Hocus pocus: props on the Harry Potter set at the Warner Bros Studio Tour London. Photo: Gettty
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Magic effect: how Harry Potter has influenced the political values of the Millennial generation

Reading the books correlated with higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture.

The idea that entertainment has an effect on our politics might seem ludicrous to some. Many would scoff at the notion that the Star Wars saga might have influenced the political socialisation of Generation X. Or that the music that the baby boomers listened to played a supporting role in the development of that generation’s politics.

And perhaps, most ridiculous of all, is the idea that J K Rowling’s immensely popular tale of the boy-who-lived could have played a role in the political development of that generation, the Millenials. Let alone an election result. But this is exactly what some recent research of mine indicates.

I found empirical support for the idea that the Harry Potter series influenced the political values and perspectives of the generation that came of age with these books. Reading the books correlated with greater levels of acceptance for out-groups, higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture. As Harry Potter fans will have noted, these are major themes repeated throughout the series. These correlations remained significant even when applying more sophisticated statistical analyses – when controlling for, among other things, parental influence.

I’m not saying, Rita Skeeter like, that “Harry Potter helped Obama get elected” or that “Harry Potter books brainwashed millennials”, as much of the coverage of my research indicated. It’s of course much more nuanced than this. And in a world where consumption of entertainment media is escalating, allowing many to avoid news coverage altogether in favour of fun, thinking about this is more important than ever.

More recognisable than any political logo. Dave Catchpole, CC BY-SA

Who is rational?

Scepticism of the notion that our entertainment consumption shapes our political perspectives only has traction if you think that we arrive at our political views rationally. And there’s a long record of research in multiple disciplines (psychology, sociology, and political science to name a few) that thoroughly debunks the notion that we acquire political values and attitudes through a rational process.

And research into how we immerse ourselves in stories has demonstrated that we do not process ideas in entertainment the same way we process information – we react on a more emotional level, at a distance from real world facts.

The next scornful retort is that people’s choice of entertainment will reflect their pre-existing political views. But the argument of selective exposure – that we only consume media that is congruent with our existing beliefs – is less applicable to entertainment than it is to overly political media.

We’re often drawn to stories for reasons that may have nothing to do with our views. This may be its popularity, attention given to it in the media, critical reviews, special effects, advertising, boredom, inadvertent exposure when we have little choice – the reasons go on. And once we’re immersed in the book, TV programme, film or whatever, once we’ve come to identify with certain characters we are, as communications scholars have demonstrated, likely to internalise the lessons of the narrative, and emulate the qualities of those with whom we identify.

Selective exposure is also complicated by the fact that the politically relevant lessons of a narrative or the qualities of fictional characters are not always evident early on in the story. And they may evolve throughout it. Take that of Darth Vader, a cultural icon of evil, for example – he turns out to still have some good in him at the end. Or there’s the Cylons of the recent reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, who evolve from genocidal robots to a form of intelligent life deserving acceptance and tolerance.

Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards is a dark take on US politics. Image: Screenshot from trailer

When we’re consuming entertainment stories it’s likely that we’re more susceptible to politically relevant messages – we’re relaxing, having fun, our political “guard” is down. Indeed, most people are largely unaware of the politically relevant content of that which they watch or read because they are not looking for it. And certain politically relevant messages are so ubiquitous throughout our culture that they become invisible to us. Take the overwhelmingly positive portray of guns in US media – it’s incredibly rare to see a hero without a gun.

Selective exposure is also less likely to occur among younger media consumers who have yet to fully form their political views. This is a point especially applicable to the media teenagers consume, like the Harry Potter series.

A great volume of research has been devoted to the effects of entertainment on social phenomena such as violence, sex, smoking and drinking. In this light, perhaps it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to give some attention to how entertainment shapes our politics. There have been a handful of published pieces that demonstrate the role of entertainment media, but more empirical research is needed.

In addition to Harry Potter, I also have preliminary results from two other recent studies. One, an experiment that found that exposure to different types of science fiction and fantasy villains affected attitudes about criminal justice. And another that found that exposure to Game of Thrones and House of Cards reduced the tendency to believe in a just world.

There are certainly methodological issues with teasing out entertainment media effects, but those difficulties have not stopped researchers on other similarly sticky subjects. We need to consider the role of entertainment media in the development of political perspectives, in how citizens see their governments, leaders, and policies. This is something that is ever more important in our era of unlimited media choice.

The ConversationAnthony Gierzynski does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.