One of the most important areas where stories can help us grow is learning to accept, understand, and love “others.” Through stories we are able to walk a mile in the shoes of “others” and learn about their dreams and fears, their challenges and gifts, and the myriad of ways that we are alike. One of my favorite ways to break down the barriers is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
There are many powerful themes to explore in the Harry Potter series, but I am always struck by Rowling’s exploration of the idea of “otherness” – viewing or treating another person or group as different from, alien even, to oneself. Othering is essential to the belief in the superiority of certain ethnic or religious groups. It is much easier to tolerate discrimination and oppression if you believe that others are lesser because of obvious differences in their appearance, practices, or norms. However, as we have witnessed time and again throughout history, these beliefs and the actions tolerated and promoted by them have created political divisions at best and conflict and violence at worst. Othering causes war and genocide and the worst crimes perpetrated by humanity.
We are not born with prejudice, but we do learn it at an early age from our families. At first this bias is passive as we learn to prefer those who look like us and those with which we are most familiar – of course for most of us that means those who look like us. There are many ways to combat this inherent prejudice and othering, but among my favorites is reading, which has been linked to greater empathy in many studies. Last year research findings concluded that, in particular, Harry Potter books helped combat bias and prejudice by fostering this empathy for the oppressed.
I believe every day is a great day to immerse yourself in magical stories, but perhaps right now, in this moment, we all need to spend some time in the Potterverse to escape but also to remember what happens when we allow prejudice and discrimination to dictate our emotions and beliefs – not to mention our laws. Under Voldemort’s influence, the Ministry of Magic created the Muggle-Born Registry Commission which accused muggle-born witches and wizards of stealing their wands and sent them to Azkaban (a particularly horrible prison if you haven’t read the books). Voldemort was only one of many in the wizarding world who revered pure blood and disdained, even hated, anyone possessing non-magical (muggle) blood – using the derogatory word “mudblood” to describe them. In fact, this prejudice led to two different wizarding wars, according to the History of Magic. While muggle-born witches and wizards did enjoy full privilege in the modern magical world, there was still widespread intolerance of nonhumans and half-breeds throughout the series and, indeed, anyone viewed as different was viewed with suspicion or hatred. Think about how many times we have seen such stories play out in our own history from the Spanish Conversos to Japanese-American Internment Camps.
Othering is a choice. We can choose not to tolerate othering ourselves and others. As Albus Dumbledore once said (in The Chamber of Secrets): “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Harry Potter chooses his friends with little or no regard to the circumstances of their birth (whether centaur or half-giant) or the circumstances that shaped their life (werewolf bite). But the true lesson about choices is that it is the choices we make in our words and deeds that show the world, and ourselves, who we truly are. That is the power of stories, because, in the end, we all want to be like Harry Potter and no one wants to be Voldemort.
How do the Harry Potter stories promote empathy and tolerance? What are your favorite scenes and quotes from Harry Potter that support empathy and tolerance? What Harry Potter characters do you identify with the most?