Diversity in a galaxy far, far away

2 Oct

Something about Star Wars has been bugging me. Something other than the really bad scripts, racist stereotypes (http://www.davechen.net/2012/02/racism-stereotypes-phantom-menace-star.html) and sexist characterizations (http://leiashotfirst.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/is-star-wars-sexist/), that is.

It has to do with midi-chlorians, or at least what I understand of them. (Now before I continue, I would like to preface the rest of this post by saying that by no measure am I a Star Wars historian or even much of a fan. So I promise to do my best and apologize in advance for any details that I get wrong. Please do write in to correct me if you spot a factual error.)

Back to midi-chlorians. If you watched the Star Wars prequels, you may remember that midi-chlorians were introduced as an explanation for what makes a Jedi. According to Star Wars wiki Wookieepedia, midi-chlorians are:

intelligent microscopic life forms that lived symbiotically inside the cells of all living things. When present in sufficient numbers, they could allow their host to detect the pervasive energy field known as the Force. Midi-chlorian counts were linked to potential in the Force, ranging from normal Human levels of 2,500 per cell to the much higher levels of Jedi. The highest known midi-chlorian count—over 20,000 per cell—belonged to the Jedi Anakin Skywalker [who would later become Darth Vader], who was believed to have been conceived by the midi-chlorians (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Midi-chlorian).

In other words, Jedis are born. They are genetically determined, and there’s nothing you can do to make yourself a Jedi: you either are, or you aren’t.

So what, you may be thinking. Who cares if you’re a Jedi or not? Well, considering that the Jedi are the “guardians of peace and justice in the [Star Wars] galaxy” (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Jedi), I would argue that everyone in the galaxy should care. These are the self-selected people who have taken the safety of the galaxy upon themselves. And yes, they are self-selected. According to Wookieepedia, “[m]idi-chlorian counts were measured through a blood test; the Jedi used this method to locate Force-sensitive children before their Order was purged by the Galactic Empire.”

And once located, these children would receive an elite education, which their teachers would commit their lives to administering, no matter how much complaining, back talk or general lack of gratitude these midi-chlorian rich youth might dish out.

So to recap: Jedi are born based on one genetic metric that supposedly makes them superior to other humans. This superiority creates exclusive access to educational resources and life opportunities that impact not only the Jedi, but everyone else in the galaxy whose safety now resides in the hands of this group that not only calls the shots regarding what is best for all humans (and some other life forms, considered to be allies), but also determines who will call the shots in perpetuity.

This is the definition of privilege: advantage you didn’t earn but you get anyway, just because of how you were born (http://www.jonesandassociatesconsulting.com/The_Right_Hand_of_Privilege_ThoughtPaper.pdf). And what I find fascinating and fearsome is how clearly George Lucas’ science fiction mirrors back this real life phenomenon so starkly. I say “fearsome” because I don’t have much confidence in George’s storytelling as a vehicle for social justice (see racism and sexism above): what he has portrayed about privilege in his Star Wars franchise seems, if anything, to glorify privilege, rather than critique it.

But the critique is in the pudding, as they say (or sort of say): how exactly has this whole Jedi system of privilege worked out for the galaxy? Arguably, not so great. As sci fi/science/entertainment site io9 observes:

For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. But they weren’t necessarily very bright. Unfortunately, there’s no IQ test needed to become a Jedi Knight, and thus these guardians of peace and justice have brought almost as much war and disorder as they’ve prevented (http://io9.com/the-9-least-competent-jedi-1371895703).

Starting with one Jedi’s determination to train “the ticking timebomb of midicholrians that was Anakin Skywalker [aka Darth Vader],” io9 makes a compelling argument that one genetic mutation does not greatness make.

And so, holding the window and mirror of science fiction up to ourselves, it seems that despite George’s love affair with his privileged-by-birth Jedis, Star Wars does offer a vital lesson about privilege: since privilege is situationally activated by systems that advantage some over others (i.e. privilege isn’t a state of being that exists in a vacuum), we have the opportunity to notice the privileges we enact, actively and passively, directly and indirectly, knowingly and thoughtlessly; and we have agency to challenge those systems of privilege (or endorse them intentionally because when we think about it, we do believe in them). And it’s our right and responsibility to do so. Because whether it’s obvious or not, peace and justice in this galaxy depend on us.

** Thanks to my partner AP for making me read all those Star Wars articles.

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