By the end of 2015, Warner Brothers will use only fair trade chocolate in their various Harry Potter merchandise. They announced this in a letter to Andrew Slack, the founder of a fan activism group called the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA).
The HPA is an activist group consisting mainly of high school and college chapters dedicated to a collection of social causes that Slack has identified as aligned with the values of Harry Potter.
A number of media outlets are abuzz about the HPA. And not just because of Warner Brothers going fair trade (which is admittedly a little less impressive when you consider that better selling products like Kit-Kat are already on a timeline to go fair trade).
But the HPA has also held a massively successful book drive and raised awareness on issues like economic inequality.
This is the perfect example of “fan activism,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins, a media scholar at the University of South Carolina and an adamant supporter of the HPA.
So how do the vaguely defined values of a fictional character shape an international movement that has achieved success on a variety of fronts?
In describing the impact of Harry Potter, Slack says the books have a “moral authority.” This rings true. With today’s political atmosphere of cynicism and distrust, there’s a real appeal to a character with Harry’s moral clarity.
Sure Harry had his moments of violence and doubt. But Harry would never sell out. Harry would never sacrifice his ideals in the name of compromise or necessity. J. K. Rowling would never have written him that way.
If you’re not scared at this point, you should be. Because Harry Potter could quite easily occupy a radically different moral landscape, whether that be the veiled jingoism of “The Lord of the Rings” or the more overt tones of outright propaganda.
Perhaps people interpreted the applications of Harry Potter somewhat differently. Imagine, for instance, the Alliance of Harry Potter the Philanthropist sets one house elf free and then excuses itself from having to worry about house elves any more. (Admittedly, it’s not as compelling as Harry Potter the Justice Warrior, but that might just be my bias.)
The point here is that the “power of fiction” is completely agnostic to what you’re using it to argue.
Of course, none of these problems are new. Propaganda has used stories for political ends even before the Persians wrote stories of their heroic King Darius I rising to the throne.
And of course, not just anyone with an agenda can create a fictional hero and expect people to rally behind it. J. K. Rowling had to earn her readers’ trust. She did it, I would argue, through a certain combination of moral certitude and human compassion. Harry Potter never compromises in his fight against Voldemort, but he also gives Peter Pettigrew a chance to live.
Still, this formula could be applied to a wide variety of stances. Principles and facts, not wishy-washy comparisons to fictional worlds, should shape politics.The success of the HPA seems to show that fiction has a frightening pull.