Honesty and “Better Call Saul”

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Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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39 Responses

  1. Avatar Em Carpenter
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    This is certainly a refreshing take! You make some good points.
    I need to watch that show, not sure why I haven’t yet.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to Em Carpenter
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      Yeah you should, definitely! In a lot of ways I like it better than Breaking Bad.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to atomickristin
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        Do you recommend it for people (like me) who haven’t seen and don’t want to see Breaking Bad? I saw the Breaking Bad pilot and was so turned off I didn’t want to pursue the show further.* I understand BCS is a prequel, which is one reason I haven’t given it a try.

        *Maybe I should give it a second chance. I realize it’s iffy to judge a show only by its pilot.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy
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          I actually think you could watch BCS (at least the first two seasons) without watching BB. You’d miss out on some of the fun of the easter eggs/origin stories but I think it’s a great show entirely on its own merits.

          But I will say you probably should give BB another chance. I had actually watched the pilot twice and couldn’t get into it either time, and decided it was overrated. Then last year my husband wanted to watch it so we kept going with it, and both of us ended up really loving it – and he hates anything to do with glorifying drug use so for him that was saying a lot. We watched it again immediately afterwards (we never do that) and are now rewatching it a third time and it’s very nearly as compelling a watch the third time through.Report

  2. Avatar bookdragon
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    I haven’t seen the show. but I also get annoyed with the tv drama ‘but should have told us the truth!’ subplots. Too often the lies really are understandable and anyone with half a brain and/or the least sense of empathy would be able to forgive then easily. (Or if not easily, at least after giving them a chewing out for deciding to do something stupid and not telling you because they ‘wanted to protect you’, like you weren’t capable of making a rational decision on your own).

    Forgetting though is a different thing. When people you care about hurt or endanger themselves, even for the best of reasons, that’s hard to forget. And if they’ve lied to keep you from interfering or stopping them, you might forgive but you’re always going to have a question as to whether they are trying to misdirect you in the future – not out of righteous offensive at a lie, but out of a protective fear for them. Good dramas show it that way. Bad dramas go all in on honesty being the core issue.

    You make good points on the imbalance of power too. I suspect we all have occasions where we’ve been dishonest in those situations. For instance, I know I’ve written papers in various English classes that reflected not what I actually thought of a book, but what I expected the teacher wanted me to think of it.

    Ultimately though, fetishizing honesty makes no sense because a little dishonesty is necessary to exist in polite society: Your aunt knits you a sweater for Christmas. It’s hideous. Do you say that? No. You say “Thank you. you must have put so much work into this!”Report

  3. Avatar bookdragon
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    I haven’t seen the show. but I also get annoyed with the tv drama ‘but should have told us the truth!’ subplots. Too often the lies really are understandable and anyone with half a brain and/or the least sense of empathy would be able to forgive then easily. (Or if not easily, at least after giving them a chewing out for deciding to do something stupid and not telling you because they ‘wanted to protect you’, like you weren’t capable of making a rational decision on your own).

    Forgetting though is a different thing. When people you care about hurt or endanger themselves, even for the best of reasons, that’s hard to forget. And if they’ve lied to keep you from interfering or stopping them, you might forgive but you’re always going to have a question as to whether they are trying to misdirect you in the future – not out of righteous offensive at a lie, but out of a protective fear for them. Good dramas show it that way. Bad dramas go all in on honesty being the core issue.

    You make good points on the imbalance of power too. I suspect we all have occasions where we’ve been dishonest in those situations. For instance, I know I’ve written papers in various English classes that reflected not what I actually thought of a book, but what I expected the teacher wanted me to think of it.

    Ultimately though, fetishizing honesty makes no sense because a little dishonesty is necessary to exist in polite society: Your aunt knits you a sweater for Christmas. It’s hideous. Do you say that? No. You say “Thank you, you must have put so much work into this!”Report

  4. Avatar pillsy
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    Another way to lie to get a little space? I think they’re what we tend to call “little white lies”.

    “How are you?”

    How you really are is miserable and you just barely dragged yourself out of bed this morning and ran a razor over your face that caught about half the stubble and you’ve been ruminating over your personal failures for the past 72 hours because you’re even less inclined to cut yourself a break than your boss or your parents and…

    “Oh, I’m fine.”

    You don’t want to explain all that, and be a bummer, or handle pity, or even genuine concern, or find out that some casual acquaintance is actually completely indifferent to your unhappiness.

    So you’re fine. It’s fine.

    Or at least more fine than if you told the truth.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to pillsy
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      Totally. I once assumed people in my life actually cared to know how things really were…but they didn’t. Even people who were required by law to care about me, really didn’t want to hear anything other than “I’m doing great”. It’s an act of self-protection to lie, since there’s little more demoralizing than to try nd talk to your loved ones and be met with a yawn and an eye roll LOL.

      I hope you’re doing well, truly well, pillsy!Report

  5. Avatar Burt Likko
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    I feel like a lot of what you say here is also true about narcissists: they will be charming and friendly and seemingly helpful for a time, until you are ingrained to a pattern of subordination of your own interests in favor of theirs. Friendship and love aren’t really what they want, it’s obedience and control.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to Burt Likko
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      Yes for sure. If I recall you and I both had the misfortune of encountering a real live narcissist and let’s just say it was a pretty instructive experience.

      Even non-narcissists use controlling tendencies in relationships to get their way, I’ve found – and I don’t think I’d ever have learned to spot that type of manipulative behavior if not for my narcissistic “friend”.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird
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    There’s a trio of questions that are helpful:

    Is it true?
    Is it necessary?
    Is it kind?

    And if it’s not at least two of those, the rule is “don’t say it”.

    True is only but so good.

    (It’s like one of the handmaidens of the virtues. Much like perseverance or bravery, these handmaidens are only virtuous when they’re with the virtues. When they’re with vices, they become positively vicious themselves.)Report

  7. Avatar gabriel conroy
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    Although I’ve never seen Better Call Saul (and haven’t read the Harry Potter books), I really liked this post, Kristin. There’s a lot to chew on there, and so much of it rings true* to me.

    You mention at least two reasons and circumstances for which and in which people choose to legitimately to lie. I’ll add another that seems less legitimate and perhaps is less legitimate, but is also probably at least understandable or empathizable. For lack of a better way of expressing it, I’ll say that our (and I refer to myself here as much as to anyone else) imperfection. We (or I) sometimes lie for something like naked self-interest, sometimes in ways that harm or at least disrespect others. It’s part of the mix of us sometimes choosing to do wrong. But it’s something that puts us in the same boat as others are in that it’s an opportunity to see ourselves in others.

    I apologize if that sounds confused. I’m confused writing it. I guess I’m trying to take a stab at some of the less legitimate reasons or circumstances for lying and suggesting there’s something not entirely bad about those reasons, too. Sometimes life is just messy and we have to accept the fact of messiness.

    There’s so much in your post comment on and deal with, and if I didn’t have to hustle off to work, I’d engage it more fully. (And I might return if I have time later.) I just want to reiterate how much this post resonated with me. Thanks for writing it.

    *A paradox?Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy
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      No I know exactly what you meant. In any given scenario there’s many interpretations we can put onto the motives of others and it’s very easy to put the interpretation onto someone else’s behavior and act accordingly. I know I’ve lied over this out of sheer self-interest. Told myself, “well in the past so and so did such and such and they’ll do it again now, probably, so I’ll just cut the corner in the truthfulness dept. and avoid the entire possibility.”

      That’s kind of what I was driving at when saying kicking sand over the line that should be being drawn, really. It gets really easy to skip over any potential source of confrontation and disagreement by fibbing, rather than deal with a conflict in which I myself might end up with my behavior scrutinized and found lacking. I can chalk that up to “well so and so is always so terribly unreasonable” but how much of it is really “Kristin actually didn’t do the thing that she was supposed to do and doesn’t particularly want to hear about it” and/or “Kristin doesn’t like confrontations so maybe she’ll just do what she wants to and work it out later”. Because there’s definitely some of that coming into play.

      There’s a body of psychological thinking that indicates many people lie from self-interest and are barely aware of it or even entirely unaware they’re doing it. I have noticed, after the fact sometimes, people claim I had motives for doing things or fibbing about things, that I really, really do not at all recall having. Now, did I really not have those motives, or were they there and I just chose not to examine them very closely? And everyone does that. It’s probably innate to humanity. And just as you say, totally understandable that we do that, but at the same time many people don’t give you an inch on that type of stuff.Report

  8. Avatar Em Carpenter
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    This makes me think of the school of thought that if a person has an affair, but ends it and chooses to stay and be faithful from that point forward with the original partner, it is best not to “come clean” (barring any potential health risk needing conveyed, of course.) That doing so will only hurt the other person and damage the relationship, so if the person is seriously repentant and dedicated to it not happening again it is better to keep it a secret.

    I see the merit to that, but also why not everyone would agree-especially those who’ve been on the “cheated on” side. But what if you never knew? And are perfectly happy otherwise?Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to Em Carpenter
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      This is not exactly the same thing, but I’ve experienced a relationship with a brutally honest person (a totally amazing and lovable person, just very very very honest and with exceedingly high standards) who never sugar coated anything. I seriously, seriously just wanted them to lie to me about stuff. Dinner sucked, the sex wasn’t great, I was fat, bitchy, whatever, the honesty was meaningless to me, like Jaybird said, without kindness. It didn’t feel like a virtue at all. I would have rather had someone constantly lying to my face than having to deal with the negativity and feeling like such a failure. And ironically, I would have been a better partner in the relationship as it was pretty demoralizing as well. After a while, it shuts you down, no point in trying.

      And so I suspect that personally I’d rather be lied to about cheating as long as it wasn’t going to blow up the relationship. But that’s just me and I can certainly see the other side of it.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to atomickristin
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        Not exactly the same thing as your example, but I get very annoyed with those who style themselves as people “who tell it like it is” or “who are too honest.” In every case that I know personally, such people “tell it like it is” only sometimes and often when it serves some purpose of theirs. They also (in my anecdotal experience) lie to themselves, sometimes realizing it and sometimes not realizing it.

        Of course, I’m just going off of my own sample. Just because I haven’t meant consistently honest people in the way you’re thinking doesn’t mean they don’t exist. By the way, I’m familiar with one interpretation of Camus’s The Stranger that claims it’s a study of a person (Meursault) who is pathologically/dangerously honest. Are you familiar with that book or interpretation of it?Report

        • Avatar bookdragon in reply to gabriel conroy
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          Actually this reminds me of my other complaint about fetishizing honesty.

          A pet peeve of mine with 80s culture was the trend of people saying “Yes, I’m a greedy selfish SOB who screws people over for my own gain [or a racist or misogynist or any other terrible human being descriptor] but at least I’m honest about it.” Somehow being ‘honest about it’ was supposed to make it all okay. Not a first step in admitting the problem or acknowledgment of a problem being worked on but that that hasn’t been overcome yet, just “I’m honest about it.” and that’s supposed to make it completely forgivable/acceptable.

          And we’re clearly not past that vile trend. Otherwise I wouldn’t have watched endless interviewers of Trump supporters basically excusing whatever the latest horrible behavior/statement is because he’s a crude unfiltered jerk …which is somehow cast as refreshingly admirable…Report

          • Avatar atomickristin in reply to bookdragon
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            Yes that was definitely a thing for a while there – and it went beyond “but at least I’m honest about it” into a weird land where these people claimed moral authority over others because of their “honesty”. As if being an honest a-hole was somehow better than being a tiny bit hypocritical sometimes.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to atomickristin
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              Calling people out for hypocrisy is a shockingly effective way to gain social points over another person, though. Not in an absolute good sense, of course. In a positional good sense. Hypocrisy accusations drag the high and mighty down.

              They’re too useful in the short term.Report

              • Avatar atomickristin in reply to Jaybird
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                I find hypocrisy to be a funny thing – only recognized on an individual level and not on a cultural one. When a person is a hypocrite in a way that the majority of their ingroup is, you can call them a hypocrite and there’s really not much of an effect on them. Hypocrisy only seems to work when someone is already on the outs.Report

          • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to bookdragon
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            I agree. That type of person is obnoxious, though I confess to at least thinking in that way sometimes (“I know I did/said/though x, but at least I’m honest.”) I’ve also been guilty of being an honesty bully, such as Kristin (and you and Burt) describes. I do notice it’s usually a power thing with me, just as Kristin suggested.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy
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          I read it ages ago, should probably revisit it in adulthood. Thanks!

          Yes I share your annoyance with that type of person – or the trend to do that, which seems to be ascendant in the social media age. A lot of people feel they can sound off – often unfairly without even knowing the truth of any given situation – on what anyone is doing or saying. And then they hide behind “I’m just being honest” or “I’m speaking my truth” or whatever. They certainly don’t appreciate having the tables turned, though.Report

  9. Avatar jason
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    I like this post–part of me recoiled from it initially, but there’s some truth here. (And Better Call Saul is a a great show!) As a teacher, I learned long, long ago to stop caring about the “honesty” of students’ excuses, mostly because I knew that, regardless of what they told me, they had a reason for their actions, good or bad. To them, I would say, “Ultimately, your excuses don’t matter: you have work to do and it must be finished to pass.” And I’m lying, of course, because I do make exceptions, and sometimes excuses DO matter. But a good teachers present their rules as absolute, and make exceptions when they have to.

    Another aspect of the power dynamic you discuss: people in power often feel like they don’t have to be honest. Whether that’s disrespect for those working under them or “ends justifies the means” thinking, I don’t know (but as the meme says, “why not both?”). Working at a college, I’ve seen administrators tell a variety of lies, often of the “you shouldn’t be lying about that” type.

    One minor quibble: When Umbridge had Potter writing “I must not tell lies,” he was actually telling the truth. His supposed lie was that Voldemort had returned, which was true. In my mind, her sin was bureaucratic fealty to power; she had a fascist streak in her: the ministry must be supported, even when Voldemort’s lackey’s took over. Is this a petty and pedantic point? Yes. I would say I’m sorry for making it, but that wouldn’t be true.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to jason
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      I once read an interesting piece written by Bear Grylls (yes that survival guy) where he described the British system of education and military, when done properly, at least according to him. It was a strict set of rules, but that most of the people in charge understood that people made mistakes and circumstances sometimes made following rules impossible, and were willing to set aside the letter of the law in favor of the spirit of the law. They understood that it was in some ways, a kid’s duty to try and bend some of the rules and get by with as much as they could, and that sometimes soldiers in the field were put into situations where the rules simply could not apply. But there were always people who refused to understand the duality of the system – that the rules were both sacrosanct but at the same time, meant to be enforced on a case by case basis – like the Umbridges of the world, or Frank Burns, or Rimmer on Red Dwarf.

      You’re totally right that a lot of people in power absolutely lie all the time. It was a little beyond the scope of the piece, I guess. BCS really made me consider how many people in power are all about honesty because they can be – because they have no reason at all TO even lie and that was what was in my head writing it.

      Also right about Umbridge. My takeaway from her was how she used honesty as a weapon in a position of power (which I believe a good many folk with fascist tendencies do). I know Harry was telling the truth about Voldemort originally, but then the kids had to lie about Dumbledore’s army. It wasn’t the original “lie” (which simply reveals Umbridge’s obsession with lying) but the followup lies I was referring to. Thanks for reading and commenting!Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to jason
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      “But a good teachers present their rules as absolute, and make exceptions when they have to.”

      You realize that this lens is much like the lens administrators use to justify much of their lying, yes? I have a rule, I totally follow this rule and everyone should think this is a legit rule….. but obviously I’ll make exceptions when needed.

      I mean, you’ve basically ensured that students who have good excuses but believe in your honesty or in the world’s unwillingness to ever cut them a break, will not ever allow themselves slack in your classroom, or will fail or drop out without telling you why.

      As presented, anyway. I like you and I suspect you soften this and undermine it in ways you haven’t mentioned…. but I’ve also been in classrooms where teachers really said this and it really was a lie, and what really happened is that it differentially affected the most honest and dedicated students (or the most anxious and worried about pleasing the teacher) and screwed up their lives.

      (In my own department, the presentation is “this is the rule. if there are serious issues, yes, we can discuss whether an exception could be made. but it’s a rule for a reason.”)Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Maribou
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        Perhaps not exactly the same thing you and Jason are talking about, but when I was a student, I had a few instructors whose official line was “no excuses for late papers.” I assumed they meant what they said. Fortunately, I never had an extenuating circumstance to test that, but I did live in fear that something bad would happen that would prevent me from submitting any given very important paper on time. There are of course greater things to live in fear of, but it was stress-inducing nonetheless.

        When I was an instructor, I wrestled with that problem and usually came down on the side of explicitly telling students exceptions can be made. Sometimes people interpret “no exceptions” strictly and it’s not fair, in my opinion, to know I’m willing to offer exceptions without making that willingness public ahead of time. (One could argue that students need to learn how to self-advocate for exceptions to rules too strictly applied or applied beyond their intent. But that just doesn’t seem fair to me.)Report

        • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy
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          I had the same experience, Gabriel. I was shocked, after having dropped a couple classes due to extenuating circumstances, to find that people had gone to the professor and complained about the workload and it was reduced in one case, and in the other, several people had gone to the professor and gotten extensions. I really felt like I’d been punished for following the rules while the people who didn’t respect the rules had been rewarded for it.

          (that was a lesson I should have learned then, but it took me many more years and several such situations before I did)Report

      • Avatar jason in reply to Maribou
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        “You realize that this lens is much like the lens administrators use to justify much of their lying, yes? I have a rule, I totally follow this rule and everyone should think this is a legit rule….. but obviously I’ll make exceptions when needed.”

        Umm, in my experience, absolutely not. I find that administrators don’t often lie about rules (or making exceptions) as much as they lie about facts, or they change rules (seriously, in one case our campus lawyer modified a policy in an attempt to show that the rule had always been X, and a professor had to point out he could see when the page was changed in the file–because the rule hadn’t always been X). I make exceptions to rules when it will help a student. If an administrator is making a rules exception to help faculty, staff, or students, that’s okay–I’m not a big fan of most “no exceptions” rules. However, they often seem to make exceptions to punish faculty or cover their own asses–again, just my experience at my institution.

        “I mean, you’ve basically ensured that students who have good excuses but believe in your honesty or in the world’s unwillingness to ever cut them a break, will not ever allow themselves slack in your classroom, or will fail or drop out without telling you why.”

        No. Let me elaborate: I mostly teach first year composition classes at a relatively small regional comprehensive university (you can probably figure out which one, Maribou). Beyond introducing students to the basics of writing and rhetoric, I often have to teach them how to be students. For example, we have a “no late work” policy. I explain to students that I understand that “shit happens” and if said shit causes them to miss one homework assignment, that won’t have a large impact on their grade because we have many homework assignments. For major projects (their formal papers), I remind them that we have drafts and that they can save their papers to google docs or even attach a draft to an email, so that they’ll always have a draft available (and multiple saves, etc). Even if they can’t print it out because all the printers in the world aren’t working, they can show me their draft, they can email me their draft, etc. I tell them that if they’re vomiting the morning a paper is due to send me their draft. If something happens and the paper isn’t fully finished, I tell them to give me what they have, because some points are better than no points. At the very least, they should have their initial draft. So yes, they can’t submit late work, but they have plenty of resources to prevent major trouble to their grades. I also tell them that allowing late work is bad for them because when one assignment is due we move on to the next.

        One problem many first year students have is that they think excuses somehow mean they don’t have to do their work. Any person who has had a job knows that’s not true. You’re sick? Either someone has to do your work while you’re out, or you have more work waiting for you when you come back. The work doesn’t disappear. (Ugh, I’m not responding to your complaint–forgive me, I’m being defensive here.)

        The students who believe my honesty won’t allow themselves slack? Good. Look, my classes aren’t that hard: show up, do the work, and you’ll do fine (and I tell students this). Students have room for a bit of slack, and the ones who are listening often don’t need it. We teach many first generation students and many students from poor families, so I know that they feel that the world doesn’t give them any breaks, and for most of them, that’s an accurate feeling. I continually remind my students that my policies are reasonable, and that they can follow them. I also tell them to talk to me when they have problems, that I’m there to help them, and that I’m not an adversary. And when I see early signs of problems, I intervene and will do everything possible, short of doing the work for them, to ensure they pass.

        TL;DR version: I have hard rules, but explain that they’re not really hard, and they won’t be hard for students to follow, and that I’m open to help them. This is an important point: my rules aren’t unreasonable. When students have serious issues, I make exceptions. How do I make those decisions? I have over eighteen years of experience–I’m pretty good at judging situations and choosing my battles. If I err, I err on the side of the students.Report

  10. Avatar dragonfrog
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    On the Harry Potter thing – there’s a moment (or a couple of moments) early on in each of the books I’ve read, where Dumbledore asks Potter “is there anything going on that you should tell me about?” and Potters says “no, nothing, everything’s fine.”

    If Potter told the truth at that point, the book would be a lot shorter, because Dumbledore is the deus ex machina, and invoking him early on would save everyone a lot of trouble. Potter’s dishonest with both the high-handed meddlesome adults, and the reliable and trustworthy ones who only intervene when it’s really necessary. I guess that’s because he’s had far more experience of the former growing up, and because there wouldn’t be much story to tell otherwise.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to dragonfrog
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      I think every kid has lied to their parent/teacher so they can handle something they think their parent/teacher will mishandle.

      It’s weird how often this continues on into adulthood.Report

    • Avatar KenB in reply to dragonfrog
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      It was reasonably plausible in the first book, but less and less so with each successive one. One of the many problems Rowling made for herself with the structure of the 7-book series.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to KenB
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        I mean, those scenes could have just been left out altogether without the books suffering. As could an increasing number of the scenes, and paragraphs within scenes, as the series progressed.Report

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