah overnight.
So much so that earlier this week, a poster with the simple slogan ‘I Love JK Rowling’ was removed from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station by its owners, Network Rail, after a young man complained. The reason? It was too political.
Expressing admiration for a woman who changed the world for the better is now, it seems, akin to hate speech.
A response to ‘cancel culture’
This clumsy, cowardly attempt to stifle free speech is why a group of women will gather – socially distanced of course – on Edinburgh’s Mound tomorrow at 2pm to speak out about their personal experience of censorship in recent months.
The event has been organised by campaign group For Women Scotland. It is “a response to so-called “cancel culture” which has seen women from all walks of life censored, fired or threatened simply for affirming their legal rights”, explains Susan Smith, one of the group’s convenors.
“We want to send a message that this is unacceptable in a democratic society. Women will share their experiences of harassment and the repercussions they have faced, financially or professionally, and discuss the concerning rise in misogyny and abuse – which is now seen as unremarkable in some quarters, including Government and tax-payer funded bodies.”
And she warns that the Scottish Government’s new Hate Crime Bill – which, if passed, will create new offences in “stirring up hatred” in relation to age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and race – may harm women.
“As it stands, (the bill) offers no protection for women from the most repellent and graphic abuse,” says Smith. “It does, however, risk criminalising women.
“Anti-women groups and activists have complained that everything from discussions about menstruation, FGM and the menopause, to feminists trying to rent a room in a women’s library, to a poster expressing love for Scotland’s most famous author is “hateful”.
“So, we are desperately concerned that malicious complaints – resulting in personal and financial trauma – will make Scotland a difficult and dangerous place to support women’s rights or even talk about uniquely female social or physical needs.”
She would say that wouldn’t she, but even that bastion of the Scottish establishment, the Law Society, warns that the bill in its present form “could threaten freedom of expression.”
The right to disagree
Hate speech, as defined by the United Nations, is the use of discriminatory words on the basis of someone’s “religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor”. It should be intolerable in any free society.
Free speech – the right to hold an opinion and express it, and to challenge the opinion of others – is an essential element of any democracy.
Put simply, I may disagree vehemently with Humza Yousaf, the Justice Minister and author of the Hate Crime Bill, on nationalism, but he has the right to hold his view.
Just as women have the right to say that that a transwoman is not an adult, female human without risking their career, reputation, or even injury.
So perhaps Mr Yousaf could spend what is left of his summer holidays reviewing his hate speech bill to ensure that it supports free speech, not suppresses it. And that it follows the UN’s example and includes protection for women, not just transgender folk.
My generation, which fell in love with David Bowie when he wore dresses, thought we had won the battle for freedom of expression.
We put God Save the Queen to the top of the charts when the BBC banned it. Marched against racism, campaigned for equal marriage and against Section 28, argued for an end to the misogynist culture that kept women in their place, barefoot and pregnant.
It has come as a shock that our belief in free speech, equality and fairness are considered out of date. That our defence of feminism is “right-wing” and “exclusionary.”
It is hard to stomach that our very use of the word woman is seen as discriminatory. That we cannot express our admiration for one of the world’s most famous and talented women without being dubbed provocative. And that our government does not see fit to protect us against hate speech.
Bullies come in many guises, from chubby girls with plaits to woke blokes on Twitter spitting abuse from the safety of their iPhones.
And their words do hurt, sometimes with unbearable pain. But it is worth recalling another old aphorism: That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.
For more information on For Women Scotland’s event: https://forwomen.scot/public-meetings/