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Theft, pt. 3: magical ownership

June 1, 2013

[part one here, part two here]

In my previous post I talked about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and how the purpose of magic is to make it possible to place people, arbitrarily, the kind of abhorrent situations that cause skepticism. Murder, torture, mind control, etc: for the most part I’m comfortable with how Rowling gives these sins magical life; I have more problems with how she treats those sins that are less abhorrent. Consider things like property and privacy and honor, and their attendant sins, theft and charity and voyeurism and exhibitionism and slander and boasting. How would magic affect these? And what is their relationship to skepticism, anyhow?

Honor is perhaps the least badly done. The Potter books are at least fairly critical of Rita Skeeter and her Quick Quotes Quill. But the quills themselves aren’t treated as particularly problematic. Wouldn’t the kind of power they give be even more socially dangerous than love potions and memory spells, since they affect not just one person, but the whole community?

Well, yes, and I think that’s why Rowling doesn’t explore the problem further: Rowling isn’t interested in magic that calls into doubt the standing of the community. A loss of honor’s skeptical correlation isn’t a personal/universal worry (“is there an external world?”, “do other minds exist?”), it’s a communal one: “what if the community is wrong?” The wizarding community being wrong is something that happens all the time, of course, but it’s never blamed primarily on magic, it’s blamed on the people who are wrong. Rowling doesn’t seem interested in how difficult magic would make it to build up enough trust to form a community in the first place, because she needs the community to be there already so that Harry can rebel against it.

In a related issue, the Potter books basically ignore the problem of privacy, and I can see why, but it’s not really an excuse. Potter-verse magic makes it possible to observe anyone at any time undetected; it’s perfect surveillance technology, and available to everyone, not just the government and big corporations. Really now–a handful of (fairly bright) teenagers were able to create a Marauder’s Map that was able to tell you the exact location of anyone within Hogwarts’ school grounds. What would stop a wizard a bit smarter from switching that map from “street layout” to “satellite”? How would the Ministry of Magic deal with magical peeping Toms? I’ve no idea. I’m not sure it could.

Privacy is a really complicated thing, and magically calling it into question raises a number of skeptical worries, but the most important one, maybe, is this: “what if the community makes up its mind?” Whenever we do something wrong we don’t want it to be found out because we want a chance to take it back; with privacy gone, we lose the gap between what we do and who people think we are. Does this just mean eliminating hypocrisy? Well, maybe, but hypocrisy’s not all bad, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere. It’s a complex issue, in any case. And Rowling almost entirely ignores it.

And what about theft? That’s perhaps the most complex of all. With scarcity done away with (and thus commerce as we know it, though Rowling ignores this implication), theft only makes sense if what’s stolen has more than material value: if it’s an artifact, an artwork, a sentimental token. A relic. The theft of a relic is a strange in-between case. It’s not quite a crime against grammar, because even relics are objects and really can be owned, but it’s not just stealing money either (well, as if money were completely material!). Theft of magical artifacts plays a big role in Harry Potter, of course, but artifacts in those books seem to always gravitate towards their “proper” owner, as if by magic. There don’t appear to be spells to change an artifact’s owner; moral and magical and legal ownership are coextensive.

This is reassuring, but perhaps not very plausible. Mostly, I find it an unfortunate failure to explore what could have been a fascinating question: what happens when I’m forced to confront the fact that the things I care about don’t care about me? This isn’t a form of skepticism only because it’s true, because putting your faith in aesthetic objects has always been an absurd proposition. Except in the Potter-verse, it’s not; swords can chose their swordsmen, paintings can talk back to you, hats can tell you who you are. Which is charming, until it begins to seem horrifying: what is it like to be a person in a painting? Would destroying the painting be tantamount to murder? If so, is there any way for the painting-person to die a natural death? Or is the painting world a kind of hellish afterlife?

And that hat: why would you trust anyone other than God to know you that well, and to announce to the world who you were? To invade your privacy and make or break your honor? Harry Potter takes as an unstated premise the idea that we would let society do these things to us, without batting an eye. It matters who’s running the Ministry of Magic, of course, and when bad men get control of it, things get very bad–but the existence of that Ministry, and its simultaneously haphazard and absolute powers of propaganda, surveillance, and enforcement, aren’t up for debate.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2013 11:05 am

    Partly inspired by our conversations, I’ve decided to reread Lord of the Rings. I recently read this section here that made me think of what you say in this post about privacy:

    When Frodo wakes in Rivendell, he is surprised that Gandalf already knows so much about what happened to him during their separation:

    ‘You seem to know a great deal already,’ said Frodo. ‘I have not spoken to the others about the Barrow. […] How do you know about it?’
    ‘You have talked long in your sleep, Frodo,’ said Gandalf gently, ‘and it has not be hard for me to read your mind and memory.’

    I was surprised to discover Gandalf had done so without Frodo’s permission. Later in the story, if I remember correctly, isn’t it Saruman who can read people’s minds?

  2. June 5, 2013 3:12 pm

    Strange! I’d forgotten about that. I suppose we have to allow for a good kind of magical invasion of privacy as well as a bad. Or a good and a bad aspect, perhaps. The good aspect being something like magic making objective the subjective feeling of intimacy found in things like love and friendship, the bad aspect making objective the subjective feeling of always having to look over your shoulder.

    That doesn’t explain Gandalf doing it without Frodo’s permission. But worrying too much about permission-granting and “consent” might be misleading. The difference between intimacy and surveillance isn’t the difference between voluntary and involuntary. Being intimate doesn’t mean not paying attention to involuntary facial expressions, for example, and being someone’s friend can sometimes mean trying to understand what they’re thinking even when they don’t want you to. The difference between Gandalf and Saruman probably has more to do with interpreting someone’s expressions/thoughts charitably versus interpreting them with hostile intent. It’s the difference between someone knowing you and someone knowing about you, maybe.

    Of course Gandalf’s also an angel. Maybe the rules are different for angels.

  3. Timothy Dean permalink
    June 7, 2013 8:53 am

    This post makes me think of modern technology. After all, there’s little difference between it and HP-style magic.

    I started thinking along those lines, and then I read your comments about the Ministry. “Harry Potter takes as an unstated premise the idea that we would let society do these things to us, without batting an eye.” But don’t we do exactly this today? I suppose this question is “relevant,” given that apparently activities I’ve been quite certain for some time our government wouldn’t *not* be engaging in have been confirmed. But even your comments about what a moderately bright teenager can do in terms of surveillance are fairly applicable to our modern world.

    What think you?

  4. denizb33 permalink
    June 7, 2013 9:57 am

    For now the only thing that comes to mind with regard to the privacy issue is when Harry was in the Prefects’ bath and asked Myrtle to look away as he got into the water – if magic allows even further intrusions into human levels of and desires for privacy, then I suppose the balance of public and private is reached through understanding in human relationships. Umbridge doesn’t balk at using spies for instance, at school or at the Ministry (having stolen an artefact herself), but none of the “good” teachers intrude that much into the students’ lives.
    I’m not sure the Sorting Hat is an issue – it’s a device with certain magical powers that have presumably been strengthen, in that one area, for centuries. Contrast to, say, the Mirror of Erised which simply triggers longing – or can be used as defense. Again, it’s not so much the objects, but what their human creators/shapers have fashioned into them…
    Which would all make the Ministry rather necessary, at least as a place of debate and arbitration, and for the formulation of basic guidelines.

  5. June 7, 2013 12:17 pm

    Timothy: Well, we’ll be closer to the ease of surveillance in Harry Potter once drones get small, cheap, and reliable enough to follow people without their knowledge and record their behavior and conversations. Right now people may be OK with being watched on the internet, but they still feel fairly sure they’re not being watched the rest of the time. I suspect that’s at least partially because, even if it’s possible to spy on people’s dinner conversations and sex lives, it would be really expensive to do so. But I agree with the general point. It’s possible the inhabitants of a magical world would be be like us: so accustomed to the idea they might be spied on that they don’t really care.

    denizb33: I agree spying doesn’t play that big a role in Harry Potter, but I don’t think it’s plausible that it doesn’t. I’m not convinced social norms against spying could arise because they couldn’t be easily enforced, and breaking them would be a really strong temptation. Would they make the very knowledge forbidden? Would the Ministry monitor the use of spy-magic and track down whoever uses it? That would mean, basically, giving the Ministry an exclusive right to surveillance, the way most governments have an exclusive right to the use of force. I suppose the Ministry already has that power, though; they know immediately whenever Harry uses magic underage, and then there’s that “don’t say Voldemort’s name” spell in the seventh book…

    As for the Sorting Hat: the problem isn’t just that it reads your mind, it’s that it’s a person who reads your mind. Or at least it’s very person-like, to the point that it’s odd to call it just a “device.” It’s definitely an artificial /intelligence/. The wizards might not see it this way–we know they have pretty rigid views on who counts as a person; house-elves don’t, for example–but that doesn’t mean there’s not something weird going on here.

    I agree that all of the above makes something like a Ministry necessary. But technology isn’t morally neutral, and one of the ways it’s not morally neutral is that it can make such a Ministry impossible to establish without giving it totalitarian powers.

    I suppose what I’m really saying is, I wish J.K. Rowling had read some cyberpunk.

    • June 7, 2013 12:25 pm

      If nothing else, it would have been interesting to have some of the characters at least bring up some of these points – especially, for instance, with regard to Ministry spying powers in relation to Hermione’s authorised use of the Time Turner. The Ministry knew she had it, because McGonagall had to apply for it, but then they never followed up on what Hermione was doing with it…
      I always did want to hear more about what happened after they overturned and broke all those Time Turners at the Ministry.

  6. June 7, 2013 12:26 pm

    And I do wonder now and again how the Sorting Hat managed to make Gryffindor’s sword appear/materialise…

  7. CJ Wolfe permalink
    September 20, 2013 5:16 pm

    The sorting hat was mentioned in this recent article about soccer team allegiance in America vs. Soccer team allegiance in England:
    “Over here, you are born into your allegiance with your team. It says something about who you are. It’s as if the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter was once placed on our heads, somehow defining each of us as personalities.”
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323342404579080990398192128.html

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