Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Self-Indulgence of Hermione Granger

Self-indulgence has such a negative connotation. When applied to anything (e.g. "That album by U2/Amy Winehouse/JayZ/Coldplay/Radiohead/Eddie Vedder was incredibly self-indulgent") it right away suggests the thing in question is something which:

desperately wants and expects to be taken seriously
which is actually crap, because the artist was just doing what s/he wanted without any regard to a separate issue: what would actually have been a good thing to do.

In this way, the term "self-indulgent" is closely tied with that damning term "cheesy." Cheesiness is NEVER forgiven in our world. (well, except at Christmas, when talking about children, and for charity groups) It is used to described something which:

desperately, EARNESTLY and SINCERELY wants to be taken terribly seriously
which is actually just crap, so you can't possibly, and just wish it would go away/had never existed

So, the world is full of religious people, vegans, anti-fur folk, and environmentalists who damn modern western society for being self-indulgent, and in so doing, want to point out how evil positively everything is too. They make t-shirts and ads and posters and bumper stickers and earnest little videos proclaiming all this. And then frequently, to their horror, the rest of the world turns away in sneering disgust, with only trace amounts of the guilt they were "supposed" to be feeling, claiming the whole thing is "cheesy" and growling how much they wished it, and the people who are preaching that gospel, simply didn't exist.  And then The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, Saturday Night Live and all the others have material (something to mock).  Something which desperately wants to be taken terribly seriously.

I watched this thing today, and it made me think about what self-indulgence is, and the "third, hidden kind" of it, and resolve to illustrate what I meant using Harry Potter, rather than something else, like Lord of the Rings, the classic Star Trek or any other "three protagonists roughly representing id, ego and superego" nerd story choice.

Ron Weasley of the Harry Potter series is clearly meant to be seen as humorously self-indulgent in the typical teen-aged way (remember the book is written by a mum, albeit of a teen-aged girl). Hermione certainly points out and accuses Ron of lazy self-indulgence enough. Ron wants to eat candy, lie around, play sports, break school rules and go places he isn't supposed to (and that whenever he likes), and find ways around doing his school work. His self-indulgence, when it is seen, is generally of a childish, slovenly, gluttonous, lazy type.

Harry Potter is himself more than subject to the same sort of self-indulgence as Ron is on occasion, but he's got his own type as well. Harry has the potential to become more like his nemesis, Lord Voldemort than anyone wants to think about. He has to fight the urge to become self-indulgently proud of his "special" reputation, to be arrogant, cold and unkind, to forget how others are feeling and the like. If Harry indulges himself over-much, he will hurt everyone.  Harry fights the sort of self-indulgence that evil dictators and rich, powerful idiots have.  He has Ron and Hermione to point out when he's indulging his arrogance too much, or is being insensitive.  Like Hitler and the rest, Harry isn't the strongest, the brightest or the best, but he can lead people and feels he is special, and can be the one to make a difference, and so he does.  Jesus style.

Hermione Granger would seem at first not to be very self-indulgent at all.  She does a ridiculous amount of schoolwork and reading (including a great deal of extra reading she doesn't really need to do at all), and spends a great deal of time in making lists and pointing out the flaws in others.  She is self-sacrificing, faithful and hardworking, if frequently uninspired, timid and unoriginal in her thinking, usually needing people like Harry or Ron to come up with most of the truly out-there ideas to deal with truly out-there problems.  How is she self-indulgent?  Well, she loves to do the school work and the reading and the list-making.  She loves to correct people (especially teachers) and point out their flaws.  She fears breaking rules and being lazy, not because she is virtuous only, but because she fears losing what actually matters most to her: being the brightest and smartest and most recognized.  She has Ron and Harry to mock her when she is too pedantic, too timid, too obsessive, too boring, too judgemental, too much of a brown-nose, too much of a suck-up or glory hound.

So, when it comes to environmentalists, vegans and religious people, how are they self-indulgent when they are?  Generally the hardest to catch at it are the Hermione Granger types: the ones who take far too much delight in listing Things They Don't Do, in preaching about Dangers and Virtues Of Various Things That Everyone Needs To Know About, in bemoaning being thought cheesy when what they're presenting frequently IS nothing more than self-indulgence packaged as sincerity, in finger-pointing and seeking recognition for virtue and abstinences which they are trying to lead others into.

The sad truth is that earnest, sincere, unwavering, unshakeable concern for a cause is something generally only teens and young-twenties can properly sustain for long without things "getting a bit complicated."  They have a single-mindedness which is, quite properly, soon disrupted by maturity, which brings with it new freedom from uninformed idealism, blind optimism and black and white thinking.  So, when you meet someone who is preaching a message pretty hard, all too often what you're dealing with is someone indulging him or herself, someone who "needs" people to agree with him or her, someone who wants to "lead" people into "being righter" so they can all be right.

Spiritually speaking, "being right" is a very poor central motive to do anything. Doing anything to "be righter than other people" is far worse, clearly.

We're all "just people."  The word "just," used as always to try to just slip past the reader something which is terribly important (just my life, just friends, just believe what the bible says and just do it, Father would you just fix this problem, just me now, if I could just find someone who loves me, just win the lottery).  "Just people" is about how we're, as it's said "works in progress."  We're not done.  Things aren't obvious and simple.  Anyone who says different, quoth the Dread Pirate Roberts, is selling something.  You can learn all you want about Global Warming (oh! sorry!  "Climate Change") or the bible or veganism.  You can be armed with leaflets, videos and books, and have an astounding attendance record at a myriad motivational meetings on the subject.  Moving within those very rarefied, daily-affirming circles, things may look very simple to you.  You may wonder why everyone else is missing what is so clear to you.  Your path (and "the only logical/virtuous/possible/sensible" path for absolutely everyone else, ESPECIALLY people in positions of authority and power whose daily lives and concerns you have no first-hand experience of) may seem shiningly simple.

Fact is, things are complicated.  They are hard.  Things change.  People are different, and need to approach different things in different ways, with different foci.  Different things are SUPPOSED to matter to different people.  People are supposed to have to struggle a bit to work things out, and things are never perfect.  Why live as if these "obvious" solutions and approaches are going to fix everything?  They won't.

Take note parents, teachers, persons of faith and anyone who tends to get preachy/has instructive pamphlets on them right now: just as children need to be allowed to make a mess, wreck stuff a bit, make mistakes and struggle through, so do we.  We all need to be able to struggle through without a nitpicker peering suspiciously over our shoulder.  We need people around who want us to succeed, not who are waiting to leap on our first (technical) mistake so they can be right about us being wrong.  If the bible teaches anything, it is that the worst people for acting this way are the religious fanatics, the Jonahs, Peters and Prodigal Son's Elder Brothers of the world.  There really is no one more judgemental than someone who is trying to pretend he or she did not once have a problem in the very area he or she is now eagerly damning.

What does "Satanic" mean?  It means "like or of Satan."  What is Satan like?  What's he into? His very name means "accuser" or "enemy," and his character of being a mean-spirited doubter of people's potential and nitpicking bean-counter of the first order is clearly shown out in the bible, doing things like betting God he can make Job screw up, that Job isn't as good as God claims he is, if only he can be allowed to mess with Job's life sufficiently.  He screws up mankind through Adam and Eve, and then tries to screw up Jesus, all for that same reason: to be able to turn to God  and say, "Well, actually, my Creator, he just ain't all that."

What is God like? (what does "godly" mean?)  God seems to be endlessly creative, delighting in diversity (Witness the gratuitous number of varieties of butterflies and snakes, or Dylan Moran's claim that "Fruit is just God showing off.  'Look how many colours *I* can do!' ") and looking for opportunities to say "look at that person/place/thing/idea!  It's good!" He makes things with the potential to be good and be used for good, and then He wants them to get there and be used for that willingly, without Him forcing the goodness.  He works organically, in processes, in relationships, in growth and development over time.  I think much of the bible is God being endlessly disappointed and frustrated in attempts to see that happening and point it out, like a proud father with more photos in his wallet than anyone.  He sure made a point in every era/generation/situation of sticking up for whomever He could (including Job, when Job's "helpful" visitors were assuming that the only explanation for a person with trouble in his life is that he screwed up).  He was awfully glad when Jesus showed up round here, and He said so.

I realize, of course, that TRUE Christian conservatives would never read a blog post with Harry Potter references instead of a bunch of bible droppings (II Hez 21:25, Ph 14:3) strewn about.  Oh well.