In the Goblet of Fire, we are introduced to Hermione’s crusade for house-elf rights, the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.), after she witnesses Winky’s mistreatment and learns that house-elves cook and clean at Hogwarts. Not only does house-elf treatment mirror past and current depictions of slavery, but Hermione’s well intentioned yet somewhat misguided plight to support house-elves reminds me of instances when people want to address social issues, but are not well informed about the community they want to serve or the issue they want to address. This can be seen in both the research process and social innovation as well as in ideas designed to help those less fortunate.
I am part of a research program where identifying the social issue and understanding the audience affected by that issue was emphasized early on. There was one group that wanted to make prosthetic legs for children that grew as they did, but for all their zeal and wonderful ideas, the group had never spoken to a child who needed a prosthetic limb or their parents. The assumptions that the team might have made and the preconceived notions they might have had about that population could have been disastrous in the making (and selling) of their product.
I tend to feel a certain way when people do similar things for those in developing countries, especially African countries. As someone who is Nigerian, I am cognizant of the way the United States (or the western world in general) views the continent of Africa. Those commercials where if you give $20 a month, you can feed a child in Africa, come to mind. African countries are often portrayed as poor nations in need of help and assistance. The media rarely has any positive portrayals of Africa nor is there much widespread discussion about the ways that Africans living in Africa or abroad are already supporting their own communities back home.
Some people who have good intentions may approach solving social issues in Africa without really understanding the audience they want to help- who they are, what they do, the culture and the customs in the area, what they are actually like, what they need and want, and how any solution to be proposed is actually beneficial to them.
I was especially reminded of this on a recent Alternative Breaks experience to Ecuador where we taught English to students in an indigenous community. Towards the end, our group was thinking about ways that we could continue to work with the community and support them. We had all these ideas about how we could support the students in learning English, but we were reminded by our Staff Advisor that we should not make assumptions about what the school may want or need and that learning English may not even be a priority for them at this point. Even we, who had informed ourselves before the trip and spent a week visiting this school, still had a certain mindset that we knew what may be best for the school.
All of this ties into Hermione’s crusade for house-elf rights. She has witnessed house-elf abuse and knows their enslavement is wrong. At the same time she is trying to impose her ideas (getting paid, taking time off, etc.- things that are relevant to humans) onto the house-elves, without truly understanding their species or their history, what their lives are like or what they think, want, or need. This can be seen in the Goblet of Fire. The house-elves working in the Hogwarts kitchen often seem uncomfortable, upset, or angry when Dobby pronounces his freedom or when Hermione states that house-elves should have similar rights to wizards. There are even times when Dobby does not feel comfortable siding with her and still retains his house-elf mentality (not wanting too much pay, harming himself for speaking badly about the Malfoys). It is also clear that Winky is not pleased with being free and is very upset about it.
(As a side note, I wonder how much of Winky’s distress is due to her dismissal or due to failing to keep Barty Crouch Jr. bound to her, since that was her sole duty and her secret to keep. She was also the one who suggested he be allowed to go to the Quidditch World Cup. I also wonder if she knows what it means for him to be free now. Nevertheless, she does lament that she is not able to take care of Mr. Crouch.)
Of course it is hard to sit here and think, “Well maybe they do like their conditions” since the Hogwarts house-elves do often seem happy to serve, especially since we don’t know what house-elves were doing before wizards enslaved them. Are they truly happy or is it thousands of years of conditioning and brainwashing to believe they are happy? The book never takes a house-elf’s point of view, so we can only speculate on what they think. We also have to consider Winky who was set free- she is emotionally and psychologically distraught and cannot handle not serving the Crouch family. Considering Winky, would it even be beneficial to the elves themselves to set them free? The issue is left hanging at the end of the book, because it is too large to solve in such a short span of time, but it leaves you to wonder. There is no question that house-elves should not be abused or compelled to harm themselves when they make a mistake, but considering what we have seen so far, it seems like Hermione has a lot more learning to do before S.P.E.W becomes a fully fleshed out organization.