ActivismFeminismPop Culture

Stories That Matter: Harry Potter & Social Justice

So there I was. Just starting my study abroad experience, feeling a very long way from home, and scrolling through a list of student associations of various stripes and wondering how the hell I was going to meet people if every!single!one! of them was either a religious group, fraternity or sorority. Nuh-uh. No thanks, not for me.

Then I saw one that stood out. It said it was a local chapter of a national organisation known as the Harry Potter Alliance.

So I decided to go along. You know, to see.

Fast-forward several months, and I now count the friends I have met through this chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance to be some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the privilege or good fortune to know.

But the Harry Potter Alliance is so much more than a fan club, and it is more than just a social club. From their website:

Just as Dumbledore’s Army wakes the world up to Voldemort’s return, works for equal rights of house elves and werewolves, and empowers its members, we: Work with partner NGOs in alerting the world to the dangers of global warming, poverty, and genocide. Work with our partners for equal rights regardless of race, gender, and sexuality. Encourage our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place. Join our army to make the world a safer, more magical place, and let your voice be heard!

So in amongst the silliness, the intense discussions about aspects of the magical world, about plot points and characters we ship, there is time for social justice activism. In the short time I’ve been involved in my chapter, we’ve completed a book drive (Accio Books!), a food drive, raised money for various causes, helped boost self-esteem and body image by handing out silly self-affirming valentines on campus, and promoted literacy by doing after-school reading at a local elementary school. Oh, and just a spot of Quidditch too.

Which is all small-scale compared to what the national organisation is up to. They’ve done amazing things, and gotten plenty of publicity in the process. According to the New York Times:

[…] Motivated Potterphiles to send five cargo planes with $123,000 worth of relief supplies to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, donate more than 88,000 books across the world, raise awareness about net neutrality and genocide and make forays into politics — taking on Maine’s 2009 ballot initiative that sought to repeal same sex marriage.

The Maine campaign, called “Wrock 4 Equality,” featured a “wizard rock” concert followed by a day where local fans canvassed while those watching via livestream phone banked. The lobbying day was cast as a “House Cup Competition,” in Harry Potter parlance, where participants could earn points for their preferred House at Hogwarts. The group made over 3,500 cold calls in one day.

The Harry Potter Alliance has a $175,000 annual operating budget, but they leverage it in big ways: volunteers in over 90 chapters around the world have engaged an active membership of about 100,000 within a larger network of 1 million. Slack thinks of himself and his team as community organizers on the Internet: “The Harry Potter online fandom is the community that we are organizing. We’ve always gone to them.”

It turns out, getting a fandom mobilised is a pretty effective way to create lasting social change in this media-rich day and age.

It is also an interesting thing for me, as a skeptic, to note the similarities and differences between fandoms such as the HPA that have embraced a book (or series of books) and are using them to create real-world change, and religion. I know I’m far from the first person to make this comparison. As misguided as I think religions are, you would have to be blind to see that the religious are very good at mobilising hordes of people to social justice causes in times of need (or, when not needed or wanted, which is often the problem). The major difference I see — apart from the fact that HP fans (for the most part!) know that it isn’t actually literally real, is the willingness to acknowledge problematic aspects of the stories. I don’t know how many times I’ve head-desked upon reading a theologian trying to make a case for how genocide is actually totes okay because god commanded it. There is this really awesome piece at Social Justice League about ‘How to be a fan of problematic things’, and I think it sums up really nicely what the attitude toward fiction with problematic aspects ought to be:

As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good fan of problematic things.

This can be seen in the Feminist Harry Potter tumblr, another (non-HPA related) example of where the themes and messages of Harry Potter have been embraced for social justice purposes. While the tumblr points out the many feminist aspects of the books, it also highlights the problematic aspects, most notably with regards to race:

This is pretty awesome to see, really.

So in conclusion: Harry Potter is pretty awesome, Harry Potter Alliance and other fan activism initiatives are awesome and don’t in the slightest bit interfere with my skeptical sensibilities. And, I’d argue, Harry Potter (and other popular fiction), can also be embraced by skeptics in their activism.

(But you’ll have to wait until next week for part two when I talk about that!)

Featured Image Credit:
Google Images, image is for the Deathly Hallows Campaign

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.

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