J.K. Rowling: Tolerance, Respect, and Literature

Yesterday, J.K. Rowling was honored with the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for her work in embodying the organization’s mission to oppose oppression in any form and to champion the best of humanity. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker provided a touching introduction:

Let us not forget about […] an entire generation of readers […] who grew up with the understanding that books contain magic and that reading can teach not only about ourselves, but others and can indeed help us make the world a better place.

Rowling’s work with Lumos was cited as an example of the impact of her writing, as was her Twitter account, which, as anyone and everyone who follows her knows, is used for speaking against injustice, encouraging followers to be themselves, and occasionally, letting her know a remote library in Scotland would like her to come to their book club.

But perhaps the most beautiful things that came from receiving this award were the ideas that Jo addressed in her speech. She gave advice for how we all can help make our world a better place by applying what books can teach us, focusing on protecting the freedom of expression that so many in Western society take for granted.

I worry that we may be in danger of their erosion through sheer complacency. The tides of populism and nationalism currently sweeping many developed countries have been accompanied  by demands that unwelcome and inconvenient voices be removed from public discourse.

As her books showed us, fear and hate are never the answer that will bring stability and peace. It’s reminiscent of a line Rowling included in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It’s one short step from ‘wizards first’ to ‘pure-bloods first,’ and then to ‘Death Eaters.’

By refusing to accept others as just as important and valid as ourselves, we create a dangerous game that can only end in conflict. And by doing nothing to work against those who would silence all kinds of marginal voices, we only help keep those voices silenced.

It seems that unless a commentator on a television channel or a newspaper reflects exactly the complainant’s worldview, it must be guilty of bias or corruption. Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me, a moderate and a liberal, most uncomfortable.

What an idea! In a world that seems to increasingly be full of shouting extremists from any and all sides of every debate imaginable, so many people want to peg everyone who doesn’t agree exactly with them as a Rita Skeeter. But Rowling understands how dangerous for everyone it could be for those who take the Rita Skeeter route to be silenced – including Donald Trump. Though slander is not acceptable, neither is shutting down other people’s opinions simply because they do not match one’s own. After all, there would have been no Quibbler without freedom of expression!

Rowling finished her speech by reading an excerpt from the blog of an 18-year-old Syrian girl who was arrested for her writing. In the excerpt, the blogger quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem that claims the East and the West will never come together and then disagrees with it, encouraging her readers to respect each other and come together despite their differences. It is this kind of oppression that Rowling sees as the problem organizations such as PEN are there to help us realize, ensuring that writers are able to create the magic that makes our world a better place.

You can listen to all of Rowling’s speech in the video of the event below; she is introduced around 1:40, and her speech follows.



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Alison Siggard

Alison is a Gryffinpuff and probably what Hermione Granger would be like in real life, from bossiness to reliance on books to bushy brown hair. She is a teacher, writer, traveler, and a lover of all kinds of stories and storytelling. She is MuggleNet's staff coordinator and a host on Alohomora!