Truth, Justice, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and the Social Sciences

This month’s Law and Society Association Newsletter, just published, leads off with a message from our president, Rick Lempert.  Lempert sounds a mournful tone in describing the tactics employed in this year’s presidential election primary campaigns.  He bemoans the whatever-it-takes-to-win approach deployed by “campaign professionals” who see winning the nomination as their only goal, often burning their candidate’s chances for the general election in the process.  Lempert then reflects on the signal changes in elections themselves, particularly the use of early voting, voter ID laws, and the issues raised by voter fraud.  “Much of what social science can contribute is law-related,” Lempert concludes (p. 3). 

So far, so fairly conventional.  But Lempert’s analysis then takes a more startling turn.  “In the Harry Potter books, Harry and his fellow would-be wizards have to take a course in Defense Against the Dark Arts.  The time has come for social scientists to devote more attention to producing the material for such a course. . . . [We] need to know how we can aid people to assess the sense and truth of persuasion attempts, to perceive when attempts are being made to manipulate their views through quotes out of context, half-truths and outright lies, and to resist the attempts perceived” (ibid.).  Lempert argues that an electorate so armed will be more able to resist emotional appeals and to make decisions about candidates based on the higher virtues of reason and wisdom.

Though I’m not likely to contribute to the social scientific literature on, for example, ex-felons and the franchise or the actual extent of voter fraud in the 2004 election, I can report that I have already supplied Lempert with one deep reading of the intentional misdirection in Harry Potter.  I wrote this paper for the 2006 LSA meeting in Baltimore and explained my theory to anyone who would listen before the final book came out.  Much as Barack Obama tried valiantly to introduce complexity and ambiguity into the national discussion of race and identity on Tuesday, I try in this paper to show how the most interesting character in the HP novels is the most morally complicated one:  Severus Snape.  Snape embodies the conflict between good and evil that lies at the heart of every morality tale.  Understanding how something fundamentally good can sometimes be concealed within something (or someone) who appears distasteful, unappealing, or even hateful is a pretty demanding thing to ask of readers of fiction.  Given the reactions to Obama’s speech the other day, it’s apparently even more difficult for an entire nation that’s been primed to regard the racial Other with suspicion, even dread, for centuries, to muster the will to try.  But that is exactly where we social scientists can marry popular culture and empirical knowledge.  We can train our students to aspire to higher levels of discernment when it comes to assimilating information that is crafted to slant opinions in the heat of election seasons.  And if Harry Potter helps us model that, I’m all for it.

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8 Responses to Truth, Justice, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and the Social Sciences

  1. vickywoeste says:

    By the way, if anyone wants the footnoted version of the essay (I even found a way to get John Rawls in there), just say the word . . .

  2. laurabethnielsen says:

    I cant wait for Jeff to get in here (he won’t til work onmonday, I suspect.

    i LOVE the essay by Vicky and commed it to all of you. I also love Harry Potter with a strange and deep fascination. The woman is a genius. And today she admitted to being suicidal as a single welfare mom. I think that is very brave and she was in a WELFARE STATE where they do it better. Just imagine how hard it must be to be a single mom on welfare in the US. **sigh**

  3. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    You want to hear what I think about the Harry Potter books? You already know what I think. I think that they are poorly written, tedious, full of unnecessary repetition, gratuitously unpleasant (she killed a bunch of characters offstage in the final book for no reason other than to make Harry feel even worse than before — it’s important that he suffer blamelessly, like Christ — could we possibly be more heavy-handed? ), and generally rotten. The idea that a society of magical people would use their powers to recreate what’s worst about England — poorly heated boarding schools with houses and prefects, and a gargantuan elitist bureaucracy filled with lifers contemptuous of those on the outside, could be seen as an ironic commentary on the poverty of British culture, but there’s nothing to indicate that Rowling meant it that way. Instead of blowing up the Ministry of Magic, the adult Harry and his pals all go work for it. Rowling, a welfare mother, spun a fantasy that is British U, through an through, and thereby became a billionaire. Pathetic. Read Orwell’s 1940 essay “Boy’s Weeklies”, about working class pre-war Brits who read the Greyfriars stories. Same thing.

    I think that the movies are much better — they trim a lot of the narrative fat, and give us more of the cool stuff.

    I think one of the biggest problems with Harry as a character is his general passivity and lack of intelligence, except at the very end of each book, where he suddenly becomes implausibly heroic. One persistent problem – the only way Rowing ever figured out to introduce new “magical” elements into the stories is to have Hermione explain them to Harry, while the reader overhears. It has been frequently remarked that this tends to make Hermione into an insufferable know-it-all, but an even bigger problem is that it makes Harry into an anti-intellectual ignoramus. Six years at Hogwarts, and there’s no evidence that he ever cracked a book.

    But I read them. She’s a bad writer, but she tells a story. However impatient you become with the way she tells it and the scenery, you want to know what happens next. The Harry Potter books are a testament to what we litigators like to call the power of narrative (the fact that we are so proud that we know this phrase points up just how dumb we all are). The trial lawyer’s job is to persuade, but before you can do that you must capture and keep your audience’s attention. Ever since humans started sitting around fires together at night, there have been two ways to do that — sing a song, or tell a story. SInging in court is frowned upon. Better go with Plan B. It worked for Sheherazade,

  4. vickywoeste says:

    Jeffaregularworkinglawyer, my criticisms of Harry–which go far beyond yours, at least as you’ve laid them out here–got me fire-roasted on the Mugglenet editorial discussion boards. I took that as a badge of honor. Harry not only appears not to learn much; he never really faces a moral choice that requires him to choose right over wrong in the way that Snape did (a choice of which Harry remains blithely unaware until nearly the end of Book 7–denying me the confrontation I had so eagerly awaited). One of my original LSA co-panelists has a nice piece in Law and Literature that takes apart the racial and social hierarchies in Rowling’s magical culture. Like you, he finds the books compelling despite their flaws. If it weren’t so late I might be able to remember his name–it’s in my footnotes. Sorry. Anyway, I’ll get you the cite tomorrow. There’s an entire cottage industry of academic analysis of Potterworld; the business history stuff I’ve heard is particularly funny, if not terribly biting. Harry’s not a convincing Christ figure and so I think the novels fail as religious parable; in that, I think Rowling’s reach exceeded her grasp. If I were to rewrite my piece now that Book 7’s out, I would argue that it was Snape who made the truer pascal sacrifice. Cheers.

  5. laurabethnielsen says:

    Oh yes, Jeff, I know what you think about the books — I meant what you think of a defense against the dark arts course for social scientists who study law. . . and who the dark wizards in this world. . . and do they understand they are the dark wizards. . .

  6. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    On that LB, I’m not sure what I have to offer — Mr Lempert wants to design a course to teach people to be more reasonable and wise, more “media-savvy”, less responsive to ad hominem and other irrational arguments, less easy to manipulate with lies, half-truths and sound bites? In short, to be independent, critical thinkers? Call me a snob, but I thought that course was supposed to be called “four years of decent undergraduate liberal arts education.” If that ‘s not working, maybe he could just unplug everyone’s TV and take down the internet and talk radio for a couple of weeks (I’ll include NPR in that group, BTW), and force people to get their information from reading newspapers and talking to each other.

    In all seriousness, having just seen a very good production of “As You Like It” over the weekend, I think more good would accrue to the Republic if every college student was required to take a semester of Intro to Shakespeare than any course Mr. Lempert might design.

  7. lbsmom says:

    In “As You Like It,” Rosalind, one of my favorite characters in Shakespeare, certainly exhibits the ability to be an independent, critical thinker. She knows all that stuff Jaques goes on & on about in his ages of men & women speech & that the world IS a stage, but she wisely refuses to see life that way & chooses to be merry and make her own choices. Now that’s a great example for anyone of any age! I’ll take Shakespeare any day over CNN! Thanks, Jeff, for the reminder.

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