If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books or had an in-depth discussion with a Harry Potter-fanatic friend, the acronym S.P.E.W probably won’t mean much to you. Frankly, after spending a lot of consecutive Christmasses rewatching the film series, I forgot the small, intricate differences in plot and characterisation myself, and the pro-Elfish rights group was probably among the first of many minor book points to slowly leak out of my head. However, recently, upon finding myself stuck on long commutes to and from work with limbs pressed against me and smelly breath invading my personal space, listening to Stephen Fry’s silky voice was something I really needed to make sure that I didn’t crack under the pressure of London rush hour. So when, in The Goblet of Fire, we are introduced to the acrophobic house-elf Winky, I remembered with bemused confusion the farce that was Hermione Granger’s first attempt to bring about positive change for the poor “slaves”, as she so passionately puts it.
So what’s the problem with that, you’re probably wondering? Why would it be such an issue that Hermione wants to help those who are at a disadvantage to wizards? What could you possibly say, Shannii (if that’s even your real name), that would be a good argument against the basic human instinct to try to help those in need? You would be right to ask those questions of me, of course! To some extent, I will agree with you. I do not deny that those of us who have the most in society should feel a moral duty to help those around us. In an ideal world, no one would be treated as subordinate because of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or (in the case of Harry Potter) species. Dumbledore’s affirmation “It’s our choices… that show what we truly are” would not only be accurate but also a practised and embraced worldview. That’s the world that I hope I can at least try to help accomplish. So, with the fact that I don’t agree at all with the enslavement of house-elves firmly in your minds, let’s continue with the actual issue when it comes to ‘being a Hermione Granger’ on this specific occasion.
The phrase “Social Justice Warrior”, or “SJW” for short, gets thrown around a lot on the internet nowadays. People are quick to jump on the bandwagon of demonising and ridiculing anyone who attempts to make the world a more equal place, and the term has become synonymous with extremism, mass hysteria and misdirection of genuine issues. If you’re anything like me, you pondered for a long time why this name, in particular, was used as an insult when the movement’s critics could have surely come up with one which didn’t generally make it seem like SJWs are doing what is morally correct. I’m not saying they’re not. Often, I understand the premise behind the ideology that made them do or say the ridiculous thing. They mean well. I just mean… if I were a big, bad alt-right wolf, I would make sure to label my opposition with a term that didn’t make it seem like I was fighting against justice. They’re shooting themselves in the foot, don’t you think? It’s like they’re doing all the virtue signalling for the people they want to prove are wrong.
I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on socioeconomic issues, or what makes people right or left wing. In fact, I just rambled on about the term “SJW” as a safety crutch. I know a lot more about words than I do about real-life people. That’s what I get for spending most of my time with my nose in a book, eyes glued to the television or hand cramping on a PS4 controller. I prefer art to real people, I suppose. Nevertheless, as someone who is a member of multiple minority groups, I do often witness the masses misdiagnosing the issues I face and therefore being outraged for me, but for all the wrong reasons.
I recently had a conversation with a lovely guy about the sexualisation of Indian characters in video games. He was by no means an SJW. He had very sensible, well-thought-out arguments and actually championed change, not just screaming “check your privilege” at any straight, white, cisgender man he could find. He had, however, entirely misunderstood a lot of the issues in the Indian community. I often have to explain to very well-educated people that no, the British Empire did not swap tips with Indian men on how to subjugate women in exchange for tea. As one of the oldest surviving religions, Hinduism has a plethora of religious texts to draw from and, sadly, some of these are sexist. Just like in any other country, gender relations have always been tense and confusing. Unfortunately, ‘confusing’ is just our punishment for being intelligent creatures (well, some of us, anyway). It can be very tempting to project corruption, ignorance and oppression upon the invading force of western civilisation that decided it wanted to own countries it barely understood. Yes, British people came and brought lots of extra discrimination for good measure, but does that mean places like India were free of that sort of thing before white people came in and meddled? Of course not!
Now let’s look back at the book at hand. I want to focus on the time when Ron decides to challenge Hermione’s notions of elfish subjugation. Ron informs her that the house-elves are “happy”, to which Hermione replies:
“That’s because they’re uneducated and brainwashed!”
Yes, while it is true that these house-elves lack wizard-level education and are taught their ‘place’ in society from birth, I want to point out the inherent issues with championing other people’s rights from this angle. Just like my friends with their assessments of the invading British force in India, Hermione failed to consider that oppression is rarely a black and white issue. It, sadly, usually has a reason for existing, even if this reason is stupid or outdated. Often, oppression exists from long before we even begin to consider it, as with the case of India. It is very easy, sitting on a moral high-horse, to see oppression as this random, parasitic force running through society.
The beautifully-argued essay from MuggleNet, though arguing a very different angle from my own, points out one thing very clearly that we need to address. If house-elves are not an artificially created species designed to appease their human masters, it probably means that they developed a somewhat mutually beneficial arrangement with humans over time. Shortly, that means that the house-elves most likely realised that the humans had some worth to them, and vice versa. Probably, as the essay argues, these little humanoid creatures recognised the value of serving their much taller human cousins in exchange for physical safety. The state of house-elves as slaves may have been something which came with natural selection as they grew more and more dependent on humans to survive. So, while it is not acceptable that these creatures should be treated as second-class citizens, it would be unfair to state that things are only the way they are due to a lack of education. If MuggleNet is right on this occasion, it might be essential to address the issue of house-elf safety as well as the humans’ roles to really get an idea of the full extent of the problems. The same is true of India: it is essential to look at how the preexisting religions and culture combined with the British views to create the Indian perceptions and sexualisation of women today.
Furthermore, it is crucial that we highlight the patronising and somewhat hypocritical nature of Hermione’s argument on this occasion. Yes, the lack of education and “brainwash[ing]” of house-elves is a massive part of how wizards are able to keep control of their slaves. However, Hermione makes the mistake of thinking that she knows better than them what they want and need. Hermione claims to be fighting for the equality of house-elves, but by saying that they don’t know any better, she is actually reinforcing the idea that they are lesser. Instead of talking to house-elves to gain a better understanding of their situation, woes and needs, Hermione makes the assumption that they need the same things humans do and are just too brainwashed to see it. To really be of any use to house-elves, Hermione needs to first do what Harry has no trouble doing with Dobby: she needs to treat them as equals. There’s no point in claiming you’re fighting for someone’s equality if you’re using their inequality as an excuse to make decisions for them. If you genuinely believe that Indians are people too, equally as smart and capable as their white companions, why does it not, therefore, extend that Indians are able to break out of their sexist habits just like we in the West are? Why do you believe that it is Westerners that gave them these ideas in the first place? Don’t treat a whole group of people like children. Understand them if you want to help them.
It is actually through this lack of understanding that Hermione appears ignorant and insensitive when she, Ron and Harry go to the kitchens and have a conversation with Winky and Dobby. There, we see two very different house-elves: one who experienced extraordinary abuse from a known family of dark wizards who, in previous books, has made it clear that his treatment was particularly poor; the other who deeply admired and respected her master, despite the fact that she was fired. We later even find out that Winky was given an extra, secret task which she failed, and that was the real cause of her dismissal. She was told to look after Barty Crouch Jr. Why is this relevant? Well, the truth of the lives of most house-elves probably lies somewhere between these two. In fact, as Ron points out, the elves in the kitchen seem to be content with their lives. While pay is a driving force to humans, Hermione neglects to consider that a house-elf with a position in a place like Hogwarts may not have any use for little metal circles, and may actually be treated well. Because it is likely that house-elves evolved to acquire a symbiotic relationship with humans, it may even be the case that they regard safety and shelter as a form of payment. That is why it is important to look at why house-elves are enslaved and not just fixate on the mere notion that they are.
So why does this matter so much? Why is this an issue and what can we do about it? You see, not all people are the same. When discussing how to make a group of people’s lives better, real or fictional, we need to consider how their circumstances may be different from our own. Hermione failed to understand that house-elf history and biology may change the way they look at things as compared to humans. My friends did not understand how India was before the British takeover and to what extent Britishness can be blamed for sexism. To treat people as equals, we need to realise that their differences don’t mean they are less than us or don’t know as well as we do, but rather that we need to be sensitive of their uniqueness and use it as a way to understand and help them the proper way. Putting yourself in their shoes doesn’t always just mean considering how their current circumstances may make them who they are, but also their culture, upbringing, gender and many other complex features. Hermione offended Winky because she didn’t consider the pride with which house-elves may view their occupation in a good wizard home when consoling her. Don’t be a Hermione. Don’t underestimate people when trying to help them and, most importantly, wear their shoes; don’t force them into yours.