The Featherston Booktown Festival, to be held on the weekend of May 6-9, will include a panel discussion on cancel culture, the anti-democratic phenomenon whereby ideas and opinions deemed heretical are silenced and suppressed to protect a small but noisy minority that claims to be harmed by them.
But oh, dear: the festival organisers have announced that they won’t be repeating a popular Harry Potter quiz, a feature of the last festival in 2019. The reason? The quiz might upset members of the so-called LGBT community, some of whom are offended by J K Rowling’s forthright opposition to the trans-gender lobby’s demands that trans people should be treated as authentic women, in denial of biological reality.
This is the point at which real life does its best to outdo satire. As Featherston resident Jenny Whyte succinctly observed, the cancellation of the Harry Potter quiz “encapsulates the whole madness of it [i.e. cancel culture] quite well”.
Booktown Festival chair Peter “Biggsy” Biggs, scrambling to rescue the event from this embarrassing controversy, insists it’s not correct to say that the abandonment of the quiz is an example of cancel culture. But his subsequent explanation confirms that’s exactly what it is.
According to Biggs, a “library stakeholder” suggested the festival was inviting trouble if it went ahead with the Harry Potter quiz. “We treasure the support of our stakeholders, fans and funders – so the Board of Trustees decided to seek feedback from a range of stakeholders, including the literary sector, the local Featherston community, Featherston Booktown fans and the LGBT community," Biggs said.
“In doing so, we weren’t driven by a desire to cancel anything, least of all suppress books and writers, but by a strong desire to hold one of the cornerstone brand values of Featherston Booktown – inclusivity. We are conscious that our audience and fan base are diverse and we want everyone to feel welcome and respected.”
And then the crunch: “We received strong and consistent feedback that including the HPQ Quiz [sic] could cause distress to some of our audience and fan base – particularly in the LGTB community. The result was the trustees took the unanimous view to go with another quiz alternative.”
Weasel words, I’m afraid. The trustees may not have been “driven by” a desire to cancel anything, but they did it anyway. The outcome is the same.
Here was a chance for the Featherston Booktown organisers to put a stake in the ground in defence of literary freedom and the right to free speech, and they wimped out by kowtowing to the censorious left-wing bigots and bullies who want to decide what the rest of us can see and hear. Shame on them.
The objections to the Harry Potter quiz reveal the vindictiveness with which woke extremists pursue people they disapprove of. The quiz was entirely unrelated to Rowling’s views on the trans-gender issue and was presumably intended as a light-hearted diversion for festival attendees. The Booktown trustees could have – should have – pointed that out to the Rowling-haters and politely told them to bugger off. But they didn’t, and the result is another grovelling capitulation to the enemies of free speech.
As an aside, who exactly are “stakeholders”? It’s a vague and opaque term that has troubled me for years. It seems to me that in most cases, "stakeholders" are people who assert the right to exercise influence over others without ever actually accepting responsibility or accountability for anything, still less putting up the money to make things happen. But they also serve the valuable purpose of providing an escape route (as in this case) for people wanting to justify potentially contentious decisions. They can always say they’re acting in the interests, or on the advice, of the stakeholders.
It should be noted, though, that “stakeholders” are typically an amorphous lot and largely anonymous, which makes them a handy means of avoiding transparency in matters of public interest.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.