As long-time fans of yours, we would like to thank you for your participation in the struggle against Lord Voldemort, and, by extension, your struggle against the ‘might makes right’ paradigm for which he stood. Your firm and unrelenting stance in favour of social justice has invited us (muggles) to examine the goings-on of our own world. As fans of you personally and even bigger fans of social justice in general, however, we would like to draw your attention to what we feel has been a recurring blind spot throughout your life thus far: your inconsistency in opposing unjust exploitation.
Beginning with the appearance of Dobby in your second year at Hogwarts, we are introduced to ‘house-elves’: domesticated elves that wizards (humans) exploit as forced servants. To the extent that house-elves are forced to do labour for which they are not compensated, they are, in effect, slaves. Robbed of all and any power (they cannot be ‘wand-carriers’, for instance), the domestication and subsequent exploitation of elves is so deeply ingrained into the social landscape of the wizarding world that both wizards and house-elves alike take it for granted as the ‘natural’ order of things. Centuries (if not millennia) of servitude and slavery have bred the independence out of house-elves. Indeed, the proper house-elf is so docile and subservient that he will do anything his master asks of him – no matter how harmful it is to the elf.
Yet even as you and Dumbledore (among others) acknowledge the injustice of elf slavery, you fail to see your own complicity in non-human slavery elsewhere: along with Dumbledore, you and other well-intentioned wizards and witches wear wool that comes from exploited sheep. That is, the domestic sheep is an animal that, through selective breeding, has become entirely reliant upon human control for survival. Like all domesticated non-humans, the sheep has evolved, over several millennia of human subjugation, to be so utterly at our mercy that they are no longer capable of independently living natural lives in the wild. And like wizards, who take advantage of the docility of house-elves in order to exploit the latter group, we all (warlock and muggle alike) take advantage of domestic animals (including sheep) in order to exploit them for our purposes – even when it is harmful for them that we do so.
Humans have bred sheep to have unnaturally wrinkly skin and thereby have excess amounts of fleece on their body, creating an artificial ‘need’ for shearing – an activity that itself is often stressful and traumatic for the animals. But by virtue of being so vulnerable and dependent upon us, domesticated animals, like house-elves, have no choice but to endure any and all use that we make of them. There is something eerie about Dumbledore telling Harry (at the end of your fifth year at Hogwarts) that house-elves deserve more respect (i.e., that we ought not to prey upon the vulnerable simply because we can) when he himself wears wool sweaters in the winter.
One of the defining characteristics of slavery throughout the ages has been the treatment of slaves exclusively as means to somebody else’s ends, with the life and welfare of the slave having no inherent value – a point that was rather artfully illustrated to you just before your fifth year, with the wall display of the severed heads of retired house-elves at the House of Black. Cruel though it may undoubtedly be to rob a sentient being of their life, what use would it be to anyone to keep alive a slave that is no longer useful? Property, after all, is that which has only external or extrinsic value. Yet this reality seems not to perturb you too terribly much, for, as you preach about elf rights at the Hogwarts breakfast table, give nary a thought to the dairy cows upon whose exploitation was obtained the butter you spread on your toast!
Of course, like all mammals, dairy cows must give birth in order to lactate – a fact that dairy farmers take advantage of by artificially inseminating their cows annually. When the calves are born, they are quickly taken away from their mothers (an act that results in tremendous stress and trauma for mother and calf alike), and the milk that was intended for them is instead stolen by humans. Her daughters will replace her as milk machines, and her sons (because they can neither lactate nor produce offspring) will be sent prematurely to the slaughterhouse, where they will be ‘processed’ into veal. After repeated cycles of traumatic pregnancy, forced lactation and bereavement, the ‘spent’ mother will likewise be sent off to slaughter. The life and welfare of the dairy cow, then, like that of the house elf, has no inherent value and is not taken into consideration beyond her utility as a milk machine, even though such treatment invariably deprives her of the liberty, comfort, and autonomy which she, like all sentient beings, so very desires. Once again, the injustice of treating a sentient ‘other’ as our property is made clear. How ironic, then, that in decrying the enslavement of elves, you seem to miss this crucial connection and do not also renounce the exploitation of all sentient non-humans!
In addition to the economic and legal similarities shared by all unjust institutions, elf slavery and animal exploitation share yet another characteristic: the social psychology under which they are both perpetuated. House elves, after centuries (millennia?) of servitude and brainwashing, have lost all semblance of independence and desire for autonomy, taking for granted their property status as ‘normal’ and even desirable. Wizards and witches, who benefit from such discrimination, often point to the contentment of elves as ‘evidence’ that such practices are not unjust. How could it be ‘slavery’ when the elves themselves like it?
It is interesting to note that when Ron makes this very observation in your forth year, you immediately snap back, “That’s because they’re uneducated and brainwashed!” In other words, you can see that the oppression of elves is far more complicated than simply determining whether or not they are ‘happy’ or complicit in their exploitation.
The past decade or so has witnessed the growth of the ‘humane’ animal exploitation movement: free-range eggs, organic milk, and other ‘feel-good’ labels. Putting aside the fact that these words are marketing schemes which do not translate into better welfare standards for animals, the reality is that even if it were possible to exploit animals ‘humanely’, it would not resolve the basic question of what justification we have for using them as means to our ends in the first place. Like the complicity of house elves in their own slavery, ‘humane’ animal exploitation fails to take into consideration the subjugation and violence upon which our entire relationship with domestic non-humans is based upon in the first place. Whether it’s the complicity of house elves in their own slavery, the ‘humane’ exploitation of domestic non-humans, the ‘choice’ of workers in a capitalist society to toil in demoralizing factory conditions, or any other unjust institution about which we lie to ourselves, such schemes ignore the structural inequalities that render ‘choice’ and ‘happy exploitation’ meaningless. True justice, then, comes not from putting a happy-faced sticker on exploitation, but from dismantling the underlying hierarchal structures that create and perpetuate injustice in the first place.
Though your early efforts to raise awareness about the plight of house elves are met with ridicule, at least some witches and wizards recognize that something is fundamentally wrong with the whole ‘house elves as property’ paradigm. Those who took Dumbledore’s (and Harry’s) side in the struggle against Lord Voldemort recognized that the whole hierarchal paradigm of wizard over muggle, man over creature was fundamentally unjust.
Likewise, we all (wizard, witch or muggle) agree that it is wrong to inflict ‘unnecessary’ harm on animals. Yet our most numerically significant uses of animals (e.g. for food) cannot be deemed as ‘necessary’ under any coherent definition of that word. The American Dietetic Association (one of the largest nutritional science organizations in the world) states:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
The best justification that we have for inflicting suffering and death on billions of sentient non-humans is that they taste good, and that is convenient and habitual for us to do so. There is no necessity involved. Like well-intentioned wizards who maintain that house elves ‘enjoy’ being enslaved, we fail to take our own moral convictions to their logical conclusion: we continue to eat, wear, and use non-humans when it is not necessary for us to do so, and we tell ourselves all sorts of stories about why it is supposedly alright.
As devoted fans of yours, and earnest seekers of social justice and non-violence, we would like to make an offer: we ask that you consider going vegan. Veganism means that one no longer eats, wears, or otherwise exploits non-human animals for human benefit. More than a matter of diet or lifestyle, veganism is a principled rejection of the property status of non-human animals – a lived form of protest against massive violence committed against the most vulnerable among us. Being vegan is incredibly easy to do, and it is the minimum standard of decency that we owe to non-humans in light of our assessment that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on them.
Living one’s life as a vegan and committing oneself to the abolition of animal exploitation is neither misanthropic nor myopic. Speciesism (discrimination on the basis of species) is inextricably intertwined with various other forms of violence, and like house-elf exploitation, non-human exploitation is itself symptom to a hierarchal world in which injustice takes on myriad forms. As long as we are slaughtering billions of defenseless beings simply because we can, we are not going to treat our fellow humans any better, and any talk of ‘justice’ or ‘world peace’ will remain just that – empty words in the wind.
Intelligent and well-intentioned though you undoubtedly may be, you too seem to fall victim to the confused and clouded thinking that often comes as a result of living in a violent world. Perhaps, had you stepped back and looked at the picture more clearly, you would have made the connection: if it is wrong for wizards to exploit magical non-humans, then it is wrong for all of us (muggle and warlock alike) to domesticate and exploit sentient non-humans as a general matter.
We hope that this letter finds you in good health, and that we have stimulated you into thinking critically about a serious social justice issue. We invite you to visit us online to learn more:
The Abolitionist Animal Rights Movement