You Can’t Fight J.K. Rowling With Misogyny Without Fueling Her Talking Points

Last week, YouTuber Ian “Vaush” Kochinski, a left-wing YouTube personality, harshly condemned J.K. Rowling’s transphobia by directing misogynist rhetoric at her. In doing so, he provided a good example of why using bigotry against bigots is a poor way to advance equality or justice for marginalized people.

Rowling, tweeting on International Women’s Day, made a grotesque argument against a Scottish bill that would make it easier for trans people to have their legal documents fit their gender. Vaush responded by writing “All JK Rowling had to do was shut the f*** up and she could have been almost uncritically beloved for like a century. Women be quieter and start apologizing challenge.”

Vaush’s “joke” that women need to talk less fits into ugly misogynist tropes. Vaush thought he was being funny and ironic, and shaming Rowling by targeting her gender. However, there are at least two main reasons why this approach is ineffective and immoral.

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The first, and less important one, is that it gives the target a chance to play the victim and shift the conversation away from their own bad behavior and bigotry.

All bigots like to engage in projection and reversal and claim that they are victims. That’s certainly the case for transphobes and TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who constantly claim that trans women are predators. This despite the fact that there is no evidence that trans women attack women in bathrooms, to refute one common slanderous and inflammatory version of this myth.

Rowling herself loves to push the trans predator myth; she wrote an entire novel portraying a trans woman as a serial killer in line with influential transphobic thrillers like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs.

And sure enough, Rowling quickly quote-tweeted Vaush’s misogynist response to her. She compared him to her violent ex-husband, suggesting that trans advocates are the same as violent abusers.

TERFs, transphobes, and bigots will claim to be attacked no matter how gently people ask them to stop being TERFs, transphobes and bigots. Still, advocates don’t need to feed into these narratives by using bigotry themselves and handing the bad actors a propaganda victory that could be used to sway the uncommitted or uncertain. Even people who support trans rights are likely to look at Vaush’s tweet and find themselves acknowledging that Rowling is right; it’s misogynist. When pointing out Rowling’s transphobia, you don’t want to push people of good faith into a position of agreeing with her on any point.

That brings us to the more important problem with Vaush’s approach. Normalizing misogynist slurs, especially normalizing them as a weapon that men can use against women, harms all women, including trans women. Tolerating or encouraging misogyny—even ironically, even against one’s enemies—doesn’t create better coalitions for women. After all, what happens if men like Vaush decide, for whatever reason, that a particular woman is no longer an ally? Is that woman suddenly a worthy target for misogyny?

You can see this dynamic play out in response to Vaush’s tweet. Women are likely to be less comfortable with misogyny than men; they are the ones most likely to protest when misogyny is used by men. Some leading trans women YouTubers, including Natalie Wynn (Contrapoints) and Kat Blaque pointed out that misogyny, even aimed at transphobes, doesn’t necessarily make trans women feel safe or defended. Vaush doubled down and quadrupled down, and soon several trans women were swamped with Vaush’s 200k followers spouting aggressive accusations and insults.

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Vaush claims he wanted to advocate for trans women. Instead, he allowed J.K. Rowling to win an argument with him in a damaging way, and then encouraged multiple dogpiles on trans women.

Using misogyny is bad in itself; it’s wrong to direct sexism against any woman, even if they are terrible people. But beyond morality, Vaush’s failure here demonstrates that using bigotry in this way is simply counterproductive. You end up aiding your enemies and harming those you claim to want to help.

Vaush is not the first person to demonstrate that you can’t use the Ring of Power against Sauron. So why do people of supposed goodwill keep rushing up to grab bigotry and fondle it and call it “my precious”?

As Gollum knows, picking up the ring gives you a pleasurable rush. Lots of people enjoy the thrill of thumping an enemy, and leveraging bigotry or stigma against your enemy can feel especially brutal or violent. Using bigotry against bigots feels proportional and righteous; it feels empowering. And, as the success of the MCU demonstrates, people really like empowerment fantasies.

The success of the MCU also demonstrates that people will pay a lot for empowerment fantasies. That means that being a jerk for the left can be lucrative. Cable news figures like Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher, podcasters like Chapo Trap House, and YouTubers like Vaush elaborately bash right-wing figures for a paying audience. They can’t make as much as right-wing bigots; with the right’s massive ecosystem and bottomless unscrupulousness. But they can often make more than they might if they adopted a more sober and responsible approach.

The result is that a significant number of people on the left have emotional and financial incentives not to listen when trans women tell them that targeting Rowling with misogyny is not necessarily helpful. They instead have incentives to attack trans women or other marginalized people who object. Which is again, a big part of the problem.

Empowerment fantasies aren’t evil in themselves. Telling bad people they suck can be cathartic and can help lift spirits and rally resistance. You don’t want to get to the point where the empowerment fantasies eat you like that Ring of Power, though. The goal shouldn’t be to thump bigots with bigotry. It should be a world where no one gets thumped with bigotry, and everyone is equal, safe, and free.

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.