Star Wars’ Civil War: A Philosophical, Religious, and Academic Irony

Beyond the stupid daily outrages and personal grudge matches, there’s a really interesting philosophical, quasi-religious question at work with Star Wars Fandom right now.

As most recently expounded by @radicalbytes, the problem specifically comes from a misreading of Return of the Jedi (the last universally-accepted canonical text) and facilitated by the decades of EU.

Luke’s heroic arc in RotJ ended with him putting aside his violence and anger, surviving his temptation by the Dark Side, and coming to terms with a peaceful resolution. Saving his father — and becoming a true Jedi — was an act of compassion and introspection.

But there’s a sect of the audience for which this isn’t the lesson at all. They see Luke’s arc ending with him winning the fight against the Dark Side by being a warrior (note: an active process instead of a reactive process). He saves Darth Vader by physically dominating the scene; his light saber skills and his demonstration of power are what make him a Jedi in the end. This reading is facilitated in part by the EU, which largely doubled-down on the “Luke is a badass warrior” interpretation.

This is a really interesting academic problem to face: which audience and which interpretation is more valid? Are they equally as valid? If one’s wrong, how do you tell them they’re wrong? Can they co-exist?

“You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi, will you be. And confront him, you will.”

Framed in religious terms, it becomes even more uncomfortably complex. The obvious and blatant on-screen and literal lesson of the scriptural text is the rejection of violent means to achieve an end goal; ie, compassion wins the day. But there’s a sect who interprets the lesson as benevolent violence wins the day. Extra-canonical texts support both sides. For years, these respective interpretations lived in harmony, never coming to terms with the diametrically opposite — and mutually exclusive — points of view they represent.

Then new texts were added to the canon. And more specifically, that new canon *only* supported one side. The other side was not only explicitly told their interpretation is wrong, they saw themselves reflected in the new villains. These fans, who had never been at odds with the community before, were now the demonized Other. Their interpretations were not only retroactively and overnight delegitimized, but their existence as fans was implicitly understood to be a mistake by the community.

So the demonized and excommunicated went to war. War against other fans, war against the actors, war against the producers, war against the text itself. After all, “new canon” is only canon if you accept it.

“Is the dark side stronger?” “No, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Leaving aside all the side-controversies, this is the fundamental divergence between the sects and the irreconcilable problem at hand. Without addressing this academic and philosophical divide, there is no solution possible. History has countless examples of religious sects holding centuries-long wars and feuds over slight canonical disagreements, let alone ones that are mutually exclusive.

The irony of course is that this is the exact battle Luke faces in the Emperor’s throne-room: strength through peace vs. strength through violence; light or dark.

The literal textual narrative and the author’s intent is that the light side is the correct answer. If you interpret winning as embracing the violence of action… You’ve literally embraced the dark side, in the narrative’s terms. But does that mean your interpretation is wrong? Does disagreeing with the author negate the value of your receptive authority?

“Anger, fear, aggression… The dark side of the Force are they.”

There are plenty of sub-plots and side-arguments, but the fundamental divide right now in Star Wars Fandom is the exact philosophical battle that the movies themselves hope to address. The academic nuance of the conflict revolves around the question of authority and reception. But the narrative itself gives us an answer and tells us only one side can be correct in the end.

This division-through-interpretation is mirrored in the lessons of the new canon, as well. “Kill the past” is not the lesson of the story — it’s what the villain thinks is the lesson of the story. “Save what you love” is the lesson of the story. Literally. On-screen. Reinforced through multiple characters arcs. But “Kill the past” is a cooler, more memorable line. It provides context for well-developed action scenes and the narrative arcs of the characters. There’s the seduction, though. The dark side is always the more visceral, the more immediate, the more instinctual.

What is Star Wars Fandom to do? The pop culture context is that these are “just movies” and everyone should stop taking it so seriously. But the fact that people *are* taking it so seriously provides an insight that academic folklorists have long known about cultural narratives: they resonate to the people who tell them; they give life to cultural values; they live on because a community needs them to educate, validate, and reinforce norms and behaviors.

The question becomes, then, what values are being exalted, what lessons being taught, and what agency does the audience have in creating its own cultural narrative?

“Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things. Wars not make one great.”

Academic and Trekkie. I talk about the politics of culture, review nerd stuff, and golf a lot. Co-host: @podmeandering, #TopFive, @folkwise13

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