Straw Hufflepuffs and Lone Heroes

by Raemon 3y16th Apr 20174 min read63 comments

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I was hoping the next Project Hufflepuff post would involve more "explain concretely what I think we should do", but as it turns out I'm still hashing out some thoughts about that. In the meanwhile, this is the post I actually have ready to go, which is as good as any to post for now.

Epistemic Status: Mythmaking. This is tailored for the sort of person for whom the "Lone Hero" mindset is attractive. If that isn't something you're concerned with and this post feels irrelevant or missing some important things, note that my vision for Project Hufflepuff has multiple facets and I expect different people to approach it in different ways.

For good or for ill, the founding mythology of our community is a Harry Potter fanfiction.

This has a few ramifications I’ll delve into at some point, but the most pertinent bit is: for a community to change itself, the impulse to change needs to come from within the community. I think it’s easier to build change off of stories that are already a part of our cultural identity.*

* with an understanding that maybe part of the problem is that our cultural identity needs to change, or be more accessible, but I’m running with this mythos for the time being.

In J.K Rowling’s original Harry Potter story, Hufflepuffs are treated like “generic background characters” at best and as a joke at worst. All the main characters are Gryffindors, courageous and true. All the bad guys are Slytherin. And this is strange - Rowling clearly was setting out to create a complex world with nuanced virtues and vices. But it almost seems to me like Rowling’s story takes place in an alternate, explicitly “Pro-Gryffindor propaganda” universe instead of the “real” Harry Potter world.

People have trouble taking Hufflepuff seriously, because they’ve never actually seen the real thing - only lame, strawman caricatures.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is… well, Pro-Ravenclaw propaganda. But part of being Ravenclaw is trying to understand things, and to use that knowledge. Eliezer makes an earnest effort to steelman each house. What wisdom does it offer that actually makes sense? What virtues does it cultivate that are rare and valuable?

When Harry goes under the sorting hat, it actually tries to convince him not to go into Ravenclaw, and specifically pushes towards Hufflepuff House:

Where would I go, if not Ravenclaw?
"Ahem. 'Clever kids in Ravenclaw, evil kids in Slytherin, wannabe heroes in Gryffindor, and everyone who does the actual work in Hufflepuff.' This indicates a certain amount of respect. You are well aware that Conscientiousness is just about as important as raw intelligence in determining life outcomes, you think you will be extremely loyal to your friends if you ever have some, you are not frightened by the expectation that your chosen scientific problems may take decades to solve -"
I'm lazy! I hate work! Hate hard work in all its forms! Clever shortcuts, that's all I'm about!
"And you would find loyalty and friendship in Hufflepuff, a camaraderie that you have never had before. You would find that you could rely on others, and that would heal something inside you that is broken."
But my plans -
"So replan! Don't let your life be steered by your reluctance to do a little extra thinking. You know that."

In the end, Harry chooses to go to Ravenclaw - the obvious house, the place that seemed most straightforward and comfortable. And ultimately… a hundred+ chapters later, I think he’s still visibly lacking in the strengths that Hufflepuff might have helped him develop.

He does work hard and is incredibly loyal to his friends… but he operates in a fundamentally lone-wolf mindset. He’s still manipulating people for their own good. He’s still too caught up in his own cleverness. He never really has true friends other than Hermione, and when she is unable to be his friend for an extended period of time, it takes a huge toll on him that he doesn’t have the support network to recover from in a healthy way.

The story does showcase Hufflepuff virtue. Hermione’s army is strong precisely because people work hard, trust each other and help each other - not just in big, dramatic gestures, but in small moments throughout the day.

But… none of that ends up really mattering. And in the end, Harry faces his enemy alone. Lip service is paid to the concepts of friendship and group coordination, but the dominant narrative is Godric Gryffindor’s Nihil Supernum:

No rescuer hath the rescuer.
No lord hath the champion.
No mother or father.
Only nothingness above.

The Sequences and HPMOR both talk about the importance of groups, of emotions, of avoiding the biases that plague overly-clever people in particular. But I feel like the communities descended from Less Wrong, as a whole, are still basically that eleven-year-old Harry Potter: abstractly understanding that these things are important, but not really believing in them seriously enough to actually change their plans and priorities.

Lone Heroes

In Methods of Rationality, there’s a pretty good reason for Harry to focus on being a lone hero: he literally is alone. Nobody else really cares about the things he cares about or tries to do things on his level. It’s like a group project in high school, which is supposed to teach cooperation but actually just results in one kid doing all the work while the others either halfheartedly try to help (at best) or deliberately goof off.

Harry doesn’t bother turning to others for help, because they won’t give him the help he needs.

He does the only thing he can do reliably: focus on himself, pushing himself as hard as he can. The world is full of impossible challenges and nobody else is stepping up, so he shuts up and does the impossible as best he can. Learning higher level magic. Learning higher level strategy. Training, physically and mentally.

This proves to be barely enough to survive, and not nearly enough to actually play the game. The last chapters are Harry realizing his best still isn’t good enough, and no, this isn’t fair, but it’s how the world is, and there’s nothing to do but keep trying.

He helps others level up as best they can. Hermione and Neville and some others show promise. But they’re not ready to work together as equals.

And frankly, this does match my experience of the real world. When you have a dream burning in your heart... it is incredibly hard to find someone who shares it, who will not just pitch in and help but will actually move heaven and earth to achieve it.

And if they aren’t capable, level themselves up until they are.

In my own projects, I have tried to find people to work alongside me and at best I’ve found temporary allies. And it is frustrating. And it is incredibly tempting to say “well, the only person I can rely on is myself.”

But… here’s the thing.

Yes, the world is horribly unfair. It is full of poverty, and people trapped in demoralizing jobs. It is full of stupid bureaucracies and corruption and people dying for no good reason. It is full of beautiful things that could exist but don’t. And there are terribly few people who are able and willing to do the work needed to make a dent in reality.

But as long as we’re willing to look at monstrously unfair things and roll up our sleeves and get to work anyway, consider this:

It may be that one of the unfair things is that one person can never be enough to solve these problems. That one of the things we need to roll up our sleeves and do even though it seems impossible is figure out how to coordinate and level up together and rely on each other in a way that actually works.

And maybe, while we’re at it, find meaningful relationships that actually make us happy. Because it's not a coincidence that Hufflepuff is about both hard work and warmth and camaraderie. The warmth is what makes the hard work sustainable.

Godric Gryffindor has a point, but Nihil Supernum feels incomplete to me. There are no parents to step in and help us, but if we look to our left, or right…

Yes, you are only one
No, it is not enough—
But if you lift your eyes,
I am your brother
Vienna Teng, Level Up

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Reminder that the Berkeley Hufflepuff Unconference is on April 28th. RSVPing on this Facebook Event is helpful, as is filling out this form.

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