J. K. Rowling and the Hate Monster

Let me tell you about an intense time in British politics: one where Scotland’s hate speech legislation came into force, the final Cass Review into paediatric gender medicine was published, a UK general election was called, and Nigel Farage made a triumphant political return.

Throughout, J. K. Rowling tweeted.

On June 3, Farage left his quondam job as telly broadcaster for GBNews and announced a tilt at Parliament. On Tuesday—the same day PM Rishi Sunak and Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer held the first of several televised debates—a protester threw a McDonald’s banana milkshake over Farage. He was campaigning in Clacton, the Essex constituency he’s targeting.

Despite their best efforts (and that of the British press), top billing went to Nigel’s milkshake, not Rishi and Keir’s telly debate.

Farage’s dramatic entrance brackets off an extraordinary period. Only now the country has passed into election season (our campaigns, as Americans often note, are mercifully short), only now the civil service is in purdah—and nothing happens for six weeks—is it possible to describe a moment of national madness with any equanimity.

Appropriately, the story starts on April Fools’ Day, and of course, it starts with a joke—or, rather, a lot of them. Scotland’s hate crime legislation came into force on that day. One individual (J. K. Rowling) and one corporate entity (Comedy Unleashed) took it on, daring Police Scotland to arrest them. Between those two and the Scottish people, they provided perhaps the first example in modern British history of a law being laughed into desuetude.

Hard cases make bad law, but bad law may be hilarious.

Unlike hate speech legislation—enormously contentious in this country because of the pernicious way it undermines freedom of speech—hate crime legislation is usually safe. In Scots criminal law, adding what’s called “a circumstance of aggravation” to a conviction is accepted and normal, and has been since 1998. Aggravations, note, are not crimes. They apply only when someone commits a crime and while doing so evinces or is motivated by “malice or ill-will” towards a given victim’s protected characteristics (race or sexual orientation, say).

Likewise, “stirring up” offences have been around for decades—since 1965—and haven’t impinged on freedom of speech in the same way, say, as the use of non-crime-hate-incidents by police forces did—until, of course, slapped down by the Court of Appeal.

Part of the problem that emerged on April 1 was rooted in bad drafting: the legislation was enacted only with generic freedom of expression protections. There was no recognition of the poisonous depths to which debate in Scotland had sunk on matters trans, and how, without specific protection, it was easier for activists to trigger police investigations into people with whom they disagreed. Even when courts ultimately throw out vexatious claims, the process is the punishment.

Recall, this issue brought down popular First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and split the wider Scottish independence movement right down the middle. Even Sturgeon’s successor as First Minister, Humza Yusaf, was unable to get a sensible amendment (below) inserted into the legislation, so monstered was he by the trans lobby:

Behaviour or material is not to be taken to be threatening or abusive solely on the basis that it involves or includes discussion or criticism of matters relating to transgender identity.

However, the bulk of the problem—which led, among other things, to people believing that misgendering a trans individual would result in prosecution under the new law—came from the Scottish government and Police Scotland themselves. Not only was public information released to accompany the law focussed almost entirely on hurt feelings (“hate hurts,” various billboards assured us), but Scottish ministers also proved unequal to the task of explaining how their own legislation would work. “It would be up to Police Scotland,” said one, depositing her incomprehension about misgendering at the local constabulary’s feet.

This in turn was compounded by the sort of cack-handed advertising campaign only a mother could love. To teach the world the horrors of hate, Police Scotland devised and then brought into being The Hate Monster, a furry, mascot-like creature looking like a cross between a reject from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and Oscar the Grouch.Don’t feed me,” it intoned.

The Hate Monster at the “Let Women Speak” protest in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, on April 6, 2024. (Iain Masterton / Alamy)

For her part, J. K. Rowling chose to respond to the lack of clarity around misgendering, using her enormous Twitter/X presence to dare Police Scotland to arrest her. She described several trans women as men, including convicted criminals, trans activists, and other public figures. “If they go after any woman for simply calling a man a man, I’ll repeat that woman’s words and they can charge us both,” she wrote.

This produced a dramatic climbdown from Police Scotland. No, they assured Scots, Ms. Rowling’s tweets did not reach the criminal threshold. The UK’s funnymen and women proceeded to walk through a fetchingly open door. Andrew Doyle’s Comedy Unleashed outfit hot-footed it to Edinburgh and made the Hate Monster a star. Comedienne June Slater, meanwhile, produced a routine so viral that, among other things, it led to more “hate complaints” about this speech from Yusaf than any of Rowling’s tweets.

Puppeteers and circus performers got in on the act. The Hate Monster in various aspects and versions turned up all over Scotlandeven on Greyfriars Bobby. However, as first Scots and then Britons more widely fell about the place laughing and the SNP began to unravel from the top down, Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison stepped forward to point out that the Hate Monster forms part of a ubiquitous and sinister artistic trend.

Known across the pond as “Corporate Memphis” when used in illustration and design, the style features blocky, unrealistic figures with limited features; clashing pastels; enormous, bendy limbs, and blue, green, or purple skin. Morrison calls this flat, unthreatening artwork (beloved of the charitable sector, universities, and now government information campaigns) “cute authoritarianism:”

During the Covid pandemic, the UK’s National Health Service also employed these cute graphics and messaging. Whether or not you support mass vaccination or lockdowns is not the point—these are exercises in population control, and their designers chose cuteness to nudge the public towards desired behaviours. […]

Instead of Get vaccinated now or others will get ill and die! a political nudge will read A shot of love for Valentine’s Day—show how much you care by protecting the people you love from Covid in pink lettering, using the font of international happiness—literally called Alegria (“joy”) style. The public nudge message won’t say Wear a mask now by order of government mandate! but Thank you for masking up. Thanking you for your compliance in advance is an attempt to embarrass you into taking the desired action.

The cloying sweetness Morrison identifies isn’t only present in Corporate Memphis artwork, though. It’s pervasive and appeals to a curdled form of childhood memory. This explains the puppets, colouring books, glitter—or drag queens reading children’s books to toddlers in public libraries.

That most people aren’t terminally online—or into the shite art produced as a side effect of social justice activism—is reflected in a common response to both the Hate Monster and Comedy Unleashed’s mockery of it. “I’ve just discovered that the ‘Hate Monster’ is a real Police Scotland campaign,” historian Adrian Hilton wrote in despair. “I honestly thought it was an invention of Andrew Doyle’s for his Comedy Unleashed event in Edinburgh. I mean, how old do they think people are? With what mental capacity? Absurd infantilisation.”

UK-wide mirth at Scotland’s gender-woo expense meant, when published on April 10, the final Cass Review report had a nuclear impact. Leading NHS paediatrician, Dr. Hilary Cass, and her team at the University of York’s medical school somehow managed to take queer theory’s language (“assigned male at birth” etc.) and its miserable inelegance and use it to make the sensible, phlegmatic, clear analysis (and recommendations) for which British empiricism generally—and the NHS in particular—is famous.

Rowling ensured Cass crossed the pond in part because she’d gone out of her way to build up such a head of critical steam. Police Scotland’s Hate Monster and the country’s wider political dysfunction had already made their way across the Atlantic.

In the process, it emerged that transgender medicine—especially of the paediatric sort—is almost wholly unevidenced. Even more alarming, many practitioners like it that way. One area where there is little data globally concerns the fate of children and young people when they move from paediatric provision to adult clinics. Dr. Cass approached the NHS’s adult gender services; aware they held records on approximately nine thousand patients. All save one refused to hand over patient data, something ministers corrected by executive fiat only after Cass’s final report was published.

Cass also demonstrated in letters a thousand feet high how most of the children who went through the Tavistock—nine thousand of them in all—were same-sex attracted or simply (and this is heart-breaking, because it discloses their ages) gender-nonconforming. Rising numbers, year-on-year, of glittery, swishy little boys and even more sporty but quirky little girls. In February 2020, BBC Newsnight ambushed Graham Linehan over this issue such that he only got one complete sentence out.

Cass vindicated it, and him, in spades.

You don’t tell children they could be born in the wrong body, because they are children, and they will believe you.

Even worse, gender medicine had achieved a false patina of credibility thanks to an extraordinary citation circle jerk. Dr. Cass noted how people and institutions who think “gender-affirming care” is a-okay busily referenced each other’s guidance, ignored anything to the contrary, and so created an appearance of medical consensus. “The circularity of this approach may explain why there has been an apparent consensus on key areas of practice, despite the evidence being poor,” she observed drily.

Once again, Rowling engaged on Twitter, using her reach to ensure something from the NHS—widely admired on the US liberal left—turned up in progressive timelines. One by one, progressive citadels began to pay attention and shift their position: even the New York Times. Rowling’s intervention, with its transatlantic effect, was a reminder that Scotland produces more politics than can be consumed locally. She ensured Cass crossed the pond in part because she’d gone out of her way to build up such a head of critical steam. Police Scotland’s Hate Monster and the country’s wider political dysfunction had already made their way across the Atlantic.

So dedicated was Rowling to ensuring that all the people who’d been avoiding The Truth About Trans got it served up in their eye, she drew Elon Musk’s attention. He proceeded to tell her off for turning into a one-note account, a charge often directed at sex realists on social media.

“While I heartily agree with your points regarding sex/gender, may I suggest also posting interesting and positive content on other matters?” Musk wrote, to which Rowling replied, “Just realized that I missed being advised to share more positive content yesterday … sharing this about my writing life, which happens to have been published today in The Sunday Times, should in no way be interpreted as me doing as I’m told.”

After Rowling, probably the most notable victim of “one-note Twitter account” criticism is Graham Linehan, who people liked and followed back in the day because he was funny. They didn’t take it well when he dispensed with humour: he lost hundreds of thousands of followers and—at one point—his entire Twitter account. The temptation to reel off a series of gags at the expense of those who would silence their opponents over hurty words must have been immense, but Linehan was genuinely alarmed. As he told me late last year, he found that “even people I was extremely close to didn’t seem to understand the issue.” Many folks, having come to love a funny clown, resent it when he removes his suit and makeup and asks to talk seriously with his audience.

Had Rishi Sunak been wearing makeup, the deluge outside Number 10 from where he told the Great British Public there would be a snap election on July 4 (now there’s a date redolent of historical associations) would have washed it off, easily. It does not usually rain hard in the UK (something on which this child of tropical Queensland is qualified to comment), but the Weather Gods made an exception, on May 22, for the Prime Minister. Sunak was drenched. A woman yelling “Tory scum” at him during the announcement struggled to make herself heard over the downpour. Even Larry the No. 10 Cat made himself scarce. 

That a general election had been called did not undermine Rowling’s ability to play Twitter like a fiddle, at least not at first. She used the window before Nigel Farage’s entrance to continue to share material from the Cass Report, highlight gender-critical court victories, and—perhaps most effectively—promote a distinctively Scottish anthology to which she had contributed a piece.

On May 30, The Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht was published. It does two things. First, it provides the best explanation I’ve seen of how trans activism, with its irrational beliefs and passion for heresy-hunts, was embraced by Scottish elites. It captures how Scotland’s historically feisty women—especially, but not only, within the pro-independence Scottish National Party—were painted into various corners and told to “wheesht for Indy.” Wheesht in Scots means “hush” or “belt up.” You’re supposed to wheesht when you’re expecting something big, so you don’t spoil it. It’s also said to small children when they’re being precocious. My father stopped using it on me (in the form Will ye not wheesht?) when I was about ten.

Secondly, Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht also documents how one goes about managing a fightback when a country’s institutions have been ideologically captured the way Scotland’s were. Sex-realist Scots produced an extraordinary campaign entirely without institutional support, although they did enjoy Rowling’s spirited and able leadership.

Rowling promoted the book on Twitter and an extract of her piece for it ran in The Times. It took top billing in various bestseller charts and got clear air on news reports until Farage threw his electoral hat in the ring. Rowling continues to intervene, directing considerable ire at Keir Starmer, who she sees (with some justification) as a weathervane. This, of course, won’t save the Tories, in part because the trans lunacy—along with various other lunacies—was allowed to incubate on their 14-year-watch.

Much as Brexit landed Britain not in a constitutional crisis but in a constitutional swamp, the Venn Diagram of “outraged when Christians wanted to ban Harry Potter because of witchcraft” and “let’s ban Harry Potter because Rowling did a wrongthink” is a circle. Meanwhile, government has gone into a state of suspended animation for the general election—all in advance of August’s silly season, where the country snoozes amiably in the summer sunshine, watches cricket, and both schoolchildren and the Westminster Village go on holiday.

“I watched from the sidelines as women with everything to lose rallied, in Scotland and across the UK, to defend their rights. My guilt that I wasn’t standing with them was with me daily, like a chronic pain,” Rowling writes in Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht. “What ultimately drove me to break cover were two separate legal events, both of which were happening in the UK.”

She goes on to describe Maya Forstater’s legal wrangles and Nicola Sturgeon’s downfall-inducing attempt to meddle with gender recognition in Scotland. In that sense, Rowling has put herself at the head of what amounts to major litigation with multiple interveners and amicus briefs. Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht reads like the full name of a famous case when baby lawyers first learn it: J. K. Rowling & Ors v. Gender Woo PLC.

When describing his response to Charles Dickens, George Orwell famously talked of seeing the writer’s face behind the page as he read, say, Hard Times. Not an official portrait, or how posterity remembered Dickens’s appearance. “What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have,” he wrote. Dickens the nineteenth-century liberal had a face of “free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

There is something of Orwell’s Dickens in Rowling, and not just because she—like he—has become a transatlantic phenomenon. Like Dickens, she loves children and reserves her greatest concern for them. But she will not lie to them, and people who refuse to lie in public these days are indeed hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies now contending for our souls.