But how I handle it is up to me.
Is the author of the Harry Potter series really a transphobe?
We haven’t heard a peep from JK Rowling since the Twitter storm erupted just before Christmas. She defended Maya Forstater, a feminist who was fired from a think tank for tweeting her opinion that because of biology, “male people aren’t women”—adding that gender nonconformists shouldn’t be discriminated against. Rowling’s tweet defended the right of transgender people to live as they choose, while also saying Forstater shouldn’t have been fired for saying that sex is biological.
I’m not here to weigh in on this debate—except to note the lack of nuance, which Twitter disincentivizes. Instead, I want to focus on transgender activists anger over feeling judged as frauds.
Eye for an eye
Activists responded with judgments of their own: Rowling and Forstater are bigots.
Judgments come in many forms. Some judgments are negative evaluations of your tastes. “You listen to Hank Williams, Jr.? Are you a hick or something?” But it’s of no consequence, so we’ll both probably laugh about it. Other judgments are about performance. “Your report is not up to company standards.” That might cause your heart to drop into your stomach. But there should be objective criteria to evaluate the claim. And if true, corrective action can be taken.
But that’s not what happened to JK Rowling. Like being called a sinner, accusations of bigotry are moral judgments. It reflects neither on your tastes, which are subjective; nor skills, which can be improved. It reflects on you as a person—on your character. And moral judgments threaten social exclusion.
Everyone knows the common moral judgments: you’re a dick, you’re a pussy, you’re an asshole. But the judgment and social exclusion transgender people face is worse. Being labeled crazy or perverted can cause friends to abandon you. And since the last quarter of the twentieth century, charges of bigotry are serious enough to lose friends and jobs.
Stoic teacher Epictetus is famous for saying that we have no control over anything except our deliberate choices. And he added that it follows that we should know what does and does not belong to us. If it’s not ours, leave it be; if it is ours, then protect it. That, in my view, is what healthy boundaries are all about.
Judgments are felt as insults. But we have no control over other people’s actions. We will face judgments and insults—it’s a matter of when, not if. Expecting it diminishes its sting.
No harm, no foul
The Stoics also taught that insults only cause harm if you believe you’ve been harmed. In other words, your judge hasn’t harmed you—you have harmed yourself.
If the judgment is true (even if delivered with ill intent), then taking corrective action is more productive than taking offense.
But if the judgment is false then it’s nonsense, and there’s no point in getting upset over nonsense. The judgment will cause an initial reaction, but Epictetus said we can learn to recognize this and nip it in the bud: “This is an impression, and not at all what it seems to be.” Other people might believe the judgment and still think ill of us, but we don’t control other people’s opinions.
Besides, retaliation will only escalate things, dragging you down to their level. The best revenge, according to Marcus Aurelius, is not to be like your enemy. Responding with kindness is the best option. After all, defensiveness and anger are self-indulgent, but kindness requires self-control.
Marcus adds that most people think that what they’re doing is right and simply fail to understand that their behavior is unethical. Being the change you want to see works better than judging that person’s behavior. Or if we do need to say something, focusing on the consequence of the behavior will produce a better result than attacking someone’s character.
Don’t even go there
Not giving offense in the first place, however, is the best way to avoid negative judgments. This doesn’t mean walking on eggshells. Marcus also advises us not to bother trying to please people who can’t be pleased.
But the distinction between what’s ours and what isn’t ours is important here. Someone else’s identity isn’t mine, so if someone says she’s a transgender woman then it’s sufficient for me to say that she identifies as a woman. I don’t need to further evaluate her identity.
On the other hand, I have no obligation to call Forstater or Rowling bigots. Their hearts don’t belong to me, so I don’t know what is or isn’t there. It’s sufficient to note that saying “male people are not women” will offend many people and so carries obvious risks. How Forstater and Rowling handle accusations of bigotry is not up to me, except to say that I choose not to pile on.