Once upon a time, I took a Women’s Studies course. I took it because it had room and I needed an elective. I wasn’t expecting much but I ended up enjoying myself. I was exposed to new ideas and I learned a new language that allowed me to label ideas I already entertained. The course gave me the tools to conduct more effective arguments in areas that interested me, like equality and economics, not that a lack of knowledge ever slowed me down.
During one lecture, the subject of historical philosophies came up. Ancient Greek, ancient Roman, that kind of thing.
A young woman, certain of herself and passionately self-confident, wearing locs and avant-garde clothes with a panache I envied, argued that historical philosophies should not be taught in the modern education system.
The problem was the imperfections.
She did not like the incongruities between the philosophies they espoused and the ways they lived their lives.
She argued the ideas put forth by thinkers like Plato and Aristotle should be rejected because one could demonstrate that in their own lives, they were racist, classist, and sexist. Because they failed to walk the walk, their works should be abandoned, important philosophical truths notwithstanding.
Fruit of the poisoned tree.
I disagreed which was a problem considering I loathed speaking up and being the centre of attention. Unfortunately, I thought it was an important topic and it seemed to me that they were headed in the wrong direction. I wish I could report that I changed her mind but that would be a lie. In truth, it got ugly and by the end, I decided silence for the rest of my university career was a good plan.
It always seemed to me that both things could be true. Someone could be imperfect and still come up with ideas and thoughts that were perfectly on point.
I continued to think about the problem over the years, through this boycott and that rejection. Must our response always be all or nothing? Can you excuse people for being a product of their time and environment? Is perfection from our role models and philosophers realistic? What happens when they falter, when they’re imperfect? Does that make them invalid?
I love Harry Potter. I have all the books and all the movies though that doesn’t make me unique. I have the certificate that says I’m a member of Gryffindor. I cheated to avoid Ravenclaw; Dumbledore would’ve approved. I have various and sundry collectibles. I’m a fan.
Treating each other well, not discriminating because of ultimately insignificant differences is something I consider to be important. It’s basic. Why wouldn’t you be about equality? It’s a common theme in Harry Potter. Different isn’t less than. We all have value. There’s even a sub-storyline that has Hermione fighting elf discrimination. Equality for all.
Imagine my distress then, when I discovered that J.K. Rowling and I have very different opinions about transgendered people. She’s a little bit bigoted, a little bit close-minded. A little too determined to use her platform for harm.
What to do now?
I consider it to be kind of a big deal. I don’t like disagreeing with someone I admire about something I consider to be fundamental. I probably won’t go see the next Fantastic Beasts movie. But do I have to get rid of all things Potter because we disagree? Is everything about J.K. Rowling invalid because of her point of view in this one area?
Do we have to reject the ideas of the ancient philosophers because they had slaves?
Expecting perfection from people is a dangerous business. It can lead to unwarranted societal expulsions. Conversely, it can make us overlook the flaws in people we favour.
Are we not allowed to disagree with one another over anything? Is there really “one true way”? It certainly seems like we’re becoming less tolerant. We’re more rigid and polarized in our opinions and so very “all or nothing” in our judgments. The consequences of not jumping to embrace popular opinion can be severe too.
I’m probably not going to be friends with Ms. Rowling. Basic human rights is a pretty big area of disagreement. But does her position on this matter mean that she is of no further use as a human being? Does it mean that her books must be rejected as fatally flawed because they come from an imperfect person and thus are no longer of value?
Was she really perfect before?
There are good life lessons in the words of Greek philosophers, inherent misogyny and racism notwithstanding. There are good life lessons in the world of Harry Potter, tunnel vision of J.K. Rowling notwithstanding.
There are also some valid criticisms. What then to do?