Harry Potter and the Nature of Evil

Harry Potter, school expulsions and the nature of evil

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Having just re-read the Harry Potter books, I was reminded that one of the things I love about them is the way they explore what it means to be “evil.”

By the end of the book we understand that even though Voldemort represents the epitome of darkness, the reality is much more complicated. With Sirius, Snape, Dumbledore even Harry, “bad” is something that is much harder to define.

But the appeal of truly evil characters like Voldemort is that they make it crystal clear where the badness is, and we can rest assured that if we defeat the bad guy, we defeat evil once and for all.

If only it were that simple.

This week the Drug Foundation called for the removal of schools’ rights to expel anyone under the age of 16, recognising that children who act out in problematic ways are actually struggling and likely distressed. Rather than pushing them out, schools are in a unique position to engage and support young people – especially if additional resources are made available.

But this idea that we can just get rid of the bad kids by expelling them persists, in much the same way we believe if we just lock up all the bad adults, then we will all be safe: “Three strikes and you’re out.”

I acknowledge there’s a place for considering safety: most would agree that in the face of violence or sexual acting out we need to consider safety of others first. But we can still decide to meet the person with help and compassion, and ensure that appropriate help for the behaviour is available.

As a society, the idea there are bad people that we can get rid of – that badness is something that punishment “solves” – is to deny not only the complexity of the problem but also the humanity of the person being punished.

Harry Potter thought much the same thing, until he realised that he not only had a small part of Voldemort in him, but that he could also enjoy the power of using dark magic.

Because this is what, on some level, we all think when we buy into the idea that we can “lock ’em up and throw away the key.”

We buy into the myth that evil can be easily defined. That it’s out there in others and can be contained or eliminated.

What is much more challenging is that any of us are capable of atrocities, given the right set of circumstances. We all have the capacity for bad behaviour and if we accept this, evil is much harder to define – but it can also allow us to be more compassionate, if we can accept that most crime and bad behaviour is the result of suffering, not of inherent evil.

People who commit crimes, students who are expelled, are more like us than not. If we focus on the similarities, if we understand that “there but for the grace of God go I” then we open up the possibility of helping, rather than punishing.

While Harry Potter ultimately overcomes Voldemort, in reality we can never truly defeat evil. But in embracing our own darkness, we open up the possibility of accepting the darkness and pain of others.

When we choose to punish, and to try to destroy, we just embrace hate, and instead of ridding the world of evil we simply add more hate to the world, and in doing so actually destroy love.

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