What Star Wars Taught Me About Social Justice

Image by Flickr user Steve Wilson; Posters by Olly Moss

It’s no secret that my two great passions are science fiction and social justice. My love of both can be traced to my childhood, stemming from an early exposure to Star Wars (although I also owe a large debt to L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time but I’ll save that for another post). So when the Internet exploded recently over the newly released trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I took the opportunity to reflect on the lessons I learned from the original trilogy about social justice and revolution (and if you haven’t seen the new trailer, what are you waiting for??!!?) And since librarianship so often intersects with social justice, I figured I’d share them below:

1. You Can Change the World

I’ll start with the most obvious lesson: revolutions can and do succeed against a larger, more powerful institution when fought with conviction and faith. Margaret Mead’s famous quote says this better than I could: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Thanks Leia, Luke, and the entire ragtag team of revolutionaries for proving this to be true and inspiring legions of 7-year-olds to do the same!

2. Act Don’t React

Luke famously walks away from his Jedi training in order to save his friends, blatantly disregarding Yoda’s wise advice to keep to the task at hand. The end result is a poorly planned rescue mission that ends in Luke losing his hand and Leia rescuing him instead. Nice job, Luke! All sarcasm aside, this may be one of the most valuable lessons for any activists and revolutionaries out there.  How often do we react rather than pausing to consider the best way to act? It’s always tempting to act in the heat of the moment but for any social movement to succeed, planning, patience, and perseverance are key to sustaining the fight and creating long-term solutions–even when this means drawing back or pausing in the midst of the struggle in order to gain more knowledge, power or perspective. 

3. Relationships are Key


Image courtesy of Flickr user JD Hancock
Image courtesy of Flickr user JD Hancock

The key to a successful revolution are alliances. This becomes particularly clear when looking at Luke and Han Solo’s relationship. Han Solo is an obvious asset to the Rebel Alliance but is initially so motivated by self-interest that he has no interest in joining their rebellion. It takes his friendship with Luke (and let’s admit it, his increasing romantic interest in Leia) to change his mind. So what’s the takeaway? Alliances are built by crafting meaningful relationships with people regardless if they are completely different than ourselves (i.e. Luke and Han). Too many movements fail because an alliance is created based on similar goals but without a strong foundation of trust and mutual respect to cement it. We need to care for each other, first and foremost, for real social change to occur.

4. Not All Power Corrupts

But it is true that there is a definite Dark Side to power that can certainly aid and abet any corruption waiting to happen. Darth Vader’s soaring rise to power and equally spectacular fall from grace serve as a clear reminder of this. For those seeking social change, this lesson is particularly important as understanding your relationship to power and privilege is fundamental to understanding how systemic injustice occurs and what you can do to stop it. Power does often corrupt, if nothing else by making it difficult to acknowledge when you are in possession of it. What Star Wars teaches so well is that one can possess power and wield it without abusing it or losing yourself within it. The key is mindfulness and self-reflection, neither easy to inculcate but both well worth pursuing.

5. Love Sustains, Anger Drains

Image courtesy of JD Hancock on Flickr
Image courtesy of JD Hancock on Flickr

Finally, Yoda teaches us that any social movement must be rooted in love, not anger. As he says, “Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” Anger may be what drives you to seek change but it is love–love of self, love of family, love of humanity and hope–that ultimately will enable the change to occur. Put simply, anger is a draining force, useful for short-term struggles perhaps, but incapable of sustaining long-term movements. For that, we need love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Of course, all of the above are Lucas’ intended lessons. There are also a number of unintended lessons that can be learned from the trilogy:

6. Sexism Is All Over the Galaxy

Women figure little into these battles over the future of the galaxy…sadly, if you’re a woman, you apparently have to be born into power to possess it (luckily, Leia decides to own her power!)

7. One Person’s Revolution is Another Person’s Exploitation

Oh, the Ewoks. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s no denying that they were essentially pawns in a war not of their making. The blatant lack of respect for their culture and the outright condescension on the part of the rebels only serves to underscore how readily one can move from being righteous to racist.

8. Racism Is Also All Over the Galaxy

Why does Lando have to be the traitor??? Of all the unintended lessons, “Black People Aren’t to Be Trusted” really shouldn’t be one of them. (I know he redeems himself, but still!)

That said, despite the flaws (and ignoring episodes 1-3), Star Wars really does serve as a primer for how to be a revolutionary. I’m grateful for my early indoctrination and am curious if any other people out there credit Star Wars for their love not only of sci-fi but justice as well!

May the 4th be with you!
~Alegria Barclay, currently reading Octavia’s Brood edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown