Do you want to put an end to bigotry, ultra-nationalism, and racism? It might be easier than you think. Try reading Harry Potter.

No, it’s not magic. According to the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, there’s more to the wildly successful series than just a good story.

The tale of a mistreated orphan boy who discovers extraordinary magical abilities is essentially an epic metaphor for the battle between merit and privilege, between status and stature, as pure-blooded wizards contend with half-bloods and “mudbloods” for supremacy over the magical world.

By identifying with the heroes of the story who grapple with the conflict between ancestral identity and the content of character, readers will likely emerge a little more heroic themselves.

That’s what Professor Loris Vezzali and his team of researchers from Italy’s University of Modena and Reggio Emilia concluded after a series of studies which demonstrated how children exposed to the passages dealing with prejudice displayed improved attitudes toward minorities and other social classes.

According to Scientific American, this research supports an earlier study in Science, which “found that reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction, results in keener social perception and increased empathy.

This really should come as no surprise. Literary fiction seeks to educate as well as entertain. The combination of relaxing the mind, the willing suspension of disbelief, and the integration of moral themes, allows for the better internalization of values. Of course, the benefits are dependent upon the soundness of those values.

But Harry Potter hits the mark with almost unwavering accuracy. Not only is lineage shown to be a superficial criterion for individual worth, but so is the innate talent. As Professor Dumbledore says to Harry:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” And, similarly, “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

Indeed, the lessons of Harry Potter extend far beyond simple jingoism. J.K. Rowling sprinkles her work with a variety of moral lessons that children and adults alike need to learn and relearn, all the more so as our society becomes increasingly polarized and uncivil.

Honesty and integrity

The Harry Potter series is replete with moral gray areas that have to be navigated by teenagers grappling with uncertainty and conflicting loyalties.

“It is my belief… that the truth is generally preferable to lies.”

This seemingly simplistic comment takes on a more textured significance when related in the context of white lies, partial truths intended to protect others, exaggerations and embellishments for the sake of dramatic effect.

Once we start allowing ourselves exemptions from the truth, there is no end to how far we may eventually go in the name of perceived “higher” purposes.

And so elsewhere we read:  “The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should, therefore, be treated with great caution.”

Sometimes the truth can cause unnecessary pain or harm. In such cases, silence, if not outright deception, may be the more virtuous choice. Only by refining our moral compass can we learn to navigate life’s ethical paradoxes. There’s no app to guide us along the pathways of principle.

Courage

Most of us will never have to lead an infantry charge in the face of enemy fire or race into a burning building to save a forgotten infant. But the courage to speak out or stand strong against misguided or self-serving counsel is a much more relevant scenario, one that will ultimately require greater strength of character than risking life or limb.

As Dumbledore says:  “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

In one of the most poignant scenes in the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore eulogises the boy who was murdered by the wicked Dark Lord and intones these words of admonition:

“Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”

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