To what degree do an author’s objectionable comments, unrelated to their books, matter when being a consumer of those books? J.K. Rowling’s bestselling seven-volume Harry Potter books are cherished by children and adults alike. Rowling has sold more than 500 million copies and the books have inspired movies, theme parks, toys, collectibles, merch and more. According to a U.S. survey, 31% of people have read at least one of Rowling’s books, 18% of people have read all of the Harry Potter series and 61% have seen at least one of the movies.
Despite the popularity of her books, Rowling is seen as deeply problematic by many. She has repeatedly made comments about transgender people that many deem biased and offensive. There has been a tremendous backlash to her statements from trans activists and from many Harry Potter fans. Some of the Harry Potter movie actors have spoken out about Rowling’s comments and in support of transgender rights. While some fans express that they are walking away from the world of Harry Potter, others articulate that they can separate “the artist from the art,” and continue to condemn views of Rowling they find deeply offensive, while maintaining their appreciation of her work.
Examples throughout history
This tension is not a new phenomenon. L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, held racist beliefs about Indigenous people. He wrote an editorial in the Aberdeen Saturday Review in which he referenced the massacre at Wounded Knee and called for the extermination of the Native American people. Roald Dahl, author of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Mathilda and other beloved children’s books, was known to have expressed virulent antisemitic sentiments for which his family apologized later and the Roald Dahl Story Company noted, “Those prejudiced statements are in marked contrast to the values of kindness and inclusivity at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories.”
In Dahl’s case, the Company’s statement conveys that Dahl’s racist sentiments were diametrically opposed to the themes and content of his children’s literature. The Company did not take action to withdraw the books. We make this distinction as well when we speak about views expressed by authors that we find problematic but that do not, however, appear in their books. This is different from a situation in which an organization takes action against a book because of its content. For example, in 2021 the Dr. Seuss estate said it would stop selling six of his books because they contained racist and insensitive images. In this case, the content of the books—not the author’s unrelated comments—is actually problematic.
Authors are not the only ones for whom this tension exists. German composer Richard Wagner openly shared his antisemitic sentiments in several publications, yet his works have been performed by Jewish and non-Jewish musicians since the nineteenth century. In terms of our country’s founders, there are ongoing discussions and debates about whether and how we should think about, discuss or honor those who were slaveholders. While our society increasingly acknowledges that some founding fathers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, enslaved Black people—as in fact we should—as a society we continue to praise and honor them for their achievements. The Smithsonian Magazine asks: To what degree do the attitudes of Washington and Jefferson toward slavery diminish their achievements?
In addition to authors and founders, this list can include artists, entertainers, athletes, politicians and others. We may admire, value and commend their work and at the same time, disagree with some of their external attitudes, statements and positions.
Questions for reflection
This topic raises several interesting questions for reflection. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourselves and others when discussing this issue.
- How do you feel when you find out that someone whose work you admire and value says or does something you vehemently disagree with?
- Can you enjoy, appreciate, and value someone’s work while disagreeing with the positions they hold?
- How are individual actions (deciding not to read a book) different from collective or systemic actions (banning books)?
- Can a person’s work be valuable even when you disagree with or find the authors’ viewpoints concerning or problematic?
- How can we advocate and support the content of the work and its larger value to people and society, despite some concerning creator positions?
- What are ways you can express your thoughts about objectionable positions held by people whose work you value?
- How can we hold authors and others accountable?
- What is “soft censorship” and how does it impact individuals and society?
Strategies to discuss this with young people
This topic can provide a rich conversation for young people, especially tweens and teens as they grapple with issues of identity, morality, values and taking a stand. Below are some strategies for engaging in these discussions with young people.
- Facilitate conversations with young people to help them learn more about and research the authors, content creators and celebrities they value and admire, including the problematic, biased and offensive statements those creators have espoused or embraced.
- Encourage students to reflect on the tension between the messenger (content creator) and those separate problematic viewpoints the creators hold.
- Provide current and historical examples of authors and other creators where this dynamic exists so students can think critically about the gulf that can exist between the message and messenger.
- Explore with students the ways in which different societies are confronting deeply offensive views or actions of otherwise celebrated historical figures, authors and artists, including by acknowledging and contextualizing those individuals.
- Explore with students the concept of what we know as “cancel culture,” the extent to which this is a legitimate phenomenon and the underlying reasons that as a society, we want to “cancel” or punish people for their offensive beliefs.
- Have students consider ways to hold content creators accountable, on both a personal and societal level. Conversely, seek out ways to advocate for the value and importance of the work, despite concerns about the creators’ positions.
- Engage young people in conversations about free speech, censorship (including “soft or quiet censorship”), principles of democracy and our right to learn, which are relevant and central to this topic.
As we navigate the murky waters of both valuing someone’s content yet disagreeing with those creators' positions, it is important to be mindful that this topic is nuanced, complex and raises many questions for reflection.