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.
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.”
Disdain for others is not always rooted in ethnicity or identity. It often derives for perceived social standing. But every society needs its day-laborers, its factory workers, its bus drivers, and its trash collectors. There is nothing demeaning about such jobs, and those who occupy them should be treated with the dignity implicit in society’s dependence upon them and their service.
Sadly, many who enjoy more stratified positions can’t help but look down upon lesser mortals.
Sirius shook his head and said, “She’s got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron. If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
What’s more, treating others as if they don’t exist may inflict even greater pain than showing open contempt. “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”
To her credit, J.K. Rowling avoids the trap of taking her own moralizing too seriously. When Harry’s friend Hermione grows obsessed in her campaign to procure equal rights for house elves, there is no convincing her that the little creatures are more content as a servant class than they would be if they were free.
“Oh for heaven’s sake!” Hermione cried. “Listen to me, all of you! You’ve got just as much right as wizards to be unhappy!”
Pain and suffering
One of the most impressive accomplishments of the series is how it avoids the illusion that good always wins and evil always loses. Many of the principal figures get killed off in the fight against darkness, and each character has many levels, as do real people, who are seldom all good or all evil. Sometimes misguided individuals deserve our sympathy, even when they are the cause of our or others’ pain, as Dumbledore remarks, “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”
Even death itself needs to be addressed in the context of life: “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” And therefore: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
Pain is not something from which to flee, but rather to confront head-on, to battle through, and to recognize as an outward symptom of some inner condition that we must heal if we want to live emotionally healthy lives. Even at the moment of Harry’s most excruciating emotional loss, Dumbledore’s compassion will not let him permit Harry to escape it: “Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.”
Even in the world of wizards and magic, life is far from perfect. Harry has to face the demands of daily life, endure injustice, get along with difficult people, and grapple with his own internal and external conflicts. As nice as it might be to imagine a utopian universe, ultimately we have to play the cards that life deals us. As Dumbledore says, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
We also have to own up to our mistakes and consider the possibility that we may be wrong and others may be right. Human nature, however, makes this no easy task: “Dumbledore says people find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right.”
Which brings us back to honesty. Exaggerations, embellishments, half-truths, and manipulation of the truth ultimately make us less sensitive to the value of truth and make it easier for us to accept distortions of reality. Living in the real world demands that we call things what they are: “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Clearly, Dumbledore is no fan of political correctness. Hiding unpleasant truths behind ambiguous euphemisms or applying superficial, feel-good remedies that fail to treat the real problems only increases pain and delays authentic solutions.
The larger message here is that we are what we read. Stories that promote enduring values and time-tested wisdom teach and reinforce those messages in a way that essays and moralizing may not. The same is true for movies, television shows, videos, and music. The more careful we are with the ideas we allow to penetrate our brains, the more clearly our worldviews will take shape so that we can work together with others to create a better world.
As Dumbledore says, joining Patrick Henry and Abraham Lincoln in paraphrasing the great moralist Aesop: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”