The transgender debate has a habit of bringing out the worst in people. It’s no wonder, really. It’s an issue rooted in identity – and therefore close to people’s hearts – and spiced up with the fear that fundamental concepts like the meaning of the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ might be redefined by others, and to their advantage. It’s then hosted on social media – an environment where grown adults seem to forget that there are real life human beings involved.

Even the rich and famous can succumb. Over the weekend, JK Rowling became embroiled in an unedifying spat over a transgender football manager. This is not premier league stuff. Lucy Clark hit the headlines in 2018 as the ‘world’s first ever transgender football referee’. Clark has now become the ‘first trans manager in the top five divisions of English women’s football.’

While the news was clearly important to a social media account calling itself @prideukorg, it’s not clear to me why anyone should really care. Football management is open to both sexes, and whoever a club chooses to manage its team is a matter for it and its supporters. However, it bothered Rowling enough to tell her 14.1 million followers on Twitter that, ‘When I was young all the football managers were straight, white, middle-aged blokes, so it’s fantastic to see how much things have changed.’

Any uncertainty over her mood was dispelled when she reacted to the inevitable outrage that followed. Mail Online suggested that she had compared Clark to a ‘straight, white, middle-aged bloke’. Rowling’s response was cutting, ‘I didn’t compare him to one. He IS one’.

I didn’t compare him to one. He IS one. https://t.co/LUqXuSjktV

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) May 12, 2024

Whether you agree with Rowling or not, her tone is remarkably different to the essay she wrote in 2020 when she set out her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender. Then, she wrote: ‘Trans people need and deserve protection’, and ‘I want trans women to be safe.’ Perhaps she has changed her mind in the four years that have passed? But in a lengthy and considered statement posted just last month she added:

‘Some people feel strongly that they should have been, or wish to be seen as, the sex class into which they weren’t born. Gender dysphoria is a real and very painful condition and I feel nothing but sympathy for anyone who suffers from it. I want them to be free to dress and present themselves however they like and I want them to have exactly the same rights as every other citizen regarding housing, employment and personal safety.’

Has she changed her mind in a month? Or is she being manipulated by her environment? Twitter might have rebranded itself as X, but the rules of the game are the same. The quote-Tweet is possibly the most brutal weapon that exists on social media – especially in the hands of influencers with thousands of followers. Anything an opponent says can be captured and broadcast to your audience. Sarcasm, ridicule, or downright abuse then set the tone for the mob who can ‘pile on’ and deluge the original with more of the same, and worse.

If Twitter is anything it is a great leveller. Notable people with huge followings inhabit the same space as private individuals. But as well as sharing the same medium, human beings also share the same emotions. We like to be noticed and when the likes and (friendly) replies flood into the phone, dopamine can flood the brain. No matter who you are, this has the potential to become addictive.

Social media followers then often demand increasingly direct and shocking posts to stay on board. Is this happening to Rowling? That’s not for me to say, but her output has become increasingly single-issue. Even the man in charge of the platform has noticed. Last week, Elon Musk told Rowling that, ‘While I heartily agree with your points regarding sex/gender, may I suggest also posting interesting and positive content on other matters?’ But those ‘other matters’ might not bring in the hits.

Of course, we all have a right to say what we think. But politics is about persuading people as well as playing to the crowd. And while your social media followers might applaud your every word, your one negative comment in a hundred can be dissected, quoted – most likely out of context – and broadcast to startled bystanders who have yet to pick a side. Kindness is a virtue, and lack of kindness can be off-putting.

It does seem that gender identity ideology is on the wane, at least in the UK. There are many people who helped to push it back, but JK Rowling is surely one of the most notable. She came out publicly for the first time in 2019 in support of Maya Forstater who had been forced out of her job for saying that people cannot change their biological sex. Rowling’s courage had a profound impact on campaigners when it seemed more likely that science, reason and common sense would become trampled underfoot.

Rowling’s contribution continues to be immense, but she does not need to attack individuals on social media. Yes her frustration is justified. But as I might ask children in my class who have said what they thought rather than what is wise: is it helpful? Is it necessary? And is it true? Unless all three answers are affirmative then maybe it is best not to say it at all.

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