Harry Potter: the magical children's series that taught us all to question authority and engage in civil disobedience. Seriously, though, Harry Potter is both a classic tale of a hero's journey and a work of biting social commentary. In the first book, the Wizarding World seems pretty darn wonderful (minus all that Voldemort stuff). But as the series goes on, we're introduced to the unjust hierarchies and systematic prejudices of magical society. We learn about corruption in the Ministry, and of unfair working conditions for house elves, and of Voldemort's ethnic cleansing plan. And a lot of it is, unfortunately, very familiar.
We already know that there are many lessons to be learned from Harry Potter. And I'm not going to say that the series is the end-all be-all guide to social justice, but boy are there a lot of lessons in there that it can teach us about our own society (are you listening, U.S. presidential candidates?). There's still a terrifying amount of ignorance and injustice in the world. We could all use a magical allegory now and then.
So, whether we need a reminder that witches can be just as bright as wizards, or that werewolves shouldn't be defined by their condition, or that it's never too late to change the status quo, Harry Potter is there with a wake up call.
1. It’s not what you’re born, it’s what you grow up to be
Sirius Black was born into a family of racist Slytherins, but he became a Gryffindor. Hagrid's mother was, by all accounts, a violent giantess, but he's one of the gentlest souls in the books. Harry grew up with a bit of Voldemort's soul stuck in him, and he still turned out all right. As Dumbledore says, “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.” A running theme in the novels is that people should never be judged on what they are or where they come from, because it is our own choices that define us.
2. Even Slytherins can be good people
OK, I'm not going to argue that Snape was 100% a good person... but Regulus Black had a change of heart, and tried to take down Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy saved Harry's life by pretending he was dead. Slughorn's more cowardly than evil. And yes, even Snape was trying to help save the Wizarding World, despite his greasy hair and creepy obsession with Harry's mom. Even though Slytherin is set up as the Bad House throughout all the books, the ultimate lesson is that no one house is fully good or fully bad, and that everyone has the capacity to change.
Pretty much every lesson in Harry Potter can be boiled down to this one: systematic oppression needs to be dismantled. House elves need to be paid. Werewolves, half-giants, centaurs, and the rest need to have equal rights to wizards, and "pure-blood" wizards need to stop hating on muggle-borns. After all, Dobby can only save the gang because he has the freedom to do so (and then he survives and doesn't die, and no one can tell me otherwise). We see firsthand that Lupin and Hagrid are good people, and yet they're feared by magical society. Something has to change.
4. Don't trust the government
Remember back in the first book? When the Ministry of Magic sounded like a fun and whimsical institution? And then we learned about all the false imprisonments, the propaganda, the corruption, and Dolores Umbridge. Oy. Even well-meaning Minister Fudge is a total mess who loves Harry one minutes and hates him the next (especially when Harry does things like tell the truth). There doesn't always seem to be a connection between the laws and what's right and wrong. And it all makes it that much easier for Voldemort to seize control.
5. Teenage boys must be stopped
Yes, the protagonist was a teen boy and yes, we loved him. But J.K. Rowling is pretty open about portraying Harry and Ron as sexist-but-lovable. They're well-meaning, but utterly ignorant when it comes to respecting women. They have some maturing to do before they're fit to be in a relationship with another human being (poor, poor Cho and Lavender). Ron, especially, continually shames Ginny for daring to date boys, and he acts like a brat over Viktor Krum. Lucky for Harry and Ron, Hermione is there to call them out, and she doesn't stand for their hormonal nonsense (at least, when she's not being jealous over Ron and Lavender).
6. Well-meaning wizards can be prejudiced
Ron Weasley is a sweetheart. But he's also totally racist. At the start of the series, Ron (the only one of the main three who grew up in the Wizarding World) is prejudiced against half-giants and werewolves. He doesn't get Hermione's whole house elf crusade. He's chock full of internalized bigotry, even though he would never harm a soul. It's an important lesson to learn: good people can hold toxic opinions. Ron is lucky enough to grow and unlearn his prejudice by the end of the book, at which point Hermione finally deems him mature enough to snog.
7. Second-guess what you learn in school
Just like you shouldn't blindly follow everything from the government, you shouldn't blindly accept everything you learn in school. The Ministry, after all, interferes with lesson plans—and that's why our favorite gang of young witches and wizards had to start the D.A. They weren't learning real defense in the classroom. And Moody, Snape, and Lockhart weren't the best teachers, either. Of course, Lupin and McGonagall could be trusted to care about their subjects, but the kids always had to supplement their education.
8. The world isn’t split into good people and death eaters
The older Harry got, the more he realized that people are complex. I mean, Dolores Umbridge was a hateful, bigoted, bureaucrat, but she wasn't a death eater. Dumbledore was a wise, kind man, but he used to be super into the fascist Grindlewald. Luna's dad isn't a bad guy, but he turns the kids in to the Malfoys in order to save his daughter. Peter Pettigrew is the worst, but he lets Harry live. Just like people's houses don't make them good or bad, no one person is completely perfect or completely evil (...except maybe Voldy, but he's a special case). Everyone's a little problematic.
When the teachers at Hogwarts had their own agendas, the golden trio (but really only Hermione) could always arm themselves with knowledge from books. The kids researched their way out of predicaments on more than one occasion, because the adults around them couldn't always be trusted. And it wasn't just book learning, either: the kids always benefited from a diversity of knowledge. Ron knew what was up with Wizarding World customs, Hermione and Harry knew the muggle world, Hagrid knew about monsters. Learning was always just as important as fighting.
10. Make love, not war
Of course, the kids had to go to war to stop magical genocide. But Rowling never depicted war as fun: our favorite characters were killed, again and again. And it all might have been avoided if the Ministry had believed Harry about Voldemort (or, you know, if Voldemort hadn't been a genocidal maniac). The lesson, always, in every Harry Potter book, is that love and compassion are more powerful than violence and hate. Love between friends, family, lovers—all of it is a stronger force than fear and bigotry. It might sound cliche, but unfortunately it seems to be a lesson that society still hasn't fully grasped. Let's just hope that an entire generation raised on Harry Potter takes all of these lessons to heart.
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