June 29, 2017
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first in the Harry Potter series. It might seem strange to bring that up here, in an opinion piece for B’nai Brith Canada, but as a fan of the series I think it can be useful to consider the lessons J.K. Rowling has taught an entire generation.
It’s not as though Rowling was subtle about the real-world parallels in the Harry Potter series: one very powerful man, errrr, wizard (Voldemort takes offense to being called a man) manages to gain numerous supporters in his quest to rid the world of muggleborns (who he considers to be inferior) and put them “in their rightful place.”
The pureblood versus muggleborn controversy continues even after Voldemort disappears, though his supporters maintain their views, albeit subtly in order to fit into society. But everyone who grows up in the wizarding world (like Ron Weasley, a pureblood himself) understands that it’s an issue.
Soon after Harry discovers that he himself is a wizard, he attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and makes friends with everyone – except, of course, the Slytherins. He makes friends with purebloods like Ron, his brothers, and Neville Longbottom, with half-bloods like Seamus Finnigan, and with muggleborns like Dean Thomas and Hermione Granger. He makes friends with all of them, but never actually thinks, “Hey, I made friends with a muggleborn!” or “I hope nobody judges me for being friends with a half-blood.”
To Harry, it makes literally no difference who your parents are, or what your place of origin is. If you’re a good person then you’re okay in his books.
In his second school year, Harry is introduced to the term “mudblood,” a derogatory word for muggleborn (in the wizarding world, it’s essentially on par with “kike.”) Harry is utterly disgusted and completely dumbfounded as to why people would care so much about one’s heritage, or why one would turn that into an insult. Who cares if someone is muggleborn or pureblood, he wonders. Why does it even matter?
To get a real sense of Harry’s values and morals, I’d refer to his first ever conversation with his sixth-year potions master Horace Slughorn, which speaks volumes about Harry’s egalitarianism.
“Your mother was Muggle-born, of course. Couldn’t believe it when I found out. Thought she must have been pure-blood, she was so good,” said Horace.
“One of my best friends is Muggle-born,” said Harry, “and she’s the best in our year.”
“Funny how that sometimes happens, isn’t it?” said Slughorn.
“Not really,” said Harry coldly.
In this scene, Harry confirms the notion that it shouldn’t be weird for a muggle-born to be considered “good,” as muggle-borns are wizards just like Harry or Slughorn. And Harry recognizes that, at the day of the day, it really shouldn’t matter anyway. It’s a direct response to the systemic racism that exists in the real world, with Harry acting as a beacon of light in an otherwise prejudiced society.
There are more lessons than this in the Harry Potter series, as any fan knows. But I think it’s time we thought about what we can learn from Harry and his complete refusal to judge a person by his or her heritage.
If everyone just worked a little harder to emulate him, maybe people would stop caring if their co-workers were Jewish or Muslim, and maybe hate crimes against religious and cultural identity groups would diminish.
Given that hate crimes in Canada have increased over the past few years, with members of the Jewish community continuing to be the most targeted, Harry imparts a lesson in ethics that all of us could benefit from. Since 2016 saw a dramatic increase in Holocaust denial and was a record-setting year for antisemitism in Canada according to B’nai Brith’s 2016 Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, following in Harry’s footsteps could surely lead to a decrease in hate-motivated incidents.
In honour of the anniversary of the first Harry Potter book, let’s all put on our Harry Potter glasses and see the world through his eyes, judging people not for what they believe in, where they come from, or who their parents are, but simply on whether or not they are good people.
It’s time we rid the world of Draco Malfoys and fill it with Harry Potters instead. What a world that would be!
Sara McCleary has written extensively on a wide range of topics while working as a news reporter and freelancer. She has also completed a master's degree in history, and further graduate work in interdisciplinary humanities.