Thursday, October 30, 2003

Born a House-Elf;
Born a Slave

Note: Part III. of Prejudice and Discord in the Magical World. However, each part also stands alone as its own post.

"Not spew," said Hermione impatiently. "It's S-P-E-W. Stands for the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare."
"Never head of it," said Ron.
"Well, of course you haven't," said Hermione briskly, "I've only just started it."
"Yeah?" said Ron in mild surprise. "How many members have you got?"
"Well - if you two join - three," said Hermione.
"And you think we want to walk around wearing badges saying 'spew' do you?" said Ron.
"S-P-E-W!" said Hermione hotly. "I was going to put Stop the Outrageous Abuse of Our Fellow Magical Creatures and Campaign for a Change in Their Legal Status - but it wouldn't fit. So that's the heading of our manifesto."
She brandished the sheaf of parchment at them.
"I've been researching it thoroughly in the library. Elf enslavement goes back centuries. I can't believe no one's done anything about it before now."
"Hermione - open your ears," said Ron loudly. "They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!"
Book Four, Page 224, US Edition

One of the great things about Ron and Hermione is their tendency to argue about nearly everything. From this, the audience is able to get two opposing sides on issues found throughout the books, without having to worry about a good vs. evil approach. When it comes to elf enslavement, Ron and Hermione are actually arguing Aristotelian philosophy. That is to say, philosophy as set forth by Aristotle. Aristotle was a teleological thinker. In other words, he believed that everything that was natural had a purpose. In his book, Aristotle Politics, Aristotle discuses the issue of slavery and whether or not it is a natural state for some people, or a conventional state (created by man). This can be seen in the Harry Potter series as Ron arguing for slavery as natural (it makes them happy) and Hermione arguing for slavery as conventional (forced by wizards).

Spawning from these two arguments, Rowling presents the reader with a deeper and more complicated conundrum. Should house-elfs be slaves? Should all house-elfs receive payments? How ethical is wizard-kinds treatment of elfs and how does this treatment affect both groups? The areas that Ron and Hermione disagree on are important, and at the heart of the issue. Ron is perfectly okay with Winky working for free; Hermione seems to view this as a travesty.

In the end, the question of natural vs. conventional comes down to the ethics of slavery. Should slavery be allowed? Should house-elfs be granted rights, even if they don't want them? Who is right? Or is the real answer embedded between both of their ways of thinking? Despite Ron and Hermione coming from two ends of the spectrum, the audience can conjecture that there are areas they can agree on. For instance, they would probably agree that the Malfoys had no right to treat Dobby the way that he did. In this post, I will analyze both Ron and Hermione's arguments for and against slavery. I will also delve into the deeper enigma regarding the different problems and solutions plaguing the house-elfs.

First, let us look at Ron's (and most wizards) arguments for elf enslavement. Where do his ideas apply and when do they not apply in the house-elf paradigm? It is clear that Ron, Hagrid, and others believe that it would be an injustice to force elf rights upon house-elfs that don't want them. But why don't elfs have these rights in the first place? Again, Ron is subscribing to Aristotelian thinking. He believes that house-elfs are slaves because that is the purpose in life that makes them the most happy. If they are happy, and they want to serve, why take this away from them?

The problem with this way of thinking goes back to the labeling idea. Ron is classifying all house-elfs into a category of people that must enjoy slavery. Yet, we see that there are house-elfs who are not happy with this lot in life. Dobby cheered when he was freed from the Malfoy family. Kreacher was proud to serve the Blacks, until that meant being bound to serve Sirius. I'm sure Ron doesn't mind Dobby being free; in fact, he is probably all for it. Yet Ron remains indifferent to the idea that there may be other house-elfs out there that do want to be free.

"Sirius did not hate Kreacher," said Dumbledore. "He regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage that outright dislike..."
Book Five, Page 834, US Edition

"I warned Sirius when we adopted twelve Grimmauld Place as our headquarters that Kreacher must be treated with kindness and respect. I also told him that Kreacher could be dangerous to us. I do not think that Sirius took me very seriously, or that he ever saw Kreacher as a being with feelings as acute as a human's-"
Book Five, Page 832, US Edition

This indifference, for many wizards (not necessarily Ron), also translates into neglect and abuse. Aristotle said that slaves were defined by their purpose, being an animate tool. This means that a slave is just that, a tool. This problem has shown throughout world history. African descendents were often seen as tools for plantations or other work, and never as men. For this reason, some people had no qualms about beating them or keeping them in slavery. The same is true for wizards. Many only see house-elfs as merely tools. They do not recognize a person with feelings, but see an object that needs to serve well. For this reason, they abuse these creatures.

House-elfs do not merely serve, some are treated maliciously by their indifferent masters. Look at how Malfoy treated Dobby. Look at how Crouch treated Winky. Some house-elfs see the families they serve as their own family, and what are many of them given in return? Not a family with love, but neglect and abuse. Many do not share in this, but enough do that something should be done. Take a look at Winky.

"My poor Mr. Crouch, what is he doing without Winky? He is needing me, he is needing my help! I is looking after the Crouches all my life, and my mother is doing it before me, and my grandmother is doing it before her . . .oh what is they saying if they knew Winky was freed? Oh the shame, the shame!" She buried her face in her skirt again and bawled.
Book Four, Page 381, US Edition

From this paragraph we can see the attachment that Winky had to Mr. Crouch and his family. She saw her servitude as a service to take care of them, almost like a mother figure. Yet, Crouch is quick to give her clothes. It is true that he sweeps his own son aside, as well, but I still believe that Crouch's actions are similar to how many wizards look at and treat house-elfs. They're simply tools that move around, not people with feelings. Now that she has been abandoned, we see that Winky does have acute emotions. She becomes a drunk because she cannot handle a life where she is disowned by her family.

Another example of wizards forgetting about house-elfs as sentient life with feelings and rights, comes from Kreacher's name. It's not exactly a far leap to find the name "creature" in it. As Dumbledore explains to Harry, Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards treating him as though he were only a creature.

The argument that slavery is natural, and therefore okay, can only go so far. How can one determine which house-elfs are willing slaves, and which ones are forced? What about the severe mistreatment of elfs by wizards. Ron, Hagrid, and others may not want to stand up with Hermione to free the elfs, and in some ways they are justified, but I do believe that they should at least fight against the malicious treatment of the elfs. They should also stand up for the rights for those who do not want to be slaves.

Second, let us look at Hermione's arguments against slavery, and what she plans to do to improve the house-elfs way of life.

"Oh for heaven's sake!" Hermione cried. "Listen to me, all of you! You've got just as much right as wizards to be unhappy! You've got the right to wages and holidays and proper clothes, you don't have to do everything you're told - look at Dobby!"
"Miss will please keep Dobby out of this," Dobby mumbled, looking scared. The cheery smiles had vanished from the faces of the house-elfs around the kitchen. They were suddenly looking at Hermione as though she were mad and dangerous.
"We has your extra food!" squeaked an elf at Harry's elbow, and he shoved a large ham, a dozen cakes, and some fruit into Harry's arms. "Good-bye!"
Book Four, Page 539, US Edition

It is easy for those people that subscribe to western thoughts and ideologies to believe that Hermione is right. We come from a society that strives to be egalitarian and capitalistic, believing that everyone has a right to decent wages, days off, and material comforts. Perhaps, in many ways, everyone should have a right to them. However, we can see from the house-elfs reactions that they do not subscribe to a similar ideology and are offended at Hermione's suggestions. Why? Shouldn't they be happy to secure equal rights for their entire race?

The problem with Hermione's argument is that she wants to enforce her own culture on the house-elfs. If the elfs are happy as slaves, she should not force them out of their position. Their culture is to serve, so let them serve. She is wrong to try and force them to accept wages and time off, because they don't want wages and time off. However, she is right in noticing that the house-elfs are in a predicament and they need help.

As we have already seen, house-elfs are often treated horribly. Laws that protect house-elfs by banning beating, unusual cruelty, and so forth, are needed. Also, some kind of campaign does need to be set forth to ensure that wizards come to regard house-elfs as a people and not a set of tools. Also, laws that allow a house-elf to be set free on it's own accord, are also important. If an elf such as Dobby wishes to leave his masters, he should always have that right.

The truth is that the matter goes much deeper than laws and choices. Hermione raises an interesting point by saying that slavery is wizard made.

"They think they've got the best job in the world-" (George Weasley on house-elfs)
"That's because they're uneducated and brainwashed!" Hermione began hotly,...
Book Four, Page 239, US Edition

If house-elfs are brainwashed, than the question on slavery is more complicated. Are house-elfs choosing slavery because they like it, or because they have been made to like it? There have been a number of hints within the books that suggest that more than just will-full servitude is going on. For instance, Dumbledore does mention enchantments that are in play.

"He (Kreacher) was bound by the enchantments of his kind, which is to say that he could not disobey a direct order from his master, Sirius." (said by Dumbledore to Harry)
Book Five, Page 831, US Edition.

From this line it is impossible to tell whether these are enchantments house-elfs have imposed on themselves, or on others. However, it seems to me that if it was imposed by house-elfs, Kreacher would have found a way to break past the enchantments. I would not be surprised if house-elfs were originally forced into slavery by wizards through enchantments. Therefore, Hermione's response may not be as unfounded as it seems.

If house-elfs are under enchantments, the first step to helping them would be to make these enchantments illegal. Then, over time, if house-elfs choose to leave their masters, than they may. Perhaps this is my western ideology talking, but loyalty shouldn't be forced.

The reason that the house-elfs are so angry with Hermione is that she wants to change their way of life, a way of life they enjoy, for whatever reason there may be. Hermione is wrong to try and force this life away from them. However, she is right in trying to help them find recognition among wizards. Dumbledore is right about the terrible damage abuse and neglect can leave in their path.

There are still deeper questions that must be asked with house-elfs. There are hints within the books that house-elfs are much more powerful beings than one might think at first sight. Perhaps this spawns from a pre-slavery condition. Look at Dobby. He can do magic without a wand. Not just little magic either. Look at everything he did in book two from the rogue bludger to stopping the barrier for platform 9 3/4. What could Dobby do with a wand? I believe that there is a genuine fear among wizards on what a house-elf who is free and armed with a wand can do. Remember how much trouble Winky was in for just holding Harry's wand?

"Yeah," said Mr. Diggory, "and she had a wand."
What?" said Mr. Weasley.
"Here, look." Mr. Diggory held up a wand and showed it to Mr. Weasley. "Had it in her hand. So that's clause three of the Code of Wand Use broken, for a start.
No non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand."
Book Four, Page 132, US Edition

It is this scene in the forest that leads to Mr. Crouch setting Winky free. We also learn that all non-human creatures are not allowed to hold wands. Why? Are wizards afraid of what the "magical brethren" can do to them? Add this potential power to a house-elfs stealth (remember the mark of a good house-elf is not to be seen (182).), and it is no wonder that wizards may fear house-elfs. Keeping them happy under enslavement is one way to ignore and keep in check a possible threat. However, the way that they treat elfs may also be part of the wizards undoing. One only has to look at Kreacher to see this possibility.

Another problem with the house-elfs stems from within their own community. This is the shame factor. Dobby is looked down on by other house-elfs for wanting pay. They believe that all house-elfs should be happy as long as they have work. For this reason they also look down on Winky. This is another example of labeling, only this time self-imposed. The shame factor is something that Hermione should work on as part of helping the elfs. It will make all of her other work more difficult to achieve until it is dealt with. The shame factor can be a strong inhibiting force.

One also has to question why house-elfs have this shame factor. Is it a sign of pride or fear? I think a little of both. House-elfs take honest pride in the work that they do. As a race, they feel that receiving payment for it only undermines their work. However, it may also contain a fear of what will the cruel master do if he finds out house-elfs are asking for paying? Will it cause all house-elfs to lose all their jobs? Will this be the first step towards a revolution that many house-elfs will want nothing to do with? It is something worth thinking about.

Where will Rowling go with house-elfs in later books? I'm not sure. I don't see a full liberation about to take place, but I wouldn't be surprised if the house-elfs start to rebel. If Hermione can start focusing on improving house-elf rights within their own culture, she may be able to make a lot of ground in helping them get passed the label of "slaves" or "tools". Ron, Hagrid, and others that have shown disapproval at S-P-E-W might be more inclined to help if the focus was more aimed at helping improve living conditions as opposed to capitalist ways of life. Whatever direction it does go, it is clear that the house-elfs are a great example of how labeling and indifference can increase the discord within the magical community.

It is important to remember that the plight of the house-elfs is not uncommon in our own world. Wherever slavery exists, the same questions must be answered. In the United States, slaves had to break through many barriers before they could be freed. These barriers included fighting accusations that slavery was in their nature or fighting the shame that came with dissent. Rowlings' world is often a mirror for our own, with magic representing our own technology. The political and social issues that Rowling raises are found in our own world, and we would be wise to learn from her. That being said, let's continue to the next phase of the thesis.

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