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Morality, Bullying, and Justice in Harry Potter

This is a bit of a rant.

First, let me say outright that I do like the Potter series.  Of course I do.  It's a good fantasy adventure, like Lord of the Rings, and for the most part, it never attempts to be anything except a fantasy adventure, like Lord of the Rings.  I get deeply, intensely angry when an author tries to use fiction to shove their agenda—moral, religious, political, etc.—down the reader's throat.  This is why I dislike the Narnia books and why I refuse to read anything in His Dark Materials other than the first book, so it doesn't matter what the agenda is.  I'm equal opportunity on it.  I even like Tolkien's Silmarillion, which is a retelling of the Fall of Lucifer, but the story itself reads like that rather than a heavy-handed morality tale.  If I want to read a poorly-disguised sermon, I'll go to the Current Affairs section of the bookstore and get a political book that makes no pretenses at being anything else.

However, even the best authors cannot help but let their personal worldview influence their writing.  Rowling is no exception, and I do not care for the rather twisted and contradictory view of morality that is portrayed in the Potter series.

It seems that Rowling's take on things is more or less like Bartemius Crouch Sr.'s take:  some variation of “what the good guys do is always OK, and the bad guys are irredeemable and deserve everything that happens to them.”  That sounds a bit harsh, I know, but I don't think it's far from the truth.  Let's just take a look at this.

Much has been said on message boards about Voldemort's claim that the entirety of Slytherin's 17-and-up population sided with him.  In my opinion, this is complete rubbish.  How would he know anyway? And at the time he says this, claiming that Draco is alone in not joining him, Crabbe and Goyle were also not with him.   We also never see anyone on the Order's side attacking a Slytherin student during the battle; they only attack the Death Eaters.  Voldemort's comment is still there for the less perceptive readers to notice, but my real objection to the Battle of Hogwarts is not with who fought and who didn't.  I don't have a problem with the depiction of Slytherins choosing not to fight:  It's perfectly in character for them to get out of Dodge.  My beef with this is that choosing not to fight, choosing not to put one's very young life in grave danger, is portrayed as being an ignoble choice.  That same passage goes on to tell that only a few Ravenclaws remained (again, perfectly in character), followed by a few more Hufflepuffs, and then, predictably, half of Gryffindor.

However, their behavior isn't portrayed as foolhardy or unwise; instead, it's noble and moral, even though at least one of them (Creevey) definitely died as a result of it, totally unnecessarily.  I don't question the bravery of this type of act, or the nobility of spirit, but realistically, sometimes brave things are also stupid things.  Yet in this sequence of DH, if you don't particularly have a death wish, you're portrayed as a coward or worse.  The “message” seems to be that it is always the best thing to do to put your life in jeopardy, and that to choose to avoid a battle is cowardice or outright evil.  In short, that any view of “heroism” other than the Gryffindor viewpoint is wrong.  In my opinion, the Malfoys' avoidance of combat in order to find their son is far more responsible than the Lupins' eagerness to leave their infant child and be in a battle.  Also, consider it:  A fugitive turns up, disrupts everyone's sleep, gets the teachers to put the entire school (and everyone's personal effects) at risk from wizard terrorists, forces the evacuation of the school... yet those students who didn't want to put their lives at risk for this fugitive are to be considered ignoble?

Speaking of choices, I'm among that segment of fandom that continues to cry foul at the portrayal of Tom Riddle.  I am not one of the rather pathetic Voldemort apologists, because the things he did are not acceptable.  And he knew that perfectly well.  He really could be excused if he had done his deeds unaware that they were unacceptable and illegal, but that wasn't the case.  He avoided getting caught because it would slow him up and interfere with his plans, no other reason.  He could have chosen otherwise; his condition didn't cement him into a lifetime as a terrorist.  His condition, of course, was sociopathy, which renders one incapable of understanding why such choices are evil.  Tom Riddle became a sociopath because he was not loved as a baby, unlike Harry, who spent a year and three months in the care of loving parents, with whom he bonded, and was able to internalize that love.  Riddle never had a chance, in short.  It's not really fair to hate a character for making bad choices if that character was incapable of truly understanding why they were bad.  “Voldemort doesn't understand love,” we kept hearing.  Well, my reaction to that is like movie Harry's reaction:  I feel sorry for him.  Not vindictive.  Oh yes, he had to be stopped, just like a rabid dog has to be stopped.  But Riddle's mental condition had always doomed him to have an incomplete life, regardless of what choices he made in it.  He was screwed from birth, to be quite blunt, and if he hadn't made the choices to become Voldemort, he still would have lived an incomplete life, through no fault of his own, despite making the “right” and acceptable choices.  Sociopaths are, most likely, made and not born, but they are not made by their own choices. They are made by the inaction or callousness of others at a time when they have no ability to put a stop to it. Where's the moral to that?

Next is Rowling's portrayal of bullying.  Our hero is a perpetual victim of bullying, first from his family, then from Malfoy and Snape, then Rita Skeeter, then from the Ministry in the fourth book, which continues to the very end.  The bullies are first shown to be one-dimensional, purely nasty characters, but are later fleshed out through the series.  Some of them are given somewhat mitigating circumstances (e.g., Snape, and to a lesser extent, Petunia).  Ultimately Harry makes his peace with all of them, forgiving them where necessary.  Later Rowling reveals that the Malfoys got off the legal hook because of forgiveness, justice tempered with mercy, and the fact that even though they didn't “change allegiances” in the battle, they didn't fight for Voldemort.  No complaints from me on this.  Sirius's lesson that “the world is not divided into good people and Death Eaters” seems well in play here.  We even seem to have ambiguous and good Death Eaters, if the examples of Lucius, Regulus, and Severus are anything to go by.

My complaint stems from the portrayal of bullying and nastiness on the part of the White Hats.  Most particularly, from James Harold Potter. And it is now absolutely canonical that he started it.  Snape was minding his own business, telling his companion that he hoped she was sorted into a particular house (like any wizard-raised kid would do on that trip, and which Harry & Co. did when their turn came), when James cut in completely unasked and started disparaging that House—then bullied his companion, who was at that point noncommittal, into joining in.  And Snape, being eleven, didn't have the maturity not to take the bait.  Still, OK.  A few nasty words between eleven-year-olds are one thing.  The level of viciousness that James displayed later is totally uncalled for.

Regarding the werewolf incident, I don't see it as the horrible damnation of Sirius's character that some do.  He didn't intend to have Snape killed or turned into a werewolf.  The joke was supposed to end with Snape seeing Lupin, squealing, running away in terror, and being laughed at for “cowardice.”  Stupid, ill-thought-out, and reckless, yes—but it's no different from modern-day teen boys who play “chicken” while driving or have races on public roads.  It's a dangerous, inconsiderate, foolhardy phase of adolescence, nothing more.

However, the wolf incident does reflect badly on James.  He decided, as Hermione would put it, to “play the hero,” which was supposed to show the readers that he was allegedly more mature, etc., than Sirius.  With this in mind, I think Rowling really dropped the ball by not making the werewolf incident occur after the pants incident, but what's done is done, and it now portrays James in a very bad light if he was saving Snape one night and then hazing him the next week.  The canonical timeline is now just an invitation for readers to conclude, as Snape did, that James only did it to save his and his friends' own hides.  (And Dumbledore looks like a jerk for letting the Marauders off so light, too.  He even gave James the Head Boyship!)

Then Rowling made matters worse by stating that James continued to hex Snape into their seventh year, but did so behind Lily's back, afraid that she would disapprove and transfer her affections.  There is nothing redeeming about this.  Lily could forgive.  She forgave James for being a bully, although it seems that she shouldn't have.  So her reason for rejecting Snape really wasn't because he said “Mudblood.”  Yet the only explanation we get for why Lily went with James rather than Severus came in a webchat, when JKR revealed that Lily decided against Snape because of his interest in Dark Magic.  Excuse me?  Studying the Dark Arts, a recognized branch of magic that Dumbledore himself studied, is worse than anything James did?  It's worse than having her boyfriend, later husband, lie to her about his behavior toward her childhood friend?

Especially since, even now, we don't know exactly what Dark Magic in the Potterverse is.  We don't know the penalties attached to any spells except for the Unforgivable Curses, committing murder, the Animagus transformation, and underage magic.  The people who went to Azkaban were all, every last one of them, sent either for killing someone, using an Unforgivable, or for getting on the wrong side of the Ministry.  Not for use of other specific spells.

  • The Gaunts went for attacking a law officer.
  • Sirius went because it was believed that he had killed Pettigrew and consorted with the designated enemies of the Ministry, the Death Eaters.
  • The Death Eaters convicted in the attack on the Longbottoms went for using Crucio.
  • Karkaroff went for “Death Eater activity” (i.e., being part of a group to which the Ministry was opposed).
  • Shunpike went for mouthing off to the wrong people and was almost certainly under the Imperius Curse while doing it.
  • Rita would have gone for failing to register with the Ministry as an Animagus.
  • The innocent people sent in Deathly Hallows went because the Ministry was persecuting them.
  • Lucius Malfoy & company went for “trespass and attempted theft” at the Ministry of Magic, as the Prophet article says.
  • Hagrid went for mere suspicion of harboring a monster.

The Ministry is fundamentally corrupt, but you would think there would at least be some explanation as to what specific curses merited prison sentences.

Instead, Dark Magic seems to be, in the characters' minds, nothing more than “what the Death Eaters do.”  In other words, “what the bad guys do is always evil and they deserve whatever they get.”  As I said, this view of things is very, very similar to the view of Barty Crouch.  And it is wrong.  Morally as well as logically wrong.

I take extreme issue with the sector of fandom that insists that Molly Weasley could not possibly have used Avada Kedavra on Bellatrix because “it's Dark Magic and the good guys don't use Dark Magic.”  As if it mattered what she used to kill the woman.  The end result is the same, but these people are evidently so bothered by the idea that they'll make up explanations involving “a Stupefy to Bellatrix's heart” (that's the usual one I hear), the purple flames that hurt Hermione in the Department of Mysteries, anything to avoid stating the obvious, that Molly fired an AK.  (If Voldemort instantly knew that Bellatrix had been killed, it was a curse that was identifiable by means other than its incantation, such as, oh, an intense green light.) Which was completely necessary, justifiable, and even merciful, since it means instant, painless death.  Far more than Bellatrix deserved, considering how much pain she wanted to inflict in her life.

This particular vignette, along with the fact that Dumbledore and Snape made their pact for Snape to give Dumbledore “a quick, painless exit” (i.e., the Killing Curse), demonstrates that Rowling is capable of seeing a gray area with respect to the use of force.  Why she chose to suggest in the chat that “Dark Magic” practitioners deserve to be abandoned by those whom they love, is completely beyond me.  In my personal estimation, colored by my “shades of gray” moral compass, there are only two varieties of magical power in the Potterverse that are always, without exception, unjustifiable, and those are the Cruciatus Curse and the Dementor's Kiss.  And yes, I'm including Horcruxes in that, especially since we now know that the damage can be reversed.  I could justify the creation of one if the wizard in question had a pressing need to stay alive for a particular period of time, and as long as the person killed was not an innocent.  I could even justify the creation of Inferi if they were properly controlled and the bodies were not used against the wishes of the deceased or their loved ones.  It's distasteful, but always immoral?  I don't think so.  I seem to recall Aragorn in Lord of the Rings commanding an army of the dead to do his bidding, and those were the actual souls instead of dumb bodies.  There are really very few things that are always one way or the other.

Rowling seems, instinctively, to know this, but I'm not completely sure that she is consciously aware of it.  She can, and does, write scenes that reinforce it.  Yet when questioned, she tends to go for the simplest answer, and there are many other aspects of her books that suggest that she wants to believe, or thinks she believes, a simpler, black/white view to morality.  Not even that, really; a Black Hat/White Hat view, in which the people and things that she likes—such as James Potter, Gryffindor House, Lily Evans, Hermione Granger, etc.—are always insisted upon to be morally right, even when their actual portrayal is anything but that.

Harry Potter had the potential to present a very mature view of morality, the view of Sirius Black:  Not everything is black or white.  There are unpleasant, unfair people who are good at heart, the White Hats are sometimes more like the Gray Hats because they have to be, but sometimes a White Hat does cross the line.  That's fine.  I have no problem with this; it is my view, in fact.

Harry Potter also could have taken a simple, black/white view, although Rowling made the choice not to do that as soon as she wrote the first book and the character of Severus Snape.  However, she could have written it simplistically and I would not be objecting to it, so long as she was consistent.

Instead, she took the real-world, shades-of-gray view of morals, fleshed out her characters in accordance with this type of moral compass, created dozens of characters in various shades of gray... and attempted, after all this, to convince herself and her readers that the simplistic morality was actually the one in play in her world.  With the result being that extremely dodgy, unnecessary behavior on the part of the Good Guys is viewed as OK because “they're the good guys and those guys in black deserved it.”

It's unfortunate, profoundly so, and is easily the biggest flaw in the series.  And what makes it so unfortunate is that, with a few exceptions (like the Battle of Hogwarts that I complained about), the contradiction occurs only when she talks in interviews about her books.  I would like to believe that the contradiction is imaginary, the result of her speaking off the cuff, but something tells me that this is not the case.