JK Rowling and the Tweetstorm of Fire
JK Rowling has a problem with vocabulary. For someone who’s made a fortune writing words, she doesn’t really seem to fully grasp how words work.
You see, words define our worlds for us. If you don’t have a word for something, you can’t talk about it. And closely-related words, well-chosen, can give an entirely different meaning to a sentence. “Is there an afterlife?” is an entirely different question from “is there a heaven?” If your child says “I want a pet,” it’s not really the same thing as saying “I want a dog.” If two people in a conversation hear the same question, but interpret it in a slightly different way, you have confusion.
That’s why we have multitudes of words for things that could theoretically be interchangeable in many scenarios. And when we’re introduced to new concepts, we adapt our vocabularies to match. I grew up with a phone in the kitchen. It was just a phone. But when I was in high school, I got a phone that I could carry with me. My new phone was called a cellular phone, but it was still a phone. We all decided on a new name for that old device to differentiate it, because we needed one. Now it’s a land-line.
When transfolk from around the world started communicating with one another in greater frequency after the advent of the internet, sharing common stories and generating new philosophies, they realized that our old definitions, our old vocabularies, didn’t have a place for the kinds of discussions we needed to have. Heck, I probably would never have figured out that I’m trans if I hadn’t encountered the term “gender euphoria,” which only entered relatively common usage due to these online exchanges.
Now, JK Rowling has not been privy to these discussions. She hasn’t encountered this need for new vocabulary. Effectively, she never got a cell phone. So she doesn’t understand why all of a sudden I’m calling her phone a land-line.
“Can’t we just keep calling it a phone?” this analogous version of JK Rowling would have asked over Twitter.
“Well, we can,” we tell her, “but then people are going to assume that they can reach you even if you’re out of the house.”
“Why would they make an assumption like that?” she asks.
“Because that’s how most of us use our phones now,” we explain. “Have you talked to someone with a cell phone?
“Yes! They told me that what I have in my house is definitely a phone! I’ve looked at my phone book, I’ve contacted my phone provider, lots of experts in phones, and they all say I have a phone. I’ve always been supportive of people having cell phones, but I don’t understand why you insist on inventing a silly word like “land-line” when we already have a perfectly good word?”
“Listen, I don’t know what kinds of conversations you’ve had, JK, but they weren’t serious ones. You haven’t really internalized the issues that are on the table, and you’re trying to take away tools that help others and will eventually even help you in ways that you can’t quite see yet. You’re intelligent, but you’re using your intelligence to justify a continued ignorance, rather than grow and learn and experience new things. That’s a decision that you’ll have to come to on your own. I can’t force you to have that empathy. But I know you’re capable of it, and I hope you achieve it some day.”
“Are we still talking about phones?” she would ask.
“Yes, JK Rowling,” we’d tell her, “we are still talking about phones.”