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Moral Magic: 9 Human Rights Issues Addressed in Harry Potter

When Joanne Rowling first conceived of Harry Potter while waiting for a delayed train, she set into motion the makings of a literary phenomenon that would change lives for years to come. She created more than wizards and witches, spells and cauldrons, magical beasts, and ominous prophecies; she wove a narrative rich with existential inquiry and morals fit for the most timeless of fairy tales. In a world where the definition of personhood isn’t so clear-cut, Harry took us on a journey to find out what it really means to be a hero and do the right thing. As he battles dark lords, discrimination, hexes, and exploitation, the readers learn right along with him. 

  • The Magic of Morality 1 of 10
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    Harry Potter isn't just wizards, werewolves, and wacky adventures — Rowling imparts some heavy social justice lessons, as well. Read on for 9 human rights issues addressed in your favorite series...

  • Blood Status and Social Stratification 2 of 10
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    One of the wonderful things about the world of Harry Potter is the seeming lack of racism as we know it in our "muggle" world, but there's still plenty of discrimination. Certain traditionalist wizards and noble families like the Malfoys believe that a person's blood status (how many of their ancestors were magical) has direct bearing on their value as a human being. Rowling presents this behavior firmly on the side of evil, making it clear who's in the wrong. 

     

    In the books: Draco crosses a line when he calls Hermione a "filthy mudblood," a slur referring to her non-magical heritage. This sets off both Ron and Hermione's "Berserk Button," and Draco suffers the consequences.

     

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  • Slavery and Status Quo Bias 3 of 10
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    The wizarding world's flaws become even clearer when we learn of the enslavement of house elves. Although the tiny creatures initially appear to enjoy serving their families, we quickly learn that they are often abused, and when offered the chance, take to freedom quite well (with some exceptions... poor Winky!). Even some of the good guys don't realize there's anything wrong, since they're so used to the way things are.

     

    In the books: Dobby, Harry's biggest fan, has been physically and verbally abused by the Malfoys for his entire tenure as their enslaved house elf. Kreacher, too, was treated poorly by the Blacks. Both elves become loyal to our heroes as they are treated humanely for the first time.

     

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  • Azkaban and Criminal Justice Ethics 4 of 10
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    The criminal justice system in magical Britain is ... questionable. Suspects in serious crimes are questioned under Veritaserum, a potion that leaves the taker with no choice but to spill the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. What's worse, those who are convicted are sent to Azkaban — a maximum security prison guarded by Dementors, creatures whose presence subjects victims to nothing short of psychological torture. 

     

    In the books: The Dementors are shown to literally suck the life-force out of their victims, beginning with happy memories and, at worst, ending by devouring their very souls (Sirius Black, for one, had a close call with them). Does that sound a bit cruel and unusual to you?

     

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  • Unforgivable Curses and Inalienable Rights 5 of 10
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    Ah, finally, a positive example! For all the good and evil we know can be done with magic in Harry's world, there are certain dark spells that are so harmful that they have been deemed Unforgivable. Performing these spells will get you sent straight to Azkaban — proof that the Ministry at least has some concept of basic human rights.

     

    In the books: Only the truly evil or desperate resort to using one of the three Unforgivables: Imperius, which robs victims of their will, turning them into puppets for the caster; Cruciatus, the most horrible torture spell known to wizard kind (Neville's parents were tortured to insanity under this curse); and lastly, Avada Kedavra, aka The Killing Curse, which is exactly what it says on the tin.

     

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  • Mental Illness and Social Stigma 6 of 10
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    *WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS*

     

    In the wizarding world, mental illness can be even more difficult to handle than in the muggle world — especially when children are involved. When social stigma prevents families from reaching out for help, they try to deal with it themselves — often with dire consequences.

     

    In the books: We learn toward the end of the saga that Dumbledore had a younger sister, Ariana, with unspecified mental health issues. She was kept in the family home, her erratic magical outbursts putting her loved ones in physical danger while she went untreated. Her father ended up in Azkaban after he was convicted of the murder of muggle children who had been taunting Ariana. 

     

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  • Half-Breeds, Lycanthropy, and HIV/AIDS 7 of 10
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    Several characters are treated as second-class citizens because of their "non-human" traits, be they genetic or acquired. Hagrid, half giant on his mother's side, is reviled by magical bigots as a "half-breed" unworthy of notice, let alone respect. Rowling has stated that the beloved Professor Remus Lupin's lycanthropy was a metaphor for the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS,  and that "[Lupin] was someone who had been infected young, who suffered stigma, who had a fear of infecting others, who was terrified he would pass on his condition to his son. And it was a way of examining prejudice, unwarranted prejudice towards a group of people."

     

    In the books: 

    "'Yes, exactly. I heard he's a sort of savage - lives in a hut in the school grounds and every now and then he gets drunk, tries to do magic and ends up setting fire to his bed.'" — Draco Malfoy, about Hagrid.

     

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  • Stay-At-Home Moms, Feminism, and Magical Equality 8 of 10
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    Despite many other rampant prejudices, the wizarding world seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of muggles when it comes to gender equality. Though Rowling wrote men into most of the major roles (Harry, Dumbledore, Voldemort), the women in Harry Potter are present at every level and area of the magical world. 

     

    In the books: Hermione, the main female protagonist, is smarter than her male counterparts, and most definitely not there to be someone's love interest. Molly Weasley, a stay-at-home mom, proves herself a formidable witch when she faces off with Bellatrix Lestrange, another extremely powerful female character (albeit on the side of evil).

     

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  • Sexuality and Political Power 9 of 10
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    JK Rowling's 2007 revelation at Carnegie Hall that she always thought of Dumbledore as a gay character rocked the Harry Potter world, fans and casual observers alike. That she wrote him as the most powerful wizard in the books, both magically and politically, certainly makes a statement. His sexuality had nothing to do with his greatness, and his backstory would be just as tragic were his lost love a dark witch instead of a dark wizard.

     

    In the books: Though we see no direct evidence in the text, Rowling's interview means that "Word of God" is as good as canon. Ship on!

     

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  • Unchecked Disciplinarians and Child Abuse 10 of 10
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    As is abundantly clear by now, many social norms in the wizarding world seem old-fashioned to the point of being downright backward. Indeed, one might attribute Dolores Umbridge's unreasonable rules and cruel punishments to her overall tendency toward rigid preservation of tradition (and, okay, maybe more than a touch of sadism). However, outright child abuse is not limited to magical Britain in these stories.

     

    In the books: That Harry arrived at Hogwarts able to interact with his peers and develop relatively normally is frankly unbelievable. His muggle aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, were nothing short of abusive to their nephew. Harry's feats of flashy heroism are nothing compared to the magnanimity he displayed by forgiving the people who neglected, bullied, and starved him for 10 of his first 11 years.

     

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