Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Prejudice in the Harry Potter Novels


One fascinating thing about JK Rowling - which was pointed out for me by John Granger's work - is that she is superficially a mainstream politically correct leftist, yet at the deeper level where her literary genius operates, she is astute and honest.

Whatever the superficial and trendy message, the deep structure of the novels reveals reality as we experience it.


At a superficial level, the Harry Potter series is about the evil of prejudice - a characteristically modern and politically correct concern.

Yet again and again, the anti-prejudice message is qualified by the deep structure of the novels.


So, in one of the funniest plot lines, Hermione forms a Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W) based on her own notions of what House Elves really want, as contrasted with the very different ideas they express and the preferences they show by their behaviour.

Herminone seems obsessed by the unique example of Dobby - who is apparently the one and only House Elf who wants to be free; whereas it seems that every other House Elf wants to be a lifelong indentured servant/ slave, and is made utterly miserable by any other condition of life.

The humour comes from the jarring contrast between Herminone's impeccably PC ideals, and the actuality of House Elf behaviour - a contrast which Hermione interprets as being due to 'false consciousness' - the successful indoctrination of the House Elves.

Her irrefutable assumption is that if only all House Elves could be freed (against their will, of course) then eventually they would be happier.

A further element of acute observation comes from the fact that Hermione will not kiss Ron until he too embraces her delusion (or, at least, does not contradict it) - this phenomenon of 'sexually transmitted' political correctness is a very common matter in modern life.


Another example comes from the plot line about Hagrid being half-giant. This emerges in The Goblet of Fire, when Hagrid's admission that his mother was a giantess leads to a press scandal and calls for his sacking - on the basis that wizards are 'prejudiced' against giants.

This prejudice is shown by dark wizards, who presumably dislike the 'mixed blood' aspect - but also shared by good wizards such as the Weasleys who remember that the giants supported Voldemort.

Yet when real giants are encountered in The Order of the Pheoneix it is clear that they are indeed a species worthy of prejudice - stupid, clumsy and violent.

And if giants are not all evil (Hagrid's half-brother Grawp ends-up fighting on the Good side) then clearly most of them are evil, and they are very readily seduced to evil.

So, at the end of the day, it seems that a prejudice against giants is perfectly rational.


The other race against which wizards show prejudice are the goblins. We hear of past wars between wizards and goblins and also a law which prevents goblins from using wands.

Goblins (unlike House Elves and giants) are apparently about as intelligent as humans, and have considerably greater skill in crafts and the making of devices. However, goblins are also resentful, paranoid, and inflexible. They all seem to have 'a chip on their shoulders' with respect to wizards.

In Deathly Hallows, Harry is warned by Bill about dealing with Goblins, and that Griphook may not be trustworthy. This sounds like prejudice, but it turns out to be accurate - since Griphook betrays them.

So it is all-too-likely that if goblins were allowed 'equal rights' - and developed enhanced powers from the use of wands - they would become a very considerable danger to wizards. It is probable that wand-wielding goblins would feel justified in taking revenge on wizards for all the unforgotten and brooded-over humiliations of the past.


In fact, underneath the PC top-dressing, JK Rowling's attitude to prejudice is very traditional. Prejudices are useful - indeed essential - but we must always be prepared to notice and respond to exceptions.

Giants are generally bad news, but Hagrid is good; House Elves are mostly happy slaves who live to serve, but Dobby needs to be free; Goblins have been subject to discrimination from wizards, yet are often unfaithful or hostile to wizards.

This is, indeed, common sense. Stereotypes are usually accurate - on average, and under normal conditions.


Indeed, the whole business about muggle-born versus pure-blood wizards is not quite as outrageous as it superficially seems: because being a witch or wizard is indeed hereditary.

Although there seems little or no correlation between 'purity' of blood and magical ability (Voldemort, the second most magical wizard after Dumbledore, is a half-blood; and Hermione is the best of the younger generation) - yet even a muggle-born witch like Harry's mother or Herminone has actually inherited their magical abilities from a more remote ancestor.

(JKR confirms this aspect of the back-story in an interview I read somewhere.)

This happens because magical parents can have non-magical children - called Squibs. Presumably muggle-born witches and wizards come from Squibs, perhaps after several generations of Squibs when the magical trait has been long-forgotten.

So magic is indeed a matter of 'blood'; but the trait is either non-genetic, non-Mendelian, or in some way complexly-inherited.


Thus the world of Harry Potter avoids - in its deep structure - the current insanity of extreme Leftism which regards all prejudicial stereotypes as evil merely because there are exceptions.

We should not, therefore, behave like Hermione, and reject all prejudice (in a way that condescends-to and disregards the expressed desires and revealed preferences of the mass of House Elves) on the basis that the stereotype of happy service is not wholly and always accurate in every conceivable circumstance. And any wizard would be foolish in the extreme to blunder-into a giants colony unarmed, on the assumption that they might be like Hagrid.

Common sense tells us that prejudices and stereotypes are necessary, useful, indeed inevitable - but that to avoid injustice and cruelty we need to be aware of any exceptions - the likes of Dobby and Hagrid - and treat them differently.



Anonymous said...

That was a great essay, well done.

Stephen J. said...

I would take one exception to the remark on Ron and Hermione: What Ron eventually embraces is not Hermione's initially superficial and condescending "I know better" attitude to the house-elves' situation (a situation which, it should be noted, both Dumbledore and Remus Lupin subtly but clearly imply *is* an objective and inherent injustice that needs remedying, albeit by much longer and more complex measures than Hermione's activism), but a more elemental and powerful attitude of responsibility.

While Ron clearly has no malice in him towards the house-elves of any sort, it is also clear that like most wizards he is perfectly willing to take their service as only his due, and while he would never abuse an elf the way Dobby was abused by the Malfoys, he would also never give a second thought to whether anything he asked of a particular elf might be dangerous or even inconvenient. (That few if any elves would ever complain of such does not let Ron, or wizards in general, off the hook on this point.)

What marks Ron's breakthrough -- and Hermione's final realization of her love for him -- is his reaction to Harry's (quite reasonable, in a war) suggestion that the elves be set to battle like all other Hogwarts staff: "No -- I mean we should tell them to get out! We don't want any more Dobbys, do we? We can't order them to die for us!" Whether the elves are or are not bound by "false consciousness" in their service to wizardkind, it is Ron's willingness to at least consider the question for himself -- and to decide that some uses of that service are unacceptable however sincerely it is meant -- that is the real shift.

What I think the S.P.E.W. plotline is meant to demonstrate is not that lifelong service is either inherently morally good or evil, but that it is the attempt to make decisions for others -- whether in a spirit of high-minded (but heavy-handed) benevolence or a spirit of callous, outright exploitation -- that is always more destructive than it is worth.