If You Never Change Your Mind, Why Have One?
A think piece about extremism, cancel culture, and the power of conversation: brought on after listening to the Witch Trials of JKR podcast with Megan Phelps-Roper.
“The language of public life has lost the character of generosity.” -Marilynne Robinson
Ask any author what career success in the writing industry looks like and they’ll point to Joanne (or JK) Rowling’s. However, the said career of hers has never been without strong and deeply-personal controversy.
In the late nineties, Rowling was labeled as a propellor of satan by the Christian church for writing the Harry Potter series. Their argument: witchcraft and magic had no place corrupting a child’s mind. The narrative was considered not only sinful, but evil. Her books were continually burned in cult-like ceremonies. People proposed bomb-threats at her novel signings and wrote counter books depicting why Harry Potter was dangerous to read. Believe it or not, evidence came out showing that even the Bush administration was withholding her high-profile YA Author awards because of the Potter books perceived immorale against Christian values.
After ‘Team Harry Potter’ won several cases defending against Christian groups who wanted Potter to be removed from public school libraries, the fiction series set a judicial precedent that kept and still keeps LGBT books from being banned in public schools today. Rowling gained even more clout from liberal communities for this feat. From which, she already had plenty.
Flashing forward to twenty-twenty, JK Rowling is in the news for making a statement against treating gender and sex as synonymous. She claimed it unraveled progress in the gay rights and women’s rights movements. While the first statement was made in juxtaposition to sports, the commentary immediately exploded in the public eye and on her controversial Twitter. Society quickly labeled Rowling as deeply transphobic. If not more poorly timed, Joanne Rowling’s new book release followed shortly after, which debuted her first attempt at writing a trans-character (under one of her many pseudonyms: Robert Galbraith).
In twenty-twenty, it felt like everyone was falling off the pedestal. Rowling got “canceled” amongst many that year, deeming her prior success as nothing more than a shame.
What I found most interesting about all of this, was that conservative Christian groups that were burning Rowling’s books less than ten/fifteen years ago and condemning her the devil, now celebrated her as an right wing icon. Members of the LGTBQ community were getting their once beloved Potter-inspired tattoos removed. Like many things in twenty-twenty, an intense and un-backdown-able reaction came out from each side. Except this time, they were swapping idols across enemy lines. Or dare I say, the most infidelitous action of all, were people changing their minds?
So many people got “cancelled” in twenty-twenty, enabled by a culture that I partook in, I lost count of who was on what side of what. Until The Witch Trials.
The Witch Trials of JKR
Three years later (2023), one of my favorite journalists came out with a podcast called The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. If you know anything about the journalist, Megan Phelps-Roper, you know this is a jaw-dropping combination of women on the opposite sides of cancel-culture.
Who is Phelps-Roper?
I was first introduced to Megan through my favorite journal called The Free Press. Their promise?
“You won’t agree with everything we run and we think that’s exactly the point.”
They’re not lying. FP journalists come from starkly-contrasted perspectives. All well-written and well thought through, more often than not I find myself really enjoying the pieces I read here. Even (and especially) the ones I’d never traditionally agree with.
Of these is Megan Phelps-Roper.
Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Her grandfather, Fred Phelps Sr., was almost-always hated in the Kansas area. First, for his civil-rights activism as a lawyer in the 1960s. Then later, his founding of an extremist church that dogmatically shocked the world with offensive hate-speech and picketing. Specifically toward the gay community and American soldiers. Megan Phelps-Roper was indoctrinated into this hyperbolistic practice (already picketing with hate speech at age 4) and believed that she, a member of the church, was chosen by God up until age twenty-six. In 2013, she left the church and was offered grace by mainstream society out of this widely-cancelled group. She’s now a public writer and speaker against extremism of all kinds, fighting to restore the damage she’s done.
If you’ve never been introduced to Megan Phelps-Roper, you should acquaint yourself with this video here:
When Cancel-Cultures Collide:
The combination of Megan Phelps-Roper and JK Rowling shocked me because these were two people on opposite sides of cancel culture. Megan, who was born into one of America’s most hated churches, escaped the blacklist into America’s good graces. (If you don’t believe me, read through some of the comments on the above video). JK Rowling however, had fallen off a woke-media pedestal to become a woman who was now modernly portrayed as nothing more than an English-American regret.
And the two are sitting down together in conversation? I found this fascinating. So I had to listen…
NOTE: I’m not going to divulge any of my own political assumptions about the Witch Trials of JKR podcast, but if you find yourself interested you can find it linked here. While I had my own assumptions going into Episode 1, I learned alot in the series and feel it changed a few of my prior perspectives, especially on the power of conversation.
You’re already halfway through this article! If you haven’t already, please consider making my day and subscribing! We can keep this good thing going :-)
Are We Certain or Are We Just Dehumanizing?
One of the key points I found myself interested in after listening to the Witch Trials was found at the end of episode 2. In it, Phelps-Roper and Rowling are discussing the idea of certainty.
In a nutshell, JKR goes on to say that the times when we should trust ourselves the least is when we’re 100% certain about something. In fact, Phelps-Roper directs the conversation back to The Harry Potter series:
“One of the early themes of the (Potter) books is that if you want to figure out the truth - you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. That your prejudices can betray you. And that your first judgement might not be accurate…And with that in mind, there’s eventually a clear sense of right and wrong.”
Megan Phelps-Roper on The Witch Trials of JKR
JKR goes onto respond to this commentary by saying that the enemy in the Harry Potter books (Voldemort) has been able to achieve his evil/coldness by dehumanizing himself. Without this removed level of human reality, he wouldn’t have been able to become such a darkness. And even so, that JKR (the author) refused to label any of her characters as good or bad. Instead, she just said they’re multidimensional - each with their own experience that has shaped their current world view into what they see as their own version of “right.”
While I’ve never read the Potter books myself, I found this message compelling. Especially considering JKR’s ‘nail in the coffin’ was a charged debate on Twitter that she voluntarily engaged (and still engages) in - a platform where JKR now receives daily death threats. Hearing the commentary was surprisingly interesting.
In an entirely separate interview with a journalist, Megan goes on to compare today’s social media culture to her days picketing at Westboro Baptist Church. She even asks “Are we becoming Westboro?”
This idea was, in a sense, if we believe that we’re 100% right about anything then we’re completely intolerant of engaging in conversation with anyone we perceive as “wrong.” And moreover, because this person is so “wrong” in our perception, our previous moral standards dissolve. We create an environment so polarizing, that true change is downright impossible. The most obvious forum for this behavior is social media.
The dehumanized element of social media has caused us to become so pompous in our own beliefs. So certain that there’s an army behind us and our ill-researched ideas. We’re willing to die on our digital swords, ‘cancel’ anyone who disagrees, and do so quite loudly. The whole lot of it all, right or wrong, is entirely illogical. We don’t want anyone who differs with us to understand our point of view. We just want them to bleed. Because this place, a place where Aunt Sally shares videos of her newborn and friends from school share updates of new cities, has become our personal battlefield. Inside this video-game-ish bubble (where the suited enemies and warriors encroaching our said belief happen to be people we might run into at the grocery store) we find ourselves ready to die for a futile war. Or our avatars do anyways.
The polarization we’ve created online between those who don’t believe the same as us will likely never result in anything except a chipping away at our real-life freedom. The intensity of our actions online allow interactions to become void of human emotions. And it’s so easy to get caught up in. We’d refuse a fair conversation with anyone on the other side of the fence. Even if it might prove beneficial. Let us not forget, a nation divided is a nation controlled. But what does that matter when we have our Second Life on Instagram?
And I say all of this from past and personal experience, as someone who has historically engaged in the same behavior.
If You Can Never Change Your Mind, Why Have One?
One of the reasons I love hearing from Megan Phelps-Roper is because she embodies an extremist who changed their mind. In a die-hard society where grey areas are to be cast out, changing your mind is one of the boldest things you can do. To stop thinking in black-and-white for any amount of time takes guts. It doesn’t mean you abandon right and wrong. But maybe you abandon the hard edges of what ‘right’ can mean - even if only for a moment. Even if it doesn’t result in an overall change at all.
And in Megan’s story, she wouldn’t have been able to change her mind about hostile-speech and outward damnation if someone hadn’t suspended their black-and-white hatred for her long enough to engage her in a thoughtful conversation. And that thoughtful conversation, which happened on Twitter, changed her life. In retrospect, it’s not so surprising that she wants to gift the power of fair conversation to people who’ve been outcast - like she once was.
I think there are so many lessons to learn from this idea. (I learned so much in the podcast alone.)
Something that I feel has been lost on our society (myself included) is the intelligence that openness requires. What’s more life-changing than someone who is willing to learn? What’s more respectable than a person whose willing to be wrong every now and then? What’s more honest than admitting a changed mind?
In a society where courage is portrayed as dying in that digital-die-hard-battlefield, it takes guts to set the sword down and have a fair conversation. The leaders I want to learn from aren’t engaging in constant polarization. They’re seeking to understand those around them. They’re at a coffeehouse somewhere sitting across from someone whose on the other side of a black-and-white fight. They might’ve even paid for their latte. These leaders are stepping into the grey areas to see what comes of it. Which sometimes, is nothing. But they give change a fair chance - even if that change is unexpectedly internal.
Because the world is always evolving, our minds should be given the chance to keep up. It’s only the most natural thing in the world.
If you liked this article, you’re welcome to share it. I appreciate you dear reader, as always. Because this post is about the power of conversation, feel free to comment your thoughts as well. :)
End of The Article Spotlights:
Kelly’s Educational Consulting Blog
My mom retired recently after 30+ years as an elementary principal! (Yay Kelly) She’s started a blog to help educators glean from some of her own experience. You can read her articles here:
Megan Phelps-Roper’s Memoir
I’m only 1/3 of the way through it myself (started last week) but, if you find yourself interested by the person showcased so much in this blog post - here’s a link to the novel named Unfollow.
Want to hangout?
I bought an extra ticket to teh Brianna Wiest book tour and would love a fellow identity-verified reader/writer to join (includes a free book and drinks). I’ll talk more about this on my IG later (@lindseywritesbooks) but please do stay tuned!
Thanks again for reading. Sending lots of love and a energy for a great week ahead.