Harry Potter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Or all the things that are really messed up about Harry Potter.
I wrote the draft of this post a while ago, but with the new “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movies coming out, I felt like it might be an opportune time to discuss all the things that are fucked up with Harry Potter.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love Harry Potter. I loved Harry Potter as a child, growing up, and even now I find myself procrastinating studying for midterms by re-reading the books.[i] And I understand that it is, at the end of the day, just a children’s book. Indeed, before it reached international acclaim, it was just another installation of British boarding school literature plus some magic.
But the world of Harry Potter also contains some incredibly worrying problematic elements and assumptions. Re-reading these books as an adult, and looking at the world around me, I simply cannot ignore their implications. So here is a list of observations about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that should at least complicate our understanding of the book and question whether these are the values we should present wholesale to our children.
Things That Are Messed Up about Harry Potter
1. House elves a.k.a. are you freaking kidding me?
It was really only in the sixth book of the Harry Potter series that someone[ii] decided to bring up the fact that a majority of the wizarding world was functioning on slavery. Like actual slavery. And here enter the house elves.
Had house elves been kept to the purview of the Malfoys and other vaguely death-eater characters, I would’ve accepted their existence as a rhetorical device to underscore the death eater evilness. But it is the apathetic and even justificatory attitude on the part of the “good” characters that make the house elf slavery dynamic of the wizarding world absolutely ridiculous. For example, nearly all of the Weasley brothers[iii] say something along the lines of “they like being slaves, please chill out Crazy Liberal Hermione.” JK Rowling actively writes scenes where Hermione’s desperate attempts to get the House Elves to pick up clothes to free themselves makes her look annoying, pushy, and out of touch. Although some characters, like Arthur Weasley and Albus Dumbledore, do express their unease about the system and are kind to individual elves, no one in the wizarding world has tried or is even interested in talking about changing the system. The reaction to Hermoine’s invention of SPEW (the only activist group at Hogwarts, by the way) is general apathy, uncomfortableness, and downright annoyance.
Even more troubling is Rowling’s description of House Elves in the first place. They are literally perfect slaves. They want to be slaves; they punish themselves; they derive all pleasure from serving the master. Winky the House Elf, who is released from servitude in the fourth book, goes completely to pieces without slavery. She needs to be enslaved, Rowling seems to be arguing, for her own happiness. Indeed, the best way to treat slaves — as Rowling shows us with Harry’s evolving relationship with Kretcher, Sirius Black’s house elf — is to be kind and allow them to be slaves. This is a very alarming way to think about slavery, especially for a country where the legacy of slavery and the British Empire is still impacting the world.
2. Goblins and other vaguely racist stereotypes.
Rowling mentions several other intelligent magical creatures with whom the wizarding community has poor relations with, including goblins[iv], centaurs and giants. And while Rowling engages a bit more with the house elf problem (at least throwing in Hermonie’s activist club), the attitude towards these other creates reveals a deep seated racism, even among the “good” characters. Bill Weasley, for example, in the seventh book cautions Harry&Co about trusting Griphook because goblins simply have different conceptions of property and, more importantly, just cannot be trusted.
Additionally, Rowling’s makes several references to goblin and giant uprisings, rebellions and wars — signifying that those creatures, at least, are not happy with the wizards — and further insinuating that the witches and wizards did pretty ethically questionable things to keep them down. (Continuing to restrict the centaurs land in the Forbidden Forrest, for instance, is reminiscent of the United States government restricting Native American reservations since, like, forever.) But the perspective of these creatures and potential wizarding war crimes against them is never really engaged with (inevitable, perhaps, give that Rowling made magical history the most boring subject taught by a ghost[v]).
And, like with the house elves, Rowling employs several strategies to implicitly absolve Harry and the good guys of blame for participating in these structures of oppression. Harry frees Dobby the House Elf (even though Dobby then serves Harry in a slave/master-like capacity). The centaurs demand more rights, but Hermione uses them to brutalize Professor Umbridge (the violence absolving centaurs of any legitimate claim they could have had to land ownership rights). Harry and his friends were going to betray Griphook the Goblin, but he actually was going to betray them first (so it’s all good, and the threesome don’t need to ruminate on the moral quandary of their own actions.) Again and again, Rowling creates situations where the entire wizarding world, and not just the bad guys, are totally racist but where the protagonists are absolved of any blame for participating in the system.
3. The Ministry of Magic and other democratic legitimacy issues.
Are there elections in the wizarding world? Do people campaign? Are there political parties? Is there a wizard parliament? Do they have criminal or constitutional court? Are there due process rights? So many questions . . .
Certainly, even before the Voldemort/Nazi takeover of government, rule of law and democratic representation in the wizarding world is sketchy at best. For example, in the fifth book Harry is almost expelled for a misuse of magic by the ministry of magic. There didn’t seem to be a proper investigation (wizard police?) into the case and the judicial process is pretty easily hijacked by government bureaucrats with political motivations. Tracers are placed on underage wizards to see if they do magic out of school — is there no debate on privacy issues?!
Even if you’re not a prison abolitionist, Azkaban (*coughs Guantanamo*) seems pretty problematic and would definitely not meet the European standard of human rights. The Daily Prophet is the only legitimate newspaper, and is clearly a mouth piece of the government. The only “opposition” newspaper is The Quibbler, which is literal trash and other conspiracies. The wizarding world clearly seems to have very few democratic institutions and the few institutions they do have are easily corrupted.
4. Voldemort’s ideology (Um…what is it?)
It’s not 100% clear what Voldemort’s policy platform is — except to take power, be evil, hate muggle-born people and try really, really hard not to die. There is some vaguely Nazi-esque ideology in there, like the references to pure-blood, but as we can see from an analysis of how the wider wizarding world treats other magical creatures, it really isn’t such a big step from treading on house elves to purging mudbloods.
Voldemort’s ideology and psyche aren’t really explained or engaged with in a meaningful way. We see that he’s a pretty mean and cruel child, presumably because people at the orphanage are mean to him — but the Dursleys’ are mean to Harry his whole life and he doesn’t turn into a serial killer (although he is sort of an ass sometimes). The lesson, then, must be that some people are simply born evil.[vi] This is apparent, too, in Harry and Dumbledores’ approach to defeating Voldemort. No negotiations. No consideration of the perspective or desires of the other sides. No real attempt to acknowledge why Voldemort believed in what he was doing.
In the end it was only a complete military victory that defeated Lord Voldemort and his army. But Rowling, despite the fact that many “good” characters throughout the book committed crimes, couldn’t quite bring herself to sully the hands of her protagonist. So although Harry has asked many people to kill Death Eaters for him, the only person Harry attempts to kill is Lord Voldemort — who he doesn’t even kill. Voldemort’s own killing curse rebounded onto himself. (In fact, Harry doesn’t directly kill any person in the series except Professor Quirrell who is neither heard from or mourned again, nor are Harry’s feelings about killing one of his teachers as an 11 year old, albeit in self defense, ever really engaged with.) And then once Lord Voldemort is killed, all of the Death Eaters give up — because there really was no other unifying ideology except some people happen to be evil and those people happen to be in Slytherin.
And I think this is a problematic way for us to teach children about conflict: that your side is always right, there is no need to question the motives or the ideology of the other side, that evil people are evil and you must use violence to defeat them — but violence that isn’t problematic or hard, because the other side is truly evil and you don’t feel bad about killing them. (Also if you haven’t read “Post-Conflict Potter” by some US government officials it is AMAZING).
5.) The wizarding world does not participate in the muggle economy.
Yes, this seems like a small problem. But think about it. If Arthur Weasely had trouble with muggle money, how did he buy groceries? Do wizards have their own agriculture, shopping, packaging, and manufacturing industries distinct from the muggle economy? Why do wizards not adopt any muggle technology, like electricity or phones or come up with a magical equivalent. (Need I remind you, dear readers, that Harry and pals spent months in the library trying to research who Nicholas Flamel was. Sure, I can’t light fire with my mind, but I can find that information out in two seconds. Is there no wizarding Google?!)
In fact, the wizarding world in Harry Potter is peculiarly insular, to the point where it creates plot holes Rowling must work to fill.[vii] Whereas most “secret-magic-world” novels typically have magical people who adopt a non-magical persona (have a non-magical house, and friends, and jobs) and a secret wizard persona, the Potter wizarding world prides itself on not engaging at all in the muggle world. No phones. No electricity. No heaters. No fashion trends. No antibiotics. Only cars. (Because as Rowling explains, even wizards like automobiles and locomotives.)
In fact, Rowling’s wizarding world operates in an essentially apartheid system — wizards have their own shops, hospitals, trains, communities and they show an almost antithetical aversion to anything that was produced in non-magical society. The apartheid system is even more stark in Rowling’s more recent stories about American society, where inter-mingling and marriage is strictly policed. (South Africa? Apartheid? The legacy of the British Empire? Anyone?) This insularity has to be an intentional choice on Rowling’s part — even as a plot device, it brings up more problems than it solves.
But this points to a more troubling aspect of the way the wizarding world engaged with the world. As Hagrid tells Harry in the first book “we can’t tell muggles about magic because they’d want us to solve all their problems for them.”
Now I would accept an ET-like argument, that the wizarding community must hide from muggles because they would persecute wizards as freaks if they discover magic exists (despite the fact that wizards have literal fire-breathing dragons and, like, magic to protect themselves. But whatever.) But what is more troubling than the fact that wizards and witches aren’t taught math, physics, or anatomy, is that the community does not seem particularly bothered about the suffering of the rest of the world.
During the time of the Harry Potter series, lots of things were happening in the world. The summer of the Quidditch World Cup, for instance, was the summer of the Rwandan genocide — the war in the Balkans, the Second Congo War, the Gulf War, the fall of Apartheid in South Africa were all happening as Harry danced away at the Yule ball. The general state of poverty, malnutrition, disease and conflict across the globe inspires so many children in the non-magical world to help humanity by becoming doctors, or lawyers, or engineers. And with all the power the wizarding world has to cure diseases or build bridge or provide tents to refugees which are bigger on the inside,[viii] you’re telling me they’re all content to use their power to make sweaters knit themselves and ensure that muggles don’t find out?
And this is what is the problem with the Potter wizarding world. It is so much, intentionally or not, a reflection of the British Empire. These witches and wizards stick bitterly to an older time period — where robes were in vogue, lightbulbs had not replaced candles, and the sun never set on the Empire. But it is not the best part of Britain — it is not the cosmopolitan, open-minded, pluralist, democratic society of the United Kingdom. It is a wizarding world which passively accepts slavery, discrimination and cruelty against magical creatures, even those with human or higher-levels of intelligence, and is content to leave well enough alone, as long as they can have their own tea in peace.
Have I taken out some of my frustration about current events and the problems of the real world on a minute dissection of Harry Potter? Yes. Absolutely. But the world is having a rough time right now — and it’s in a particularly rough patch because people’s minds have been molded to think a certain way. The world feels like it’s falling apart in many ways: Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate for president. Britain is leaving the EU. Black people are being shot. College students, gay night-clubbers, movie-goers, pre-schoolers are being shot. ISIS is committing genocide. Syrians are still dying. South Sudanese are still dying. Yemen is in a massive famine. Countries are withdrawing from the ICC![ix]
Don’t ever let anyone tell you these issues are easy. None of these issues are easy. There are complicated dynamics and complex historical backgrounds for why these things are happening and there are even more complicated and complex reasons for why they cannot be solved tomorrow. I could write, and people have written, books on the subject. There is no Lord Voldemort — there is no easy villain that you have to defeat with a war and a love shield, and society will go back to normal. And if I have one plea for the generation that stayed up past their bedtime reading Harry Potter, it is to beg you to please be like Hermonie Granger.
Engage in the wider world. Embrace the new environments and communities you find yourself in, and be curious. Read everything. Learn everything. Question everything. Tell Professor Umbridge that you won’t accept government hegemony over your schools. Begin an underground self-defense group. Start the first activist club on campus to eradicate modern day slavery. Study history, and muggle studies, and goddamn arithmetic. Be kind, and compassionate, and passionate, and never let anyone tell you it’s going to be easy.
And for God’s sake, don’t marry Ron; you deserve better than that shit.
Addedum: Things that I don’t blame JK Rowling for not engaging with but would totally come up if Hogwarts was real.
• Sexual assault at Hogwarts.
• Wizarding contraception? Or just general sex education, since they are like 11 when they start school
• Underage drinking, alcoholism, transports, illegal drugs? Don’t tell me they don’t have some sort of wizarding weed in herbology.
• Students don’t learn any math or writing skills while at Hogwarts.
• There doesn’t seem to be higher wizarding education: Percy Weasley works his way to a high government position with the equivalent of a high school diploma.
• Alternatively, wizards and witches do not appear to go to primary school. Do wizarding families have the capacity to homeschool their children for ten years?
• Why are the teachers called professors if they don’t have PhDs?
• Why did none of Harry’s elementary school teachers call child protective services?
• Is there a diversity quota at Hogwarts? There are like five characters at Hogwarts who are not white. (Check out this amazing poem, “Dear JK Rowling, from Cho Chang.”)
• Rowling references Grindelwald, who we assume is responsible for the actions of the muggle named Adolf Hitler. So there is apparently a wizarding genocide that is never mentioned?
• Harry plays in Quidditch when he’s 11 with a bunch of 17 year olds. This is not safe.
• Civil suits at Hogwarts? The only time we see action being taken for reckless endangerment of a child is when Malfoy gets attacked by Buckbeak (and yes, I love Hagrid; but are you kidding me if some teacher took thirteen year olds to ride vicious stallions or something he would be so fired).
- EVERYTHING about JK Rowling’s “Magic in America” origin story, but especially that despite taking place in the time of the Mayflower, it is a story of how white people bring magic and civilization to America and the only mention of Native Americans is a Pukwudgie, a “fiercely independent, tricky and not over-fond of humankind” creature which begrudgingly helps the European witch settlers.[x]
- Would Dumbledore’s use of Harry and/or other students count as child soldiers? (Thank you to my dear friend Jonathan for pointing this out.)
[i] My love is qualified by the utter crap that is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but I will not be commenting on that tragedy here.
[ii] Hermonie, the muggle born, as it were.
[iii] Except the one who wants to make out with Hermione
[iv] As History major specializing in modern Europe, the description of goblins seems particularly worrisome to me, but I’ll just leave the possible anti-semitic ramifications for someone who has time to do a closer reading of the text than I have.
[v] I’m not bitter.
[vi] Yes, I know in children’s books sometimes evil people are just evil. But I think this is a poor and lazy way to teach children how to think about the world.
[vii] For example, JK Rowling has said on Pottermore that wizards don’t use the internet because when you have magic quote “then the internet does not seem a particularly exciting place.” This is the universe where the postal system is run by owls.
[viii] Dr. Who reference. Good job nerds.
[ix] I have a personal interest in war crimes courts.
[x] Rowling, J.K. “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Pottermore. <https://www.pottermore.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/ilvermorny>