Things that Bug Me: Moral Greyness and Star Wars

So it’s almost that time of the year again. The time when Disney releases yet another new product of the Star War saga with the same interminable regularity with which they release their Marvel movies. Huzzah for our new corporate overlords. Huzzah for Disney continuing to dominate the movie studio market and grasping ever wider. But enough about that, let’s talk about one of the dumber things to come out of the pre-release buzz: moral greyness in a morality play like Star Wars.

So ever since the first trailer dropped (and I am not linking to it because I’m assuming that everyone and their mother has seen it. If you haven’t, lucky you.), people suddenly started to get into one of a tizzy about the potential for one of the old Expanded Universe ideas making its way into the new canon: Grey Jedi!

To be quite honest, the very concept is one that is insulting to anyone with a working brain, but then again, there are a lot of people out there without one posting their arguments on the Internet.

So let’s list some of the arguments and refute them, shall we?

Argument 1: Grey Jedi make sense because Yin/Yang
This argument is stupid because it comes out of video game sensibilities that violate the themes of the original films while not fitting in the slightest bit with Taoist philosophy. When you watch the original trilogy, the message is clear: the Dark Side is a bad thing given that it requires negative emotions to really work and in many ways also represents taking the easy way out (Luke: “Is the dark side stronger?” Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”).

Unfortunately, it also lends itself well to power fantasies such as video games. Let’s face it, when you want to play a Force user in video games, chances are that you’d like to use the Dark Side to do things like blast lightning out of your fingertips or choke people to death. In a way, given the Dark Side’s emphasis on dominating others, it would make sense that the cool abilities it offers would be part of the lure to those tired of feeling weak.

Naturally, video game developers thus decided that they had to offer players a chance to live out their fantasies, which meant allowing players to use the Dark Side without falling to it. It’s fine in a game if such a thing is not meant to be canon, but when you start trying to apply this logic to that of the original movies, it simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Return of the Jedi features Luke at his most vulnerable on a spiritual level. He is clearly detached and tempted to the Dark Side throughout the film, and near the end, finds himself poised to succumb to its temptations. While he does overcome Vader on a physical level, the scene plays out like a tragedy: the music is mournful and Luke has almost repeated his father’s mistakes. The moment of triumph comes shortly afterward, when Luke refuses this temptation despite seeing the easy path to power it promises. There is no moral grayness here suggesting that it was a good thing for Luke to use the Dark Side to beat Vader down. To believe that is to misinterpret the message of the scene, to focus on the power fantasy instead of the moral lesson.

Finally, it does not match up with Taoism at all. People seem oddly convinced that the Light and the Dark must both be perfectly in balance, but this is a credulous assumption. If one side is objectively good and the other objectively evil, to use both makes no sense. It would not be a loss if all evil was wiped out, because a world without evil is a Paradise. If everyone was selfless and no one selfish, they’d carry out what they had to for the sake of everyone else, like some sort of utopian worker’s paradise. It does not match up with Yin and Yang, which eschews human notions of morality and instead focuses on the harmonious duality found in nature. Good and evil simply do not need to exist in the same world, although they do.

Besides which, I wonder what Pablo Hidalgo had to say about this?

Argument 2: It’s okay, because Light should work with Dark
Again, why should Good and Evil coexist? We know that if you believe in morality, then they do, but the notion that Evil is something that should exist is a faulty one. One does not need to work with the Devil. One does not need to feed the evil wolf. We tolerate self-centered people because we need their help in areas in which they might be able to offer it if we give them something in return, not because we like them.

Argument 3: It’s great because it matches modern sensibilities
This one just plain annoys me for various reasons. It annoys me because it is based on immature conceptions, because it overstates the value of compromise, because it has poor ramifications given the nature of the religions that inspired the Force, and because it fails to understand what made and continues to make Star Wars what it is.

By immature conceptions, I mean that it is based on immature conceptions of just what a great lesson in morality such a thing would be for the series’ audience. The idea that everything has to be morally ambiguous to be mature is akin to that which states that making things dark makes them deep. In short, it is a failure to understand what real maturity is in that maturity is about examining themes in a manner capable of nuance and not simply pandering to the blind optimists or the hopeless pessimists. This “oh, think of the children” approach could better be thought of as “oh, think of the manchildren who demand that SW become more ‘mature’ so that said manchildren (and womenchildren) can admit in public that they enjoy a story aimed at young audiences.”

Next up is my issue with the idea that it promotes compromise. Now compromise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not an ideal solution, but it is one that makes sense in a pluralistic society where opinions are not necessarily based on good or evil, but rather about how to best go about solving an issue. In real life, compromise is important, and is often one of the better ways to solve a problem. However, as I mentioned above, compromise is not an ideal solution. There will be times when you should not compromise, when it might actually be better to fight because sometimes compromising only adds to the problem rather than helping to fix it. You can’t compromise with some people and then try to pat yourself on the back for ensuring peace in your time. You should never compromise when something clearly evil is going on right in front of you (at least ideally). In fact, you could make the argument (but that would require a post in itself) that a lot of the world’s problems came when people compromised when they should have fought harder (and while at it, fought where they should have considered compromise). You should never compromise with a Dark Side user, at least from what we’ve seen, given that the Dark Side has been portrayed as objectively evil, or at the very least selfish.

My third issue with this argument has to do with the ramifications of it in regards to religion. The idea that it is a good thing to balance the selfish and the selfless makes sense if you believe in mediocrity, because that’s already what the average person tries to do. Rather, despite getting overly dogmatic and far removed from the reality on the ground in practice, in theory, the Jedi seemed to have the right idea in many respects. You should try to control your passions. You should try to avoid too much attachment. You should strive for an ideal instead of merely sticking with mediocrity. It fits with philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism which are still practiced today. To say that certain ideals the Jedi espouse are wrong is to say that the philosophies and religions from which these ideals came are wrong, and that’s just stirring up a hornet’s nest.

Finally, there is the issue of such an argument missing out on the history of the series itself. The 1970s was a cynical period in American history. The country experienced social, economic, and political tumult, and this was reflected in American cinema, which considered gritty realism and moral ambiguity to be hip. Antiheroes waged seemingly hopeless battles against forces far beyond their ability to properly confront. The idealism of the 60s had given way to something far more sinister. It must have been a breath of fresh air when some cheesy looking science fantasy flick with an asthmatic cyborg villain, laser swords, corny dialogue, and a willingness to embrace the silly idealistic morality of yesteryear came out.

Despite what those ignorant of history might otherwise claim, the cynicism of today does not find itself unmatched. The 70s were not an idealistic, naive time, and I’m willing to bet that the Cold War inspired all sorts of dread. Given how nice the human race has it today in comparison to the past, I’m willing to bet that the people of the past were not naive yokels holding on to a false idealism, especially given all the wars and famines and whatnot making life hard. The attitude of those who think that the modern environment and its sensibilities requires a more cynical, morally ambiguous approach reeks of Whig History.

In fact, given the cynicism of modern society, I would argue that Star Wars needs all the more to remain idealistic. I argue that it needs to remain a tale of good triumphing over evil. I argue that it must remain so in order to remind all of us, as it did back in 1977, that there is good in the world, and that it is worth fighting for.

It is for these reasons that I really hope they don’t go down this path with the new movie. It would not only suck, but in hindsight completely violate the message of the older films. I honestly hope that my fears are unfounded and that the writing team knew better. Perhaps they did and the whole “grey” thing will turn out to be a red herring. But then again, I’m just some shiftless loser on the Internet. What do I know of appealing to audiences today or good storytelling?