February 2024
Identity in The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling

"The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling" suggests much about human identity. Some of its deeper assumptions are emblematic of a culture that has embraced the subjective and is struggling to find a place for objective truth.

The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper, has garnered much attention in my circles, and for good reasons. It's a thoughtful, well-researched show with plenty of interviews to add color and personal depth to the unfolding narrative. What's that narrative about? In one sense, it's about the transgender movement, and the host's journey toward understanding it, even as it's wrapped up in a fierce response to public comments made by the author J.K. Rowling. In another sense, it's about the most fundamental question humanity has ever asked: Who am I? That watershed question is then poured into the subcategories of sex and gender, revealing the ways public discourse and social media can play into the perception (good or bad) of both public figures and mass movements. The question I had at the end of the show is simple but pivotal for discussions of identity: what objective components of identity are we willing to grant, and what are our grounds for granting them? Put differently, what is the authority on which we can claim any sort of distinct identity as meaningful in a world that is constantly changing? When I say "meaningful" here, think of this in terms of having "stable value"an illumined worth that cannot be snuffed out by the tides of change.

About the Show

I won't attempt to summarize the show. I commend it to anyone who is curious about the transgender movement and wants to hear a discussion that balances both sides of the debate (those in favor of and those opposed to the transgender movement).

But while I won't summarize it, I will say it's important to remember that no piece of media, even one carrying the allegedly "objective" stance of journalism, is strictly neutral. There is always a sway or leaning to a piece of media. What's presented is always a perspective. And because perspectives are, by nature, vantage points from which we can't see everything, they must be partial. And that partial element always leans to one side or another. For me, this show leans toward accepting the transgender movement as basically valid. It also brings a critical eye to bear on the confidence people have in certain conservative or religious values. This comes out most clearly in the host's own story. She is open throughout the show about leaving her fundamentalist Baptist faith and criticizing both its cultural engagement and its doctrinal or religious certainty.

While the host does a good job of offering sympathy for what is deemed to be a conservative position by J.K. Rowling (who advocates for the validity of biology in determining gender and has significant concerns about the transgender movement), I believe the show ends up subtly affirming the transgender movement as something that is, for the most part, misunderstood by conservatives who are often seeking out evil where it doesn't exist. Hence the theme of "witch trials," which ends up being as much of a jab at traditional perceptions of sexuality and gender as it is a critique of those attacking Rowling. Anyone who is not yet understood by the broader culture could very well end up being a "witch," whether that's Rowling, transgender people, or anyone else marginalized for not fitting into expected norms. In this respect, the show sends a positive message: we should be gracious, careful, and sympathetic whenever we interact with those who are different from us.

But what I want to discuss in this article is its message and assumptions about identity.

Identity: A Strange and Wild Beast

The difficult thing about discussing identity, as a friend recently reminded me, is that there is so much involved. And yet people are prone to being reductionistic. We aim to make identity one thing, filling in the blank for "I am _____." In reality, it's never that simple. People are much more than their claim to be a certain gender, sexual preference, passion, trade, or family role. That doesn't diminish the importance of any of these areas; it just serves as a reminder that we tend to oversimplify things, and we let that oversimplification distort or block out our perception of other important elements.

If I met a stranger on the street, for instance, and that person claimed to be a trans-woman and then walked away, I would still say I know very little about that person, despite the individual's ardent claim: "This is who I am." To know people, to have some grasp of their identity, requires awareness of more than one facet of human experience. Deep down, I believe most people know this.

For this reason, "identity" is a strange and wild beast to define. It has so many angles and facets to explore that we can't possibly reduce any person's identity to only one of them. Looking at even a brief history of selfhood and identity has led world-renowned scholars such as Charles Taylor to write books over 500 pages long (Sources of the Self). Whenever we talk about identity in the form of expressions such as "I am X," we carry very little with us and leave very much behind.

Whenever we talk about identity in the form of expressions such as "I am X," we carry very little with us and leave very much behind.

This is critical when we consider how identity is treated in The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. While no one makes the explicit claim that identity is found primarily in gender or sexuality, this is the only issue in focus. And because that's the case, we might miss things that are very important to human identity. We also overlook some things that the host, for better or worse, chose to leave behind in her discussions and interviews, things that I would classify as "deep assumptions." The best way to get at these assumptions is to consider the objective and subjective elements of human identity for Western culture, and the haze that results in our understanding of ourselves when we focus only on the subjective, which may very well be the bane of popular Western discussions on identity.

The Objective, the Subjective, and the Haze

The Objective

One of the reasons we're so deeply concerned about human identity is that we crave stability. In another article, I talk about the stable, dynamic, and relational elements of identity using the language theory of one of my favorite thinkers (Kenneth Pike). But here, let me explore that stable component by using the language of "objectivity." 

An objective component of identity is something that holds no matter what other people say about it. For example, it's an objective fact that I'm breathing oxygen right now. Contrary opinions have no effect on that. Debate does not change the reality. And neither does time. Oxygen intake is an immoveable biological facet of what it means to be human.

But what other objective facets are there to our identity as human beings? This is where the debates begin. As a Christian, I claim that being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) is a foundational, objective ground for identity. Apart from being made by a purposeful and personal God, we have no lasting purpose, meaning, or value. And, yes, I believe that one of the implications of being made in God's image is that we are created as male and female. The distinction has a beautiful and harmonious function in God's construction and shepherding of the human race. It also has enormous thematic implications for the rest of the Bible, which teaches that, from eternity past, the Father, Son, and Spirit planned to set apart a bride for God's Son. That bride is the church. So, the male/female distinction is not just important on a human level; it's important on the divine-human level, since God uses language that assumes this distinction to describe the relationship between Christ and his church. But even for people who reject the Christian faith or consider themselves atheists or agnostics, a real and inerasable male/female distinction is what allows us to even speak about gender. And it sets up categorical distinctions that line the bedrock of every society.

Now, I know many people disagree with me. They think some biblical teaching about "imaging God" has nothing to do with being human. "Why even bring God into this? Can't we just talk about humans?" Well, no. But that's another discussion.

What I found fascinating in The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling was that there was no objective component to identity universally recognized. Rowling was criticized for claiming that women are biologically defined at birth, which would be an objective component to genderidentity. But that component is challenged by the transgender community. Biology, they claim, is not a fixed component for identity. There can be women "trapped" in men's bodies, and men "trapped" in women's bodies. The solution in these cases is to alter biology to match the psychological claim of the individual. Rowling tries to allow for this as a genuine possibility for some people, but in doing so she undermines her own basic commitment to gender as biologically defined.

Some people wonder why this objective component to identity even matters? Can't we just leave things open-ended when it comes to identity? Well, we could, but it would end up sabotaging the thing we crave most: stability. While there are outliers who might revel in the idea of constantly changing identities, the majority of people simply want to know who they are—not just for today or this year or this decade, but for life. And they need some awareness of this in order to judge whether they are known and loved by others. Since I believe that being fully known and fully loved are the deepest human desires (something I discuss in Insider-Outsider), we can't achieve them or even make progress if we don't have any stable, objective sense to who we are. Without a stable element to identity, we drift and wander as lost souls, incapable of finding fulfillment or meaning or direction. And that is precisely because we cannot be fully known or fully loved if we're never "fully" ourselves. This doesn't mean we don't change and develop as human beings. We certainly do! But there are components to our identity that don't. The question is, how do we determine those?

For orthodox Christians, the ultimate objective source for identity is the speech of God in Scripture. We know who we are, what we're meant to do, and how we're meant to develop and grow by reading God's authoritative words to his people. This is an interesting intersection for Christian listeners of this podcast. Megan Phelps-Roper tells Rowling in the final episode that there are two basic premises she never questioned for herself. And those two basic premises led her to partake in what she describes as an ugly, wrong, and hurtful campaign of Christian protest against elements of secular culture: (1) the belief that the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God, and (2) the belief that her own community's interpretation of that word was correct. This was fascinating to me as a Christian for two reasons.

First, I wondered for both Rowling and Phelps-Roper, "What is your objective authority for identity if it is not the Bible?" There answer is not, "I don't have one anymore." There can be substitutes for objective authority, but not vacancies. For Rowling, biology plays an important role. But that didn't appear to be the case for Phelps-Roper, who gently pushed back on Rowling's position (nor was it the case for transgender extremists, who pushed back really hard!). My guess is that Phelps-Roper's new objective authority is some form of humanism. Humanism, according to the American Humanist Association, is "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good." A hallmark of humanism is logical inquiry, the continual asking of questions and a willingness to alter or even upend previous conclusions based on that continuing inquiry. Humanism, in other words, is not a system especially focused on changeless objectivity, though it certainly has a place for "natural laws" and "natural reason." Detached from all things supernatural, it is a system of "aspiring," of constantly changing or growing in understanding. While elements of humanism are certainly laudable, humanism ends up being insufficient for determining the objective characteristics of something like human identity. It may be proud of its naturalism and reasoning, but when those things are relegated to the immanent world and reject transcendent authority (God), they keep changing their expressions, updating things with scientific progress. Humanists a hundred years ago would have claimed that there are only two genders. But now, with the progress of science and medicine, we know better. But do we?

This is precisely why our (broadly) humanistic societies in the modern West keep changing definitions for gender and accepted expressions of sexuality. Humanism leaves things open to constant change. That may sound like relativism, but relativism doesn't pretend to have stable values the way that humanism does. (I say "pretend" here not in jest, but because I believe that no stable values exist except transcendent ones.) This sense of humanistic progress is what allows many people to accept something like the transgender movement. It seems to be a natural consequence of our continued understanding of gender and sexuality, taken in stride with science and modern medicine. But because it lacks true objectivity as a goal and cannot provide lasting standards amidst a changing world, it is unequipped to provide the stability needed for identity. And so things keep changing.

There can be substitutes for objective authority, but not vacancies.

Second, given the first question I had, my second one is, "What is to keep things from continually changing and redefining your basic terms, such as 'man' and 'woman'?" And the answer to that question, I believe, is "nothing." Without any objective component to identity, gender and sexuality are fluid by nature. As I'll argue below, there's nothing to keep people from arguing that they are . . . well, whatever they want to be, including a wolf or a dolphin. And Rowling put her finger on this problem in one of the interviews. She noticed that if we can no longer determine what it means to be a male or female given the gender fluidity gaining influence, then how can we even study and measure human experience? Rowling brought up studies of sexual violence between men and women. But she quickly realized that those studies would be impossible to carry out if there is not a real, objective difference between men and women. When she said this, I thought, "Yes, human societies are built upon basic distinctions that uphold frameworks of relationships and accompanying values. If the man/woman distinction is removed, much of Western culture would begin to crumble. Something new would have to be built in its place." Rowling certainly wasn't open to that rebuilding. And, frankly, I don't think it's possible to restructure all of human society without having a clear, objective difference between men and women. That sort of restructuring would require a complete reboot of culture and Western civilization as we know it. And I just don't see the support for something that drastic.

Put simply, we need objectivity for identity. For Christians, that involves both biology as created by God and a set of God-given values and purposes for human life. Many have argued that the values and purposes for life found in humanism are actually untenable if Christianity is rejected (see Andrew Wilson's Remaking the World and Glen Scrivener's The Air We Breathe). That's another discussion. But without the objectivity, subjectivity is anemic and listless.

The Subjective

When I say "subjective," I'm talking about each human being as a personal subject. If the objective is something that holds no matter what people say or think about it, then the subjective is the realm where what we think and say has primary importance. And modern Western culture is thoroughly subjective. I would argue it tends to be so subjective that the objective is falling off the radar entirely. Let me offer two terms to get at this.

Western contemporary culture, like a piece of grizzled meat, is marbled through with expressivism and psychologized identity. Expressivism, which Carl Trueman and others trace back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, means "that the individual is most authentic when acting out in public those desires and feelings that characterize his inner psychological life" (The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, p. 125). This is related to the common statement of people in the transgender community who say things like, "I always felt deep inside that I was a man/woman." Deep inner feelings have come to be determinative of gender identity. What's troubling is that questioning those feelings has come to be viewed as a sort of hate speech. This is precisely what J.K. Rowling was caught up in, with the constant threats of violence and harm hurled at her on social media by radical members of the transgender community. And that happened because identity has become psychologized.

Psychologized identity means that my "satisfaction and meaningauthenticityare now found by an inward turn, and the culture is reconfigured to this end. Indeed, it must now serve the purpose of meeting my psychological needs; I must not tailor my psychological needs to the nature of society, for that would create anxiety and make me inauthentic" (The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, p. 54). And, perhaps most distressing to someone in Rowling's position, for those following this psychologized identity model, "psychology trumps biology" (p. 369). Who I say I am on the inside is more important than what my body says I am on the outside. You can see how this collapses the biological distinction between men and women.

The problem with these two terms joining arms in Western culture is that it precludes our ability to have civil discourse about identity, which has long been the hallmark of democratic societies. Rowling expressed fear at hearing the chants of radical transgender protestors, "No debate! No debate!" By this, they meant that their identity as trans men or trans women is not something to debate. The conversation is closed. The door to dialogue has been bolted. And if you try to pry that door open to ask questions . . . well, how dare you.

The vehemence Rowling met just by questioning the ability of a man to become a woman is jaw-dropping. And, as she remarked in an interview, it's eerily reminiscient of the fascism that she and other feminists were accused of modeling. To force the public to accept something without consent and without dialogue is textbook fascisma political ideology that uses power and threats of violence to suppress the protest of those who oppose its political or cultural liberalism. Based on her experience, I would say that Rowling has more than ample cause to be alarmed. Where dialogue is damned, danger is adjoining.

Where dialogue is damned, danger is adjoining.

But the broader problem with this increased focus on subjectivity in determining identity is that it's fundamentally false. Why? Because identity cannot be restricted to the internal realm. Humans are dialogical and relational creatures. No one in the history of humanity has ever identified himself in pure isolation from others. It's simply not possible. Carl Trueman wrote in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, "individual personal identity is not ultimately an internal monologue conducted in isolation by an individual self-consciousness. On the contrary, it is a dialogue between self-conscious beings. We know ourselves as we know other people" (p. 56). Charles Taylor wrote long before that, "One is a self only among other selves. A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it" (Sources of the Self, p. 35). Purely self-defined identity is an illusion. We define ourselves in relation to others. And that means we cannot discount what others think about identity when we claim our own. Dialogue is indispensable. Chants for "No debate!" are chants for authoritarianism, a concept that Rowling repeatedly claims her Harry Potter books go against.

In the end, we need both objective and subjective components for identity. This isn't a matter of choosing. The objective gives us stability and meaning. The subjective gives us uniqueness and room to grow. Dialogue with others is a critical tool that brings us to a deeper understanding of both components. There can and likely always will be disagreement in that dialogue. But to shut the dialogue down would be an act of self-sabotage for the human race.

The Haze

Now, let me draw all of this to a close. What happens when a culture leaves behind the objective and dives headlong into the subjective, as I believe Western contemporary culture has? The short answer: the haze. Haze does a few thingsit blocks our vision; it clouds our awareness of where we are; and it makes it hard for us to breathe. Take those three points just for a moment and apply them to the myriad discussions on identity across the web and on nearly every social media platform.

  • Blocked vision: When people are fixated on the subjective, it keeps them from seeing other people and any ideas that might challenge what's going on inside them. Blindness is not just a physical problem; it's an ailment of the human mind and heart. The theologian John Calvin used a phrase for this: incurvatus in se, "curved in on ourselves." The more we direct our gaze inward, the less we see of others. And others are vital to our self-understanding. We are relational creatures who need others in order to understand ourselves. And I would claim that the greatest "other" we need to hear from is God himself. It was John Calvin who argued that we could not understand anything about ourselves until we gazed upon God (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.1.1-2).
  • Clouded awareness: Without considering the objective components of identity, we start to lose an awareness of where we are. I say "where we are" in terms of history and geography. Many people in the modern West, for instance, have almost no awareness of what people think, say, or experience on the other side of the globe. This is matched by an ignorance of history and its major thought leaders. Most people, for instance, have never even heard of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or thought about how the theory of Sigmund Freud has impacted contemporary understandings of what it means to be a human. In other words, they don't know where they are in history. And that's a deathblow to understanding, sympathy, and an awareness of the consequences our ideas have. The longer we go in this ignorance, the more likely we'll be to repeat sad episodes in cultural history.
  • Labored breathing: Clean air is vital to life. In the realm of beliefs and ideas, clean air comes from convictions rooted in some stable authority. Stable convictions help us breathe when the events around us seem to swirl into smoky chaos. We need to know what we believe is right, true, and worth living for. Many people in the modern West don't have that because stable convictions lie in objective truth. People today may have convictions that could be tied to a moral framework, but it would be hard to voice these convictions, let alone make decisions based on them. And so the labored breathing sets inthe difficulty we have each day in simply finding enough clarity on basic issues to make room for things like thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. Without finding clean air to breath based on our convictions, we will continue to struggle to be decent human beings to those around us. We'll be trapped in the subjective self.

Where Next?

In some ways, this article is a plea for people in the public discussions to start thinking about the objective components of identity. In that sense, the way the podcast ended, with the host admitting to questioning (and perhaps leaving behind) her own fundamental premises of Christian belief, was not liberating or comforting to me, as I imagine it would be for some listeners. It made me ask the deeper questions: If you've given up your objective foundation for morals, standards, and values, what is going to take its place? Again, the answer to that question is never, "Nothing." Not being given an answer to that question made me think that the host herself might be withdrawing into the subjective, along with the broader culture. And if that's the case, while there might be a phase of popular acceptance among people with differences in modern Western culture, that phase will fade because it cannot silence the deeper questions that need answering, the questions that really distinguish one human being from another and give us each lasting purpose and meaning.

Perhaps the greatest questions left unanswered by the host and the interviewees are the following. All listeners to the podcast would do well to answer these questions for themselves.

  • What makes something "right," and what makes something "wrong"? Who makes the final decision when people disagree?
  • What does it mean to "love" someone else?
  • What is the basic purpose human beings have in this fleeting breath of a life? 

I look forward to having conversations about those deeper questions. The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling certainly provoked many of them. But I'm afraid it leaves the deeper, foundational stones unturned. And if we don't turn them over, our conversations will never be as meaningful and powerful as they could be.

Want to learn more about identity and the human longing to be fully known and fully loved? Check out Insider-Outsider.

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