Theft, pt. 2: the abhorrence of skepticism
[part 1 of this post found here]
I said, last time, that plagiarism is wrong in the same way deception is wrong; seduction is wrong in the same way infidelity is wrong; abduction is wrong in the same way apathy is wrong; murder is wrong in the same way suicide is wrong; torture is wrong in the same way opium is wrong; memory-erasure is wrong in the same way repression is wrong; remote-controlled action is wrong the same way rash action is wrong. And all of these sins are abhorrent in a way theft, for example, is not.
To pursue this Dantean system-building further: why isn’t theft abhorrent in this way? It might sound as if what I’m saying is that these possessions are fictional, and the sins are abhorrent because they reveal the fiction. But in fact I mean the opposite. Material possessions are fictional too–indeed, fictionality seems inherent in the idea of a possession. A possession is something I can give away, or have taken away from me, because it was never “really” mine. Immaterial “possessions,” we want to say, are really mine, but this, I argued last time, isn’t true either: they’re not mine, they happen to me. Possessions are a fiction agreed upon by the community, and theft is a crime against both the owner and the community. The sins I discussed last time aren’t either, at least not primarily; they’re something deeper, something like crimes against nature, or against grammar, or against God. This is what I mean by the word “abhorrent.”
But to call them all abhorrent is not to say that they’re of equal seriousness (if it makes sense to say that some sins are more serious than others). It’s to say that they’re things that can’t be done in the normal course of things; they’re a kind of magic. Once you get past the increase in material well-being, this is what magic promises: the ability to commit unnatural offenses, that is, to put people in situations where otherwise absurd skepticism would begin to seem justified.
And really, this is what J.K. Rowling’s Potter-verse is all about. The Dark Arts center, of course, on the Unforgivable Curses: Avada Kedavra kills, Imperio controls, Cruciatus tortures. Life, liberty, (un)happiness: most of us cannot imagine giving these away. That’s what makes taking them with magic so unforgivable: it puts the victim in an unimaginable situation. But love potions and memory spells? The Harry Potter books treat those with a great deal more leniency (in ways I often found rather disturbing), in much the same way that infidelity and repression may be troubling, but aren’t seen as evidence for skepticism, they’re just part of ordinary life. Abusing language, apparently, is so integral to ordinary life that it’s truth serums, not spells that aid in plagiarism or deception, that have to be regulated. It seems our words and our hearts and our memories are not quite as inalienable as our lives and our liberty and our sensations.