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


A country should be defended not by arms, but by ethical behavior.
-Vinoba Bhave

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.

Even at the climax of the series, when Harry faces down Voldemort and both the reading and magical worlds anticipate that Harry will utter the unforgivable curse in utterly forgivable circumstances, he employs an ingenious use of disarmament to vanquish the evil lord. Harry has not only avoided the profound personal stain of murder, he is able to solve a complicated and subtle tactical problem precisely because he does not reflexively adopt the obvious violent tactic.

It may well be that this is not only a compelling literary device, but 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.” Harry is neither a Gandhian, nor non-violent in any Gandhian sense; but his instincts move in that direction. Harry’s restraint and ethics reveal the strength of his compassion; and his bravery is beyond question.

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.

Gandhi-ji would say that there are no halfway measures. He wrote, “My nonviolence does not recognize different species of violence, defensive and offensive.” But Gandhi-ji is not here to show us the way and his lieutenants and acolytes have utterly failed to keep his ideals and strategies relevant and viable in any macro-political way. 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.


4 Responses to “Expelliarmus! Harry Potter and the Path to Gandhian Non-Violence”

  1. 1 Prasun 30 July 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Connecting Harry Potter to foreign policy! Very interesting take!

  2. 2 Marvin 24 August 2007 at 10:57 pm

    I finally found it! And read the HP comment on non-violence, definitely an anti-American sentiment that gives aid and comfort, etc.

    The thing is, I can’t remember how I got to your blog. For some reason I have trouble navigating through memestream. The computer and I are still not friends.

    Now I’m going back to the index (if I can work it) and take a look at your other thoughts.


    PS: Oops, I got an error for not filling in the “Mail” box. I’ll try again.

  3. 3 mbjesq 29 August 2007 at 9:13 am

    Testing, testing… Hey, is this thing on?

    Thanks, dad.

    The right would have a modicum more credibility when incessantly shrieking that the left “gives aid and comfort to the enemy” if they had a better track record in identifying the correct enemy. If FDR didn’t quite say, “We have nothing to fear but ourselves,” he should have.

  4. 4 mbjesq 13 December 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I accidentally stumbled on a nice essay very similar to mine, by Janet Iafrate, called Expelliarmus!: Retaliation and peaceable outcomes in the Harry Potter series. It’s published in The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Vol 13, No 3 (2009).

    When we corresponded, Janet wrote: “[F]rom the first time I read “Prisoner of Azkaban” I was so, so impressed with how violence and retaliation was treated, and I was thrilled to see it consistent throughout the next four novels.” Check her essay, here.

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