Over the weekend, I went to the theater to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m no fanboy, but it’s nonetheless an essential classic for any cultured American. While I enjoy the franchise a lot, there’s something about the films that’s always brought me vague disappointment — something that reflects the decline of Western Civilization.
For those readers born in a galaxy far, far away, and hence clueless, in the words of Obi-Wan-Kanobi: “the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” There is a light side and a dark side of the Force. Wielders of the light are selfless, merciful defenders of the galaxy, while the dark side is stronger, cooler, and prone to light-saber-thrashing temper-tantrums.
The Force poses what philosophers call a false dichotomy, an informal fallacy involving a situation in which only two limited alternatives are considered. The options are typically positioned between two extremes — in the case of Star Wars, the Light and the Dark Sides — when in reality there are infinite shades of gray.
This time around I crossed my fingers, hoping the producers would make an effort to break out of that limited binary mode.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t.
Pervasive through epic fiction is a view of the world in which good and evil are not just human social constructions, but forces as tangible as a materialist-evolutionary worldview. Further, that these forces are clearly identifiable, and they are destined to forever wage war and attempt to overthrow the other. This view can be very dangerous if left unchallenged.
This funny habit humans have of cutting everything in simple terms of black-and-white, light-and-dark, us-and-them, might be why our existence is bleak and ravaged by conflict. If Hollywood could spur the general audience to think about themselves critically a bit more often, it would lead to much more good and peace in the world.
Especially as we approach election season. The divide between Democrat and Republican, blue and red, left and right, yawns into a deep, black cosmic gulf that threatens to suck every sane, moderate thinker into the maelstrom of clashing worldviews. Everywhere, everyone is engaged in combat. From the skies over Syria to your Facebook page, people are shooting each others’ opinions down and cannibalizing their egos. False binary oppositions in our entertainment might be to blame.
Critical thinking doesn’t sell tickets. No wonder I dropped out of film school.
“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” said our good friend George W. Bush, before making one of the biggest foreign policy blunders since the Persians attacked Thermopylae. I wonder if Bush takes a little too much example from the Force.
Everyone believes they are a part of the Light Side, that they are one of the Good Guys. Who would honestly admit they are a member of the Dark Side? Even I have bad days when I just want to Force-choke my worst enemies or telepathically hurl them across the room.
I wonder if ISIS militants would enjoy the Star Wars movies? Maybe they would see themselves as the rebel alliance, a motley crew of underdog freedom fighters poised against the hegemonic Evil Empire — to them, would US marines be the overpoweringly mechanized Stormtroopers, and Barack Obama the mighty Darth Vader? Arguably a blasphemous stretch in perspective, but it is meant as a thought exercise in empathy equivalent to bench pressing twice your own weight.
Is the muddle of warring human factions really just varying shades of the Light Side? Or, more likely, the Dark Side? When everyone on earth are the good guys, then where are all the bad guys? Western civilization has an easy answer.
“Trust your feelings, Luke,” urges the ghost of Obi-Wan Kanobi, during the battle of the Death Star in Episode IV. This reflects benignly the dysfunctional mindset of most people. Arguments are not formed from logic, but sprout from intuitions that are seeded in experience; we merely use the devices of rhetoric to confirm our “feelings” and campaign for our agendas. Does that mean bias and prejudice are virtues?
The Lord of the Rings, in my completely subjective, feelings-based opinion, is superior to Star Wars. Even though Peter Jackson’s epic is driven by a similar dualistic conflict between good and evil, there is a scene in the midst of a battle when Faramir, the pure-hearted prince of Gondor, turns over the corpse of a fallen dark soldier, revealing the face of an ordinary-looking young man. It is not so easy to call him the enemy anymore.
“His sense of duty was no less than yours,” says Faramir to the hobbits. “You wonder what his name is, where he came from, and if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, if he would not rather have stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.”
When the next Star Wars film comes around, perhaps we’ll have learned the cost of simplifying and externalizing evil. Hopefully not the hard way.