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Harry Potter and the Culture of Cancellation | Opinion

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Earlier this week, gaming forum Resetera took the unusual step of banning most discussion around an upcoming AAA game because the creator of the IP and one of the lead developers on the project “have unrepentant bigoted views.”

So no threads about new trailers, release dates, collector’s editions or any of the other hype that the forum’s members might typically do around anticipated games.

The game in question is Hogwarts Legacy, the upcoming original Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment game set in the Harry Potter universe. The views in question are Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans stances and the pro-GamerGate, anti-feminist positions of lead designer Troy Leavitt.

This has raised concerns about “cancel culture,” about internet mob justice and the spectre of careers being ended because of a simple misunderstanding from decades ago.

And to be fair, I can sort of see where those concerns are coming from. For one thing, taking a person’s job away isn’t something to be taken lightly. For another, AAA games are made by hundreds of people and the idea of all of their work going to waste because one person on the team has some pretty foul beliefs could seem like unnecessary collateral damage. And given the shifting attitudes about what’s acceptable in the workplace, I’m sure there are people nervous that some day “the mob” will come for them because of something they never gave a second thought a decade or more ago.

None of this is happening in a vacuum, and people may decide the mob justice of cancel culture is preferable to no justice at all

I admit, mob justice is, generally speaking, a bad thing. There’s no accountability, no due process, no assurance the punishment will fit the transgression, and no guarantee it will actually produce the desired effect. It may not distinguish between the relative harm that could be done by a fantastically wealthy and influential creator of a worldwide phenomenon and one relatively unknown lead on a AAA game.

There’s no telling just how far some individuals will take it once they get going, and the line between justified criticism and unjustified harassment can get crossed. I don’t know if anyone is looking at mob justice as the ideal solution when they have an issue.

That said, none of this is happening in a vacuum, and people may decide the mob justice of cancel culture is preferable to no justice at all. For decades now, from police brutality to HR departments complicit in abuse to unjust wars to the global economic crisis to the storming of the US Capitol, we’ve seen the public and private institutions that are supposed to impose consequences utterly fail to do so, one after the other.

This obviously isn’t news to a lot of marginalized people, but by now it should be abundantly clear to even the most sheltered and privileged audiences (me, for instance) that the rules don’t apply to people with power the same way they apply to those without.

So years of frustration and anger and outrage at a lack of consequences or accountability build up, and people are taking matters into their own hands. They’re using their limited individual power to do what they can to make the world a better place, even if it’s just throwing shade on Warner Bros. for the company it keeps.

Of course, some would say this Hogwarts Legacy flap isn’t making the world a better place. They’d say it’s targeting people for having different opinions and trying to silence them. And in some sense, that’s exactly what it is. But let’s look at the “different opinions” here.

Rowling and Leavitt aren’t being criticized for being conservative, for wanting smaller government or lower taxes or a balanced budget

Rowling and Leavitt aren’t being criticized for being conservative, for wanting smaller government or lower taxes or a balanced budget. It’s not their foreign policy stance at issue. In Rowling’s case, it’s her public history of anti-trans viewpoints. In Leavitt’s, it’s his support of the deeply misogynistic GamerGate harassment campaign, disdain for feminism and social justice, and a YouTube channel full of videos that read almost like a parody of an alt-right content creator, right down to the requisite teardown of The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi video potentially aside — I’m not about to actually watch that one to find out, thank you very much — these aren’t opinions about whether pineapple belongs on pizza, whether a hot dog is a sandwich, or whether the PS5 is better than the Xbox Series X. They’re opinions about the fundamental humanity of other people, and they’re opinions that have a body count attached.

The Human Rights Campaign has been trying to track murders of transgender or gender non-conforming people for years, even though their deaths can easily go unreported or misreported as authorities, journalists, or even family members may not acknowledge their gender correctly. It has identified nearly 200 such murders since 2014, with 2020 spiking to the highest numbers yet.

Some beliefs — often those undermining the basic human rights and equality of others — are recognized as so harmful that they cannot be tolerated in a functional society

All this while governments around the world are changing laws to explicitly allow discrimination based on gender identity, end legal recognition of trans people, and establish LGBT-free zones.

As for Leavitt’s views, I will grant that having supported GamerGate may not make someone a misogynist. It’s possible they were instead a useful idiot more outraged by the idea that an indie game once got coverage it didn’t deserve than by the new club they joined swatting women and making bomb threats and death threats. Even if misogyny wasn’t the point of GamerGate for Leavitt, it clearly wasn’t a dealbreaker, either.

And like transphobia, misogyny kills. From domestic violence to explicitly misogynistic mass murders like the 2014 Santa Barbara shooting and the 2018 Toronto van attack, hatred of women has fueled an unthinkable number of tragedies.

It should be understandable, then, that people would treat these matters as more than a simple difference of opinion. Because there are some beliefs — often those undermining the basic human rights and equality of others — that are recognized as so harmful that they cannot be tolerated in a functional society. And even the staunchest of “free speech” defenders seem to agree.

Take the Conservative Political Action Conference, for example. The American Conservative Union’s annual gathering of right-wing politicians and activists is running with a theme of “America Uncancelled” this year, but last week it cancelled an appearance by Young Pharaoh, saying, “We have just learned that someone we invited to CPAC has expressed reprehensible views that have no home with our conference or our organization. The individual will not be participating at our conference.”

You can still say whatever you want, but if you know it’s something widely believed to be distasteful or offensive, don’t be surprised if others don’t want anything to do with you

In this case, the difference of opinion was that Young Pharaoh didn’t “believe in the validity” of Judaism. In previous years, CPAC also disinvited GamerGate supporter Milo Yiannopoulos for comments in favor of older men having sex with minors, and ejected Richard Spencer from the event for white nationalist views a spokesperson called “repugnant.”

I point this out not to criticize CPAC for its hypocrisy, because they absolutely should not have any of those people at their conference. I point it out to show that everyone has — or should have — limits. People with “opinions” so offensive that others reasonably don’t want to hear, associate with, or financially support them. That’s not censorship; it’s having standards of what is and isn’t acceptable. You can still say whatever you want, but if you know it’s something others believe to be distasteful or offensive, don’t be surprised if they don’t want anything to do with you.

Corrosive ideas need resistance. They need to be pushed back against. Ideally, those with power and influence would be clear in their condemnation of harmful ideologies instead of soft-peddling them as “personal opinions,” as WBIE president David Haddad did last year with Rowling’s anti-trans stances.

But even when people like Haddad don’t step up, that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to be quiet and accept noxious beliefs as valid public discourse. It just means we need to take a look at the ways we can push back on those ideas, to look at our own little corner of the world we do have control over and use it to say these ideas are not acceptable.

For Resetera, that means not allowing its community to be used as part of the usual AAA hype cycle for Hogwarts Legacy. I don’t expect this to have a tangible impact on the game’s sales, but I recognize it as a group of people doing what they can to send the message that these beliefs are unacceptable. Most of us don’t have too many levers we can pull in order to improve things, but it’s better to pull them than resign ourselves to powerlessness.



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