Harry Potter and the politics of diversity

by Jeroen Bouterse

For the same reason as large parts of the world, I spend even more time indoors these days than I already would. One thing I have been doing is rereading the Harry Potter books – or paying Stephen Fry to read them to me.

I will have you know that I ‘grew up with the books’; if you are only even a few years younger than me, I will act as if I were the only living person to actually remember what it was like to wait, years and years, for the next part of the story. Not that I am not thrilled to see how many teenagers are still reading the books and watching the movies. When a student informs me that she hasn’t done her math homework “because I am a witch, and didn’t want to waste my time with Muggle subjects”, my nostalgia loses its solipsistic edge: right, yes, there are other people, whole generations even, to whom Hogwarts means no less than it does to me. They also want to live there.

Hogwarts is a curious place to want to live, even disregarding all the health and safety issues. Re-reading the books as an adult also provides an opportunity to read them with present-day societal and cultural issues in the back of your mind, and to contrast and compare the times in which they were written with our current condition. I don’t mean the corona crisis – my mind works too slow to have anything to say about that; I mean (cultural) politics. What, if anything, do the books have to say to us today? Spoilers ahead.

“It is about precisely that!”

The wizarding world in Harry Potter is not a harmonious society invaded by evil from the outside; we soon learn that it is a society already full of injustice. Wizarding rule looks natural to the wizards, but Rowling leaves no doubt that it is not. Wizards forbid non-humans to carry wands, drive Centaurs from their lands, abuse their House-elves, and shun werewolves. Many are suspicious of Muggle-borns.

Of course, the main story is not one of moral ambiguities. Gryffindors know evil when they see it. But the good guys are not completely off the hook here: Sirius is a bully to his House-elf, and the main characters themselves respond differently to oppressive institutions. Ron has himself been raised with some of the ideological biases of the wizarding class – House-elves are natural slaves, and goblins are not to be trusted. Hermione, more woke, explicitly calls him out on these opinions, saying that “it’s people like you […] who prop up rotten and unjust systems” (GoF 106).

Nor is this a mere side-motif or parody. For one, the story time and again invokes the racism of the bad guys as a plot point: crucial blows to the dark side are dealt by creatures they deem beneath their attention. Harry’s natural inclusive attitude is a strength closely wound up with the virtues of love and loyalty that he embodies; it is why he can win in spite of Voldemort having more magical knowledge and power.

Second, it is not just Hermione who believes in connections between different forms of oppression. When Voldemort rises to power, all pre-existing fault lines come into sharper view. There is a class that can opt out of the struggle, and it is the class already in power: all wizard-born wizards (except Harry). The death eaters’ terror lands on those groups and creatures that had been marginalized and stigmatized before – it just becomes worse:

“‘It doesn’t matter’, said Harry […] ‘This isn’t about wizards versus goblins or any other sort of magical creature –’

Griphook gave a nasty laugh.

‘But it is, it is about precisely that! As the Dark Lord becomes ever more powerful, your race is set still more firmly above mine! Gringotts falls under wizarding rule, house-elves are slaughtered, and who amongst the wand-carriers protests?’” (DH 395)

Rhetorical strategies wizards use to justify oppression and exclusion often resonate with mechanisms familiar to our own world. The bigots in the book usually spout recognizably right-wing language, glorifying strength and self-interest (‘Magic is Might’), or appealing to the natural order. A movie line, where a minister working for Voldemort promises to “restore this temple of tolerance to its former glory”, sums up well the political dimension of the final book of the series. The English Wizarding world, Rowling shows, is a society that has not shaken off the darkest pages of its history; whose leaders willfully refuse to believe that the roots of this darkness persist; and which is all the more vulnerable for it. It is ripe for the taking.

I am aware that Harry Potter is not a textbook of political science. I also think, however, that the moves Voldemort happens to make in order to gain power were put there by an author with a good sense of where the vulnerabilities of our own societies lay. I mean playing on the perceived self-interests of a dominant caste that feels it is being unduly restrained in its exploitation of the less powerful. Rowling ‘warned’ us, in the early 2000s, that a narcissistic, cruel and petty bully could hijack the system by manipulating the resentment of a significant reactionary minority.

But indeed, it is not the main story. The story of Harry and Voldemort is not political, but moral, existential. It is about how self-love and fear of death can shut you off from humanity, and turn you to evil; and how altruism, empathy, self-sacrifice and love can keep you grounded, can attach you to other people and thereby help you to face death.

“Dumbledore says it’s our fault”

It is here that we find another, more subtle aspect to the cultural politics of the series. In a gigantic literary parable like this, moral categories easily slide into natural categories. What I mean is this: the Harry Potter series is a story first. The world is malleable to this story, and Rowling is often willing to compromise on the internal logic of the magic system if by doing so she can add a layer of meaning to a character. She does what the story needs. But in order for the story to get off the ground, some things have to be true about the magical world not metaphorically, but literally. Dementors literally feed on happiness. Killing literally rips the soul apart.

In the magical world, virtues and values draw their force not just from human assent, but from objects – mirrors know what your deepest desires are, and hats and swords know whether you are worthy of them. There is a conservative streak to such naturalism: the reification of aspects of our lived experience into magical creatures and objects elevates some social facts to natural facts (-in-the-narrative), and not others. A mother’s sacrifice provided real magical protection; a father’s sacrifice did not.

Diversity in the wizarding world has an objective element. With the exception of the distinction between wizard- and Muggle-born wizards, which is consistently presented as false and baseless by all reliable characters, stereotypes in the magical world often extend to different species. This means that the magical world presents a much more genuine challenge to political solidarity than does the human world: elves, trolls and giants have intelligence and language, but they also seem different from humans. In some cases, they are less intelligent – if you overload giants with information, they will, as Hagrid puts it, “kill yeh jus’ to simplify things” (OP 380). In some cases, as with the centaurs, their classification as creatures with “near-human intelligence”  (OP 665) seems to be another instrument of oppression. The giants’ reputation for aggression can be read as a fault of the social system as much as it can be read into their nature:

“They’re not made ter live bunched up together like tha’. Dumbledore says it’s our fault, it was the wizards who forced ‘em to go an’ made ‘em live a good long way from us an’ they had no choice bu’ ter stick together fer their own protection.” (OP 378)

The politics of diversity in Harry Potter is complicated, and its translation to the real world is problematic. Rowling seems to present a world in which, though many beliefs held by the ruling class are self-serving and based on misinformation, there may also be natural differences between groups. These differences, however, do not determine what the social order ought to look like. Ways of dealing with differences are contested, and even Dumbledore was once tempted by the idea that wizards had a natural right to rule. Harry, on the other hand, does not see werewolves, goblins or elves, but sees every individual as a potential friend. The books present this attitude as the right one, but also as an exceptional one.

As I said, this doesn’t translate directly to the real world. There are no socially interesting natural differences in abilities or character traits between groups of humans defined by sex, ‘race’ or other such broad categories. That is: there is no real-world counterpart to an elf. People who insist that we consider the possibility that there are such differences – that one sex may be intrinsically “more agreeable” than another – often have a disagreeable agenda.

I am not about to argue that Rowling is writing with such an agenda. Like dementors and pieces of soul, House-elves in Harry Potter exist for narrative reasons, and because this is a fantasy series aimed at teenagers and young adults. However, the more radical diversity in the magical world does provide a nice thought-experiment concerning the sources and limits of cosmopolitanism. It does so in a way comparable to Peter Singer’s opening argument in Animal Liberation. Singer wants to disentangle moral arguments against racism and sexism from scientific ones, summarizing: “The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.” (Chapter 1) The reason we ought to take anybody’s interests into account – and Singer goes on to extend the argument to non-human species – is not that they are a member of a group whose interests count to us, or because they have abilities we deem valuable, but that they have interests at all. The suffering of every creature counts.

Harry Potter is a textbook of utilitarian ethics no more than it is one of political science. But the fanciful diversity in the magical world and the all-too recognizable range of responses to perceived diversity do bring into sharper focus the question of why we think other beings are valuable. Precisely how important is it to progressive ethics that differences are illusory?

This brings me to that tweet.

“I’m not trying to defend what Dumbledore wrote. But…”

In December 2019, Rowling declared her support, on twitter, for a British feminist, Maya Forstater, who had been fired from her job for harassment of trans people (in referring to them by what she insisted were their real gender pronouns, for instance). An employment tribunal sided with her employer. Rowling read the verdict as saying that you could be fired for believing that “sex is real”.

The court had not in fact ruled that “believing” that sex is real was in itself a sackable offense, but rather argued that the offensive things Forstater had said did not have the protected status of religious or philosophical beliefs. The judge also noted that even holding protected beliefs would not imply a right to harass others.

Rowling’s tweet disappointed progressive fans, and many pointed out that it seems to conflict with the inclusive message of the books. If my above reading is correct, the books are already slightly ambiguous about the relation between inclusivity and diversity in the wizarding world.

Harry Potter is, indeed, a progressive epic, with a message for our time. Harry Potter sides with the left-wing interpretation that real evil and injustice are a structural presence within the societies to which we are loyal, rather than an external aberration. It is not a pure left-wing epic; many story elements appeal to traditional values (family, loyalty, courage), and to the extent that it deals with identity, it is existentialist rather than determinist. But it provides a sustained attack on bigotry, fascism and autocracy, without thereby being a defense of the status quo ante.

It does so without relying on an explicit etiology of diversity. Yes, the anti-Semitism-equivalent of the prejudice against Muggle-borns, that is clearly one hundred percent unfounded. But whether House-elves naturally like housework or have been bullied into thinking so, that doesn’t seem to be the point – the point is that Dobby wants to be free and so he should be. In a generous reading, this is consistent with what Rowling says in her tweet: everybody deserves our sympathy and protection and everybody deserves to flourish in their own way, no matter whether they were born different or made different.

This interpretation doesn’t amount to a defense of ‘the tweet’. You may think you are defending free speech and the liberal order, while what you are mostly doing is lending support to the petty and oppressive practice of misgendering people. Evidently, Rowling put more wisdom into the series than into that tweet. Evidently, trans fans are right to be disappointed. Progressive allies may even, like Hermione to Ron, cry out that “it’s people like you […]”.

Indeed, shrugging off abuse is no less of a problem because a Gryffindor does it; Hermione was right to call Ron out on that. She was also right to still go hunt Horcruxes with him. Harry Potter anticipates not just some of the struggles that many of us used to think were in the past, but also the ways in which those struggles can put our own ties to the test. The Deathly Hallows shows us Harry finding out about Dumbledore’s past wizard-supremacist sympathies, casting instant doubt upon all of his judgment and his relation to Harry. It is Hermione who tries to soothe Harry’s anger and disappointment, insisting that Dumbledore had cared about him and that his writings about wizarding rule were not representative of who he was: “‘I’m not trying to defend what Dumbledore wrote. But […]’” (DH: 294)

Our mentors can fail us, the opinions of our friends can exasperate us, those on our side can walk away when they are needed most (as did Ron). We still need them, lest we suddenly find ourselves alone. In the age of Trump and everything he stands for, let’s not forget to keep our friends close.

“Hearing friendly voices was an extraordinary tonic; Harry had become so used to their isolation that he had nearly forgotten that other people were resisting Voldemort. It was like waking from a long sleep.” (DH: 360).

And OK, maybe that was also a quote about the lockdown.