Harry Potter and Polarization

Written by: Andrew Hanauer

When I think about polarization, I think about Neville Longbottom.

In the first Harry Potter story, The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry and his friends sneak out in the middle of the night to stop the evil Lord Voldemort from stealing an object that will give him eternal life. As they attempt to leave their room, their loyal but socially awkward friend Neville tries to stop them, worried that their sneaking around at night will break school rules and get Gryffindor House (their “team” within their school) in trouble.

Normally a pushover, Neville decides to take a stand, literally. He stands in the doorway and tells his friends – some of the few people who don’t mock or ignore him, people who are more popular and talented than he is – that he will not let them break the rules and that if they try to ignore him and do it anyway, he will be forced to stop them. With no time to explain to Neville the urgency of their task, Harry and his friends temporarily paralyze him with a curse and go on with saving the world.

Their heroism is rewarded, of course. At the final school banquet, the detested Slytherin House is set to win the school championship until the school headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, announces that Harry and his friends have won Gryffindor a ton of points for their heroism. It’s not, however, enough points to win Gryffindor the championship. Dumbledore then awards Gryffindor a final 10 points–enough to clinch victory–to honor Neville’s actions. He explains, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Neville, you see, is an “in-group moderate.”

In highly polarized societies, including in communities where divisions have turned to violence, one of the key roles in reversing those divisions is what social scientists refer to as “in-group moderates,” people who stand up against the worst impulses of their own side. They say, in effect, “Hold on, guys. I’m on your team, but we don’t want to do this.”

To understand the “why,” we have to understand how groups work. Human beings are wired to belong to groups and retain their membership in those groups at almost all costs. The fear of being kicked out of one’s group is terrifying because the stakes are so high. Losing that sense of belonging and community is existential to most human beings. We desperately want to belong.

What are we willing to do to keep our membership in a group? Almost anything. The research found, for instance, that whether or not Hutu Rwandans participated in that country’s genocide was not determined by how much they hated members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group; it was determined by whether or not their neighbors or housemates were participating in the killing. On a less significant level, all we have to do to understand the power of group pressure is to type a political-based message on our Facebook page, knowing that most of our Facebook friends would strongly disagree with it. How does that make us feel? A little anxious, maybe? Maybe more than a little anxious?

When in-group moderates speak out, they are often called traitors (or worse). In Rwanda, some of the first people killed were not Tutsis; they were Hutus who spoke out against killing Tutsis. Here in the divided United States, we see this every day on social media. The loudest voices demand absolute fealty to their team, dissenting voices are shut down and so, most of us are just silent, exhausted by the toxicity or scared of becoming a target.

In-group moderates are often kicked out of their groups. If they are kicked out, the loud voices that push the group in a negative or extreme direction gain even more power. The silent group members see what happens to the in-group moderate and decide that staying silent is probably best…unless they band together and push back, inspired by the in-group moderate’s courage. And that’s truly how things change for the better.

In our work to combat toxic forms of division, we often teach religious leaders about the concept of in-group moderates. And almost always, they want to better understand and clarify the word “moderate.” In many cases, they rightfully reject that word – after all, they aren’t moderate politically in most cases. And they’re seldom moderate in their convictions or their faith. They simply don’t want to see the groups they belong to become dominated by the loudest, most negative voices.

In-group moderates aren’t moderate. They are the people willing to speak the truth even when it’s not popular. They are the people whose convictions are strong enough that they are willing to risk everything, including their ability to have belonging, to have a home, in pursuit of the truth.

Neville wasn’t a moderate; he was a hero. (And spoiler alert, his heroism was just getting started in Book 1.)

In our highly polarized America, we need more Nevilles.

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