Good morning! It’s been a few weeks since our last correspondence. What a roller coaster the start of 2021 has been. I hope you’re doing well. Thursdays are dedicated right now to working on my book for Hachette Center Street, HOW THE FORCE CAN FIX THE WORLD, and today I’m trying to tie up my chapter on Empathy. The chapter is an exploration of how Star Wars teaches us the importance of empathy and humanizing our opponents, especially when it is hardest to do so. The bulk of the chapter will be about the metaphor of masks in Star Wars, how they serve both heroes and villains and how we wear masks of our own in real life.
I want to share a little of the chapter’s introduction with you. And I’d love to know what you think about it by leaving a comment or sending me an email. The writing took me in some directions I didn’t plan on going, so I’m honestly curious if I’m on the right track here.
EXCERPT: HOW THE FORCE CAN FIX THE WORLD: BY STEPHEN KENT (DRAFT)
Rey had nowhere to go. She’d been captured by Kylo Ren, the ghoulish villain we first meet in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens during a battle on the forest planet of Takodana. The First Order had laid siege to the region in hopes of snatching up her orange and white rolling droid, BB-8, who was carrying some valuable information. Rey didn’t know much about Kylo Ren, his motivations or his history. She had seen him only once before in a vision when she found the decades-old lightsaber of Luke Skywalker on Takodana. When she touched it, Rey was catapulted through time and saw glimpses of the past and future. She was confronted by Kylo Ren first in the rain, surrounded in all directions by the fallen bodies of his victims. Then suddenly she stood deep in the snow-covered woods when Ren, masked and cloaked, bearing his fearsome red lightsaber with a hum more like a growl, sprung out of the darkness toward her. Kylo Ren was damn near terrifying, and here he was now looming over Rey as she was bound to an interrogation table. Trapped.
“You still want to kill me,” Kylo says to her in his garbled robotic voice, filtered by the mask he wears. “That happens when you're being hunted by a creature in a mask,” Rey snaps back at him.
What happens next has always struck me when I watch The Force Awakens. Ren says nothing. He simply steps back from Rey, reaches for his helmet and pulls it off. Slamming it down on the table next to them with a crashing thud. Rey looks….bewildered and suddenly uncomfortable in a way her being held captive doesn’t quite explain. Ren is human. He’s a young man (handsome too). This frightful character was not some “ghoul,” and he wasn’t that different from Rey. Her eyes flittered, she squinted. Was this really what was beneath the mask of Kylo Ren?
Have you had that kind of experience before? A moment where your perception of a person or group was shattered in an instant by some act of vulnerability or humility and suddenly who stood before you was not a monster, but a person. I hope you have. But if I’m being honest, those moments are harder and harder to come by a world increasingly ordered by “user preference.” Empathy is basically one person's ability to understand or relate to the feelings of another. It’s a value that goes beyond teaching your kids how to make friends on the playground. Empathy is more important to society at large than just providing married couples a tool to navigate conflict.
Empathy is a fundamental ingredient of democracy. It’s how we relate to people that are unlike us on the surface but still find common cause. The only kind of society where you don’t have to worry about how other people may feel about things is a dictatorship, because only one person’s feelings matter in that scenario. More importantly, empathy lends to humanizing our opponents and resisting the gravitational pull of tribal politics, which demands that we reduce political opposites to something other than complex individuals. Star Wars has numerous stories of empathy that intertwine with the goal of creating a more free and open galaxy, of respecting the individual. Whether it’s encounters with alien species or confronting villains shielded by menacing masks, the journey of any hero in the Star Wars universe tends to involve a personal quest for empathy. Sometimes it comes easy, like Princess Leia and her immediate connection with the fuzzy Ewoks on the planet Endor in Return of the Jedi. Other times it’s a monumental challenge, like with Rey’s struggle against Kylo Ren. In a world where the powerful want to limit your cognitive ability to relate to others and build unlikely friendships or bonds of affection, empathy is a rebellious quality. More empathy could help fix the world.
Cockroaches. Rats. Parasites. Meat bags. Clones. Rebel scum. You’ve probably heard at least one of these slurs thrown around on the big screen to describe human beings, in iconic movies that leave a mark you can’t soon forget. Hotel Rwanda (2004), a well known drama depicting the 1994 Rwandan ethnic genocide against the Tutsis by an ethnic majority called the Hutus, was where I remember hearing “cockroaches” uttered over a radio broadcast calling Hutus to take up arms and slaughter any and every Tutsi they could find. I was just about 15 years old when my church youth group hosted a viewing of that movie for the expressed purpose of discussing what it means to be human. Rats, or untermenschen, may be what you picked up from Schindler's List (1993) or your high school studies of World War II and the Nazi-led Holocaust of Jews, Gypsies and other minority populations deemed less than human by Hitler’s regime. Soviet propagandists in Stalin’s Russia penned pamphlets describing their German foes as “two-legged animals who have mastered the technique of war."
Whether it’s criminal violence or within the confines of war, empathy is a liability. Seeing yourself in others or feeling what they feel, is a barrier that must be “overcome.”
Well-meaning people learn about high profile instances of mass atrocity and evil and categorize them as something inhuman, a deed that otherwise normal people stumbled into or were tricked into accepting. The tougher truth to grapple with is that humankind is perfectly capable and even wired to do unbelievably wicked things. What makes us unique in the natural world is that humanity is able to build mental and emotional constructs in which doing those things becomes easier to digest. The words we choose have both meaning and great power. They affect the extent to which we need to tap into our reserves of empathy.
Do you ever wonder how in Star Wars, the people of the Republic were able to stomach the brutality of the Clone Wars? It was a conflict that resulted in millions upon millions of deaths in the war against the Separatist’s droid armies. What did the Republic do to face down the threat in Episode II: Attack of the Clones? The Galactic Senate sanctioned the creation of a Clone army. Those clones, created on an assembly line in a cutting edge factory from the DNA of one Jango Fett, were born in test tubes and raised to fight — and die for the Republic. It’s really quite horrific. The supposed “good guys” of the Star Wars prequel trilogy bred human life for the expressed purpose of throwing those bodies into the gears of war. These weren’t “people” to Republic bureaucrats or even some in the Jedi Order, they were just “clones.” There are few instances on-screen where the inherent individuality of these soldiers is recognized.
It’s no wonder a society this decadent morphed so seamlessly into being the Galactic Empire.
Despite all of its imperfection and fraught history, the United States stands as a beacon of democracy and pluralism to the rest of the world. It’s a position that America has earned through trial, through failure and by right of just how radical the American experiment is. A multi-racial democracy, a constitution predicated on individual rights in opposition to the whims of the collective, rights that are endowed by a creator and not the government....these are uniquely American values. Heck, America is one of only a few countries in the world with no official language. It’s a beautiful and incredibly challenging thing we’re doing here.
What ties it all together is a somewhat tedious and unspoken truth, which is that because America is built on the value of debate, difference and deference...we aren’t always going to like one another. But we’re stuck with each other. The alternatives have been tried and are vicious, ugly and dehumanizing. We’re all here in this American republic hoping to be heard, to be seen, to be recognized and to have our basic needs such as security, love and belonging met by our fellow citizens.
Empathy helps us to connect with those unlike us, to walk in their shoes, and hopefully in so doing — reach consensus. That’s politics after all, consensus and compromise. When there’s a conflict and politics is no longer on the table, we call that war.
To A Dark Place This Line of Thought Will Carry Us
Something is happening in American politics. The lines are getting blurred between acceptable and unacceptable discourse, between political affiliations that are within the bounds of the great debate and those which are existentially dangerous.
During the January 6th, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol building, in which Trump supporters mobbed the building and ransacked the halls of Congress, one Ashli Babbitt was shot dead by Hill police while trying to get into a secure area. She bled out from the neck as people around her screamed. Babbitt was a well-documented supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory that alleges the Democratic Party and State Department are in cahoots to exploit and traffic children around the world, in addition to engaging in Satanic blood-rituals. She died in the company of some deeply unsavory characters, white nationalists and right-wing militants among them. Conspiracy theories make for strange bedfellows. Whether it be evangelical pastors or committed neo-Nazis, the belief has the power to unite them around a shared cause: defeating an evil and subhuman cabal of enemies. It’s a deadly scary movement and one predicated on abandoning empathy for your political opponents in favor of the mantle of quasi-spiritual heroism.
Did Ashli Babbitt deserve to die? My view is that if you storm the U.S. Capitol you certainly shouldn’t be surprised by the use of deadly force. But deserving it is something else entirely. If you were unfortunate to have been on Twitter the following day, you could find a wealth of conviction from people who’d never met Babbitt that were quite certain she did deserve it. Arthur Chu, an eleven-time winner of the TV game show Jeopardy, now a political columnist, took to Twitter to say the following in regards to Babbitt’s death:
“When a bullet goes through the fatty tumor a Nazi has in the space where a human being would have a brain, nothing is lost.”
“A pile of meat that moved and spoke and acted like a person was made to stop moving, and thus could no longer fool people into thinking it was one of them.”
“A Nazi is the opposite of a person, and therefore our morality to them be reverse. To hate them is to love, to harm them is to heal, to kill them is to bring life.”
“You should feel less bad than you do about putting down a rabid animal. In that case the rabies virus and the host are separate entities, one was the victim of the other. A Nazi is the disease.”
Naturally, these Tweets have since been deleted but can be easily found elsewhere. To keep this simple and not get mired in the unknown, Babbitt was not known to have any neo-Nazi or white supremacist affiliations. She was in a mob that included some of those people. From what we know, she was a Trump Republican and a conspiracy theorist. What worries me about Chu’s statements here, beyond the graphic dehumanization of a stranger and the supposed righteousness in doing so, is that there was zero burden of proof required to apply the label of “Nazi” to Babbitt and by extension mark her for death.
I’ll just say it — I have been a called “Nazi” and “fascist” more times by strangers than I can count. Why? Because as soon as I was old enough to knock on doors for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, that’s just a slur a young Republican learns to endure from their most thoughtless opponents on the left. My own brother (whom I adore) has playfully chided my more conservative stances as fascistic in years past, because he’s pretty far left. I used to joke back that he and his anarcho-punk friends saw a Nazi around every corner, and even under their own beds at night. I know (many) self-identified Republicans, even Libertarians, get pegged with that moniker indiscriminately and are angrily accustomed to it, despite it being unfounded and untrue of them.
That being the case, does Arthur Chu and the thousands of people who retweeted and liked his murderous rant feel authorized to kill me? What about certain members of my family who’d call themselves conservative? Maybe some of my friends who have unfortunately fallen victim to this QAnon madness and voted for Trump?
“To a dark place this line of thought will carry us,” Yoda said to his Jedi colleagues in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, as they gathered round a briefing room table to discuss the possibility of removing Chancellor Palpatine from office — by force. I bring that up not because the Jedi needed to pause and empathize with their treacherous Chancellor, but because they decided the gravity of the situation superseded the necessity to respond with democratic methods and process.
In this galaxy we live in, empathy and a shared sense of both humanity and common purpose is what stands between democracy and — well, everything else.
I hope you enjoyed this little excerpt of the book I’m working on. This portion of the chapter is the introduction and setting the table for why Empathy matters in a democracy. Then I’ll go on to define it and build on the Star Wars connection. HOW THE FORCE CAN FIX THE WORLD is slated for a Christmas 2021 release, and you can keep up with it here on Politicize Me. Will you consider telling a friend or two about it and tell them to sign up for this newsletter? That’ll help me a great deal in making the book a success.
It’s me, Stephen Kent! I’m the curator of Politicize Me, host of the Beltway Banthas Podcast forthcoming author of ‘How The Force Can Fix The World’ (Hachette-Center Street). You can follow me on Twitter @Stephen_Kent89.