“Potterversity” Episode 4: “Violence and Civilization”
What does the prevalence of violence in the Harry Potter series tell us about magical civilization – and our own?
Despite its theme of nonviolence, there’s a fair amount of violence in the Harry Potter series. On this episode, Katy and Emily talk with Dr. Aurélie Lacassagne, Associate Professor of Political Science at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Aurélie explains how the Harry Potter novels, which have struck a resonant chord with readers worldwide, reveal important tensions in what scholar Norbert Elias called the “civilizing process.”
As Aurélie notes, Elias connects “civilization” to self-restraint, interdependency, emotional control, and the taming of violence. However, he notes that “decivilizing” also occurs dynamically in all societies as social restraints are tested and emotions boil over. Although members of the Order of the Phoenix show empathy and try to restrain violence where possible, the Death Eaters conversely gain pleasure from torture and murder, without shame or disgust. Pure-bloods, a cohesive group who think of themselves as more established and rooted in tradition, embrace an exclusive notion of society, expressing fear and hatred of outsiders. These outsiders are deemed unworthy of social protection or empathy. Death Eater violence thus contributes to decivilizing forces in wizarding society. Most members of the wizarding community are engaged in the civilizing process, but fear can impel even non-Death Eaters – including members of the Ministry of Magic – to let loose their baser human tendencies.
The Harry Potter series shows how difficult it is to constrain one’s emotions, not only for Death Eaters but also for the good characters in the series, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Civilizations create release valves for strong emotions to channel them productively (Quidditch!). So much of Dumbledore’s advice emphasizes the importance of finding a balance between expressing our feelings and following social restraints. We must express love and empathize with others but also be capable of experiencing remorse, which we can see in Snape but not Tom Riddle.
Remorse is vital for the civilizing process, not only for the one who experiences remorse but also for the larger community, which can then extend forgiveness. Aurélie shares how our experience of decivilizing moments in our own history can reinforce the value of the “global survival unit,” which recognizes the unity and value of all humanity, extending community protections to all. History and literature provide witnesses by adoption. Both the Harry Potter novels and the history of 20th-century fascism engage our emotions, pointing to love, friendship, and empathy as the core values of human civilization.
In our special segment, Emily and Katy discuss the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where Hermione punches or slaps Draco in the face. Is this decivilizing violence? How do we feel about this moment of unrestrained aggression?