The Tender Activist: Harry Potter & the Dark Art of Othering

By : Scottie Campbell
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I was in a planning meeting for a Harry Potter-focused event and the lead of the meeting thought it would be a fun idea to go around the table and introduce ourselves and say what house we’re in. At this point, I had only managed to get through one chapter of the first book, I had seen the movies and ridden the Orlando rides, but I had not chosen a house (or let a talking hat do it for me) nor did I care. So when it was my turn, my answer to the house question was: “I am none of that.”

You would have thought my nose had fallen off and I had revealed myself to be He Who Must Not Be Named himself. Every drop of oxygen was sucked out of the room and I was immediately transported back to middle school when I had decided to try-out for basketball without knowing how to actually play basketball. How all my friends and classmates appeared to intuitively know how to play is still a mystery to me. I’m confident Mister Rogers would have been proud of me for trying, but as I was dribbling toward the coach, and could clearly see in his eyes that I didn’t know what I was doing, I wanted to be anywhere else. Six feet under would have been a welcome relief.

Since that planning meeting, I promised I would read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and, as my GoodReads account can attest, I completed the task this year. While I could pick apart the book, I readily admit J.K. Rowling competently strings words together and can tell a tale, which I can’t say of all the authors I read in 2019. This house thing though.

I’m reminded of Jane Elliot, the schoolteacher who conducted an anti-racism experiment with her third grade class the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The “Blue eyes-Brown eyes” experiment was designed to show children what it felt like to be discriminated against by pretending that a certain eye color made a group superior. Elliott found herself a controversial figure, particularly among her colleagues, for one main reason: the experiment worked.

Simply by buying into a story, the students believed they were superior if they were told such and did their level best to make sure their inferiors realized it. Several documentaries have been made, if you’d like to experience the tension secondhand and learn more. Rowling is by no means the first or only author to use this model to create the conflict that ages and ages of storytelling has shown us is necessary. Does the conflict have to be nearly as blatant? In this first book, characters are often referred to as being “stupid” and members of different houses have different characteristics, physically and intellectually. The houses compete against each other to get points for various achievements including prowess at Quidditch – division and “othering” seems to be the biggest lesson the professors impart.

Othering is a term coined by cultural theorist Edward W. Said and has traditionally been used to describe an agenda against a minority to keep them in their place. Today the practice of othering has expanded to include finding ways of putting people in their place whether they be a minority or not – the term cisgendered, is one example. The intent of the label feels like saying: There, you’re an other now too. How does that feel? While I’m in full support of us all choosing our pronouns, it worries me that we’ve ventured into a territory of self-othering. It makes me wonder if we’re moving toward equality or defining our various houses more thoroughly.

Perhaps Rowling’s lesson is in how people behave while acknowledging their otherness. We definitely see that in young Harry trying and trying again to make peace, despite how he is mistreated. How we handle the adversities of life is a known measure of our proximity to enlightenment. Sports, to me, are one illustration of this. I go to Orlando City Soccer games because I find them hella fun and a great way to spend some time with by fellow Orlandoans. More than once I’ve shared a section with fans who were downright vile toward the players because the Lions were losing. Few of us sitting in the section would be able to run from one end of the field to the other without passing out, much less accomplish the physical feats the athletes have trained to do – but they have failed us by losing.

There is a transference that happens when going to sporting events through which we live vicariously through the players who symbolically represent our home. We are encouraged to cheer against our other which is not usually kind jibbing. These folks who turn against their own team, consider their avatar on the field to be a failure. Meanwhile, it’s just a game. I’m trying to make peace with the inner me who shied away from sports to embrace the happening of a bunch of people coming together for a time.

I would go into how othering has transferred to our politics to the nonsensical point of people denying science or deciding, without qualification, what constitutes journalism, but that is a column for a different time. I did follow-up with the leader of that Potter planning meeting after I’d read the book. I declared myself to be “Muggle” (someone who doesn’t have magic), proud to communicate that I understood, but she replied I was “No-Maj,” because that’s what they’re called in the United States. It’s enough to make you want to leave the ball on the court and get ice cream instead.

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