Expelliarmus! Harry Potter and the Path to Gandhian Non-Violence

August 05, 2007

Throughout the Harry Potter series, when Jo Rowling’s hero raises his wand in anger or defense against an evil witch or wizard, he habitually uses non-lethal curses and charms. Indeed, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the identity of a concealed Harry is immediately revealed to the Death Eaters when he slips a killing curse and de-wands his assailant, rather than returning deadly fire. Says Remus Lupin, “The Death Eaters seem to think it’s your signature move, and I urge you not to let it become so.”

But Harry persists, in battle after battle, using expelliarmus! (forceful disarming of one's enemy) and protego! (the shield charm) rather than expedient resort to slaughter. His principled, measured approach entails substantial risks, but Ms. Rowling gives us plenty of examples where his judiciousness helps to win hearts-and-minds which assist him down the road. And, quite aside from the karmic pragmatism of Harry’s tactics, they have the incalculable benefit of allowing him to retain the “purity of his soul” (as Ms. Rowling might put it) and retain his moral authority.
It may well be that this is not only a compelling literary device, but also an interesting approach to the evils of the Voldemortian world in which we live. It is a strategy as audacious and courageous as it is compassionate and ennobling. As Gandhi-ji wrote, "Nonviolence is not a weapon of the weak. It is a weapon of the strongest and the bravest."

Neoconservative bellicosity has been comprehensively discredited as a strategy for pacifying; and it has thoroughly undermined America’s moral standing among foes and allies alike. Yet neither actors-on-the-world-stage, nor theoreticians have successfully demonstrated that true Gandhian principles of non-violence can be successfully applied in the post-modern context. Perhaps the tactics of expelliarmus! and protego! need to be better studied by political scientists and defense analysts. Indeed, the beatified General David H. Petraeus pays heed to a similar approach in his 2006 revision of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which advocates limitations on the use of force, in order to bolster credibility and respect within the native civilian populations who will ultimately have to chose whether to foster or reject the enemy insurgents.

The Potter Principle may be the path through the darkness until such time as the value of comprehensive non-violence can be proven and applied.

Mark Jacobs is a freelance volunteer, working on service projects in various places around the world. He lives half of each year in India and writes at www.memestream.org.
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Expelliarmus! Harry Potter and the Path to Gandhian Non-Violence


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Pedro Morgado
August 5, 2007
01:23 PM

Please, save Harry Potter. :)


August 5, 2007
09:44 PM

This article is extremely biased. Harry Potter uses a slew of wizarding's most brutal and illegal curses in the last book, including Crucio, which causes the victim to feel unimaginable pain, and Imperius, which controls the victim's actions. Both of these curses are considered by the government to be the foulest of foul dark margic.

August 5, 2007
09:48 PM

So, basically Aaron is saying, that non-violence was not a viable solution to Voldemortian terrorism.

Incidentally, Voldemortian terrorism could be considered state-sponsored terrorism, methinks.

August 5, 2007
10:05 PM

I did not comment at all on what Harry should or should not have done, or how he should have combated Voldemort's forces. All I said was that I disagree with the author's statement that Harry chose a path of non-violence.

For example, someone's spit on a character Harry respected, and he responded by causing that character immeasurable pain with one of wizarding's most painful curses. Does that sound nonviolent to you?

August 5, 2007
10:07 PM

or "principled"?

August 5, 2007
11:27 PM

Aaron needs to read my essay a bit more closely.
I never claim claiming that Harry was a Gandhian, or non-violent in any Gandhian sense. I simply laud his restraint in using lethal force.

I suggest that such restraint can be a significant step toward eventual foreign and defense policy based on principles of non-violence.

We are a long way from having a viable post-modern theory of non-violence, and even further from being able to implement such an idealist position as national or international policy. (The fault for this lies in the smugness of Gandhi-ji's lieutenants and acolytes, and the utter failure of Gandhianism to advance after his death. This, and the abandonment of Gandhi-ji's teachings in India is a subject for another essay.) My point in this piece was simple to suggest a bridge from here to there.

Ruvy in Jerusalem
August 7, 2007
03:42 AM

I would suggest reading a true story to understand the limits of a Gandhian strategy in dealing with evil. A Man Called Intrepid deals with the experiences of Sir William Stephenson, who headed up a super-secret British intelligence agency in America during WWII. One of the goals of this agency was to get Dr. Niels Bohr out of Nazi-occupied Denmark to prevent the Nazis from building an atom bomb, and in addition, to persuade Dr. Bohr to join the Allied effort in building a bomb.

Dr. Bohr was very much an admirer of Gandhi and of his concepts of non-violence, and in dealing with the "polite" German administration in Denmark, they seemed to work. But when the Gestapo decided to liquidate the country's Jews (Bohr was Jewish) and to end the puppet Danish government, Gandhian methods no longer worked.

The Nazis were not the British. They worshipped brutality in conquest and once they decided to end the special status of Denmark, they intended to be brutal to the Danes as they were to everyone else. Dr. Bohr was evacuated to Sweden with most of Denmark's other Jews, and later he went to England and America.

I strongly recommend reading the part of this book that deals with the rescue of Professor Bohr from Denmark.

August 9, 2007
11:01 AM

The way the use of Imperio and Crucio by Death Eaters and by Harry was shown in a completely different light. JKR made such a back flip with that.

Gandhi did not claim that "Gandhian" way will win all possible battles. Whoever wants "success at all costs" must chose whatever way seems best suited for the situation. Those who desire to follow the purest way possible irrespective of what the consequences will be, bless him, Gandhi has a left a great example to follow.

August 9, 2007
11:56 AM

What, exactly, Gandhi-ji may have claimed with respect to non-violent tactics with respect to "all possible battles" I can't say. Indeed, one could argue that Gandhianism is about conceding the battles -- each and every one of them -- non-violently to, ironically, win the war.

It depends how you define the "battle", I suppose.

Gandhi-ji's disciples -- those for whom I have enormous respect, like Dwarko Sundrani, and those for whom I have none, like Nirmala Deshpande -- certainly make tremendously broad, even universal claims about the applicability of Gandhian non-violence. Little, if any, reason or analysis is given; it is offered with the certitude and underpinnings of faith. When I call for an intellectually rigorous assessment of satyagraha and ahimsa as viable contemporary political strategies, it is precisely this credulous, unreasoned approach I am resisting.

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