Morality, Star Wars, and Obi-Wan Kenobi

>> Warning: Spoilers for Obi-Wan Kenobi, Episode I and II <<

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s first two episodes — of six total that have been filmed for season one — are out, with a third coming the day after Memorial Day. I watched them last night with friends, one of whom is a clever thinker with an artist’s eye and an out-loud muser while she watches shows with friends.

“I’m not sure yet, if she is a good guy or a bad guy” she says of (former Jedi) Inquisitor Reva Sevander (played by Moses Ingram), the “third sister” of the Grand Inquisitor that hunts the remaining Jedi into extinction for Darth Vader. I’d watched the shows earlier that day so I knew what was coming, and answered, “I guess we’ll find out in this next scene here,” where she betrays one of her allies.

It used to (and may still) be that folks divided themselves into two camps: those who preferred the future-Earth, utopian science fiction of Star Trek and those who preferred the more fantastical, dueling space wizards in Star Wars. I have always had a difficulty choosing between the two as they each have their own pleasing personality traits, each with but a few blemishes that only serve to make their beauty more authentic.

“Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say, that we are encouraged to love.”

— Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones)

Star Wars and Star Trek have two different, but not incompatible, science-fiction outlooks on humanity. 

Star Trek sees our potential — despite our current troubles — and projects it forward as we struggle to analyze some of the shameful behaviors we brought with us into the future because they once served us well in our struggle for survival on the savannas of our home planet. It was our way of asking ourselves in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, on and on, and yet again today; if it was possible to shed our aggressiveness and anti-intellectualism in order to realize our full potential as a species. 

Gene Roddenberry, and those who came after him to add to the tale, believed that the best bet for humanity was to integrate our impulsiveness and ferocity into our ethos in a way that lifts us above the fray of mere survival. That yes, survival is of the utmost importance, but what we are willing to do to survive is just as important: If we have to kill something in ourselves we collectively refer to as “our humanity”, have we really survived? And yet, we must embrace the facts of what we are — good and bad — in order to harmonize and integrate our competing impulses to become whole-and-complete ethical beings. To the writers’ credit, Star Trek’s earnestness — which is an extensive part of its allure — only rarely causes it to veer into varying levels of preachiness and utopianism.

Star Wars, on the other hand, allows humanity (and the other species of being that inhabit the wildly diverse long-ago galaxy far, far away) to roll around in the muck. I say “humanity” because whatever species the humanoids in Star Wars are, they are stand-ins for us in the fantasy-science-fiction mashup world building of George Lucas; with Joseph Campbell contributing the spiritual musculoskeletal framework that prevents the universe from degenerating into absurdity.

“Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you, just like your father.”

—Luke Skywalker to Kylo Ren (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Into that crucible the camera zooms in on Anakin Skywalker, born into slavery in a dystopian settlement on the barely-inhabitable planet of Tatooine, on the quiet outer rim of what is on its way to becoming the authoritarian, galactic Empire.

From such humble beginnings, one does not expect a great evil to arise. Instead, one expects a freedom fighter and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace initially delivers. The Star Wars prequels surprise us by exposing for us the inconvenient fact that corruption does not arise out of power itself, as the popular saying goes; instead, that power reveals the potential for corruption that lurks within us all and how our desires and the feelings those desires inspire can twist us into developing a set of corrupted ideals to rationalize our own corruption.

I do not personally believe that people are inherently good or bad, that we are not gifted at birth with a moral alignment. Instead, we develop morally as we develop intellectually, and in tune with it. That there are biological foundations to our personalities, it is scientifically undeniable; but these foundations are not deterministic, our character is brought about as a result of the cumulation of the effects of our environment that pressure our genetics to express in one way more than in another and that is how the “nature” portion of our personalities are developed. And that all of these so-called “inherent” qualities are plastic and can be changed for better or worse, sometimes the change occurs out of necessity and sometimes requiring great effort.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

—Yoda (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)

I part ways with the popular theories that some people are inherently bad (or good, for that matter); either because of their sex, or race, or their wealth (or lack thereof), religion, or other outlook on life. I also do not believe that past performance is indicative of future results: I don’t know about you, but I try to learn from my mistakes, and I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you do too. We are all just folks trying to get ahead in the rat race, many of us are on the run from a shadowy past; telling ourselves just one more job and we’ll go straight; thought we know we won’t, but it’s how we live with ourselves.

“Rebellions are built on hope.”

—Jyn Erso (Star Wars: Rogue One)

Star Wars: A New Hope was a romp through a silly world of space cowboys and sandpeople, with a villain in a black hat and a naive squire with a pure heart, it’s a happy-go-lucky tale about the young knight being given a laser sword and the self-confidence to make a difference in the galaxy and being rewarded with a kiss from his sister and an undisclosed sum of imperial credits. With Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the moral framework starts to take center stage. Luke Skywalker (son of Anakin and Senator Padmé Amidala) our eager Jedi Knight, travels to the disgusting swamps of the planet Dagobah, to be taught moral lessons by Jedi Master Yoda. In Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, Luke’s morality is tested as he confronts his father — who has turned to the Dark Side of the Force and encourages Luke to do so as well — and the fully corrupt galactic Emperor Palpatine, a Sith Lord and sworn enemy of the Jedi.

We learn more about what drove Master Yoda to his hermitage in the prequels: the coming to power of Emperor Palpatine, Sith Lord,; the dissolution of the democratic Imperial Senate and the extermination of the protectors of Democracy, the Jedi; and the establishment of the fascist Galactic Empire. At the beginning of the eponymous six-episode streaming special, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi Master who was forced to kill his wayward apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, is likewise in hermitage on the planet Tatooine, watching over young Luke Skywalker so that when the young child starts to show Force sensitivity, he can be trained as a Jedi. Obi-Wan — now Old Ben — has spent the last ten years hiding from the Imperial Inquisitors, not to save himself, but to protect the child because he swore an oath to the child’s mother. He also feels a debt is owed, because he believes he killed the child’s father.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”

—Darth Vader (Star Wars: A New Hope)

The stories in the Star Wars films are a continuous cycle: of good defeating evil and evil rising from its defeat and overtaking the good and good rising from the ashes, and so on, and so forth; very much like our world. The lesson is that because good and evil only exist in our hearts, as long as we allow others to control the feelings in our hearts, those feelings can be used to dominate us and to manipulate us into dominating others. That the act of doing good is one that requires support and community. Doing good is an activity that requires effort, not something that just happens. And sometimes it requires great sacrifice.

In the Star Wars universe, like ours: evil can be personified, but it is not a person. In fact, the very act of killing only creates room for a greater evil. A Sith’s death is often not even final, they just return to do more harm. The lesson is that evil cannot ever be defeated, it can only be denied a place to live in our hearts.

I think of Star Wars that it is more like the world I actually live in, and Star Trek is more like the world I actually want to live in.

The lesson from both Star Trek and Star Wars is that that the evil most worth fighting and that is the most essential to defeat is the one that resides within myself. And also, that yes, our anger can make us more powerful, but that we have to temper our anger with wisdom, lest our anger extinguish the good within us. That we must spend the time to truly know our feelings because our feelings are vitally important to understanding ourselves and our environment, but those same feelings can also betray us. That controlling our feelings is not only possible, but it is essential for our spiritual health. That holding onto resentments poisons our spirit into believing vengeance is the same thing as justice. There are many, many more.

“Now, release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me.”

—Darth Vader (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)

The backstory for Inquisitor Reva Sevander is that she is a former Jedi who most likely joined Darth Vader’s Imperial Inquisitors rather than be executed under the infamous Order 66. From her actions in the story of the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the reactions of the Grand Inquisitor, she is brash and headstrong and bristles under his command. She is running her own game, and appears to be willing to bet her future on her prospects of capturing cagy Old Ben Kenobi and bringing him directly to Lord Vader as her prisoner; thereby securing her position as Grand Inquisitor in the grand Sith tradition of betrayal.

When my friend — the clever one, who I can tell by her highly-detailed artistic renderings that she can, at times and in ways unavailable to me, see more deeply into the nature of people than I can — pondered about Reva’s relationship with the Force, I had to ask myself, “Do not Reva Sevander’s and Darth Vader’s story contain parallels?” They certainly seem to, as the events depicted in episode two of Obi-Wan Kenobi show.

Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy was clearly conflicted and in agony, and had to be goaded into acting by the Emperor himself when he made his decisions to betray his friends and allies. Did Inquisitor Reva even so much as hesitate before she betrayed and murdered the Grand Inquisitor? So focused was she on her victory over him that she allowed her valuable cornered prey to escape.

Or was the Grand Inquisitor’s fate sealed when he goaded her with his words earlier that evening, “Whatever power you are craving, it will not change what you are.“

“And what is that,” she asks, steeling herself for his predictable response.

“The least of us. You came to us from the gutter. Your ability gave you station, but… all the power in the world can’t mask the stench beneath,” recited the Grand Inquisitor, as if they’d had this conversation before, or perhaps he’d thought it to himself many a time and this was his big moment to say it out loud. Either way, the gauntlet is thrown down.

“Maybe that stench is your failure,” replied Inquisitor Reva, picking up the gauntlet; the stage set for the ultimate confrontation in the next act.

Is she, then, not all too different from Anakin? Maybe more alone: no longer with the the support of the Jedi Council behind her (which Anakin barely earned, yet it was lavished upon him), and with her very survival on the line in a mad game of Capture the Jedi with her superior in rank and possibly in the Force as well. Winner take all in the hope Darth Vader is in a good mood when she shows up with the prize. Not great odds for survival, but it’s the only shot she has, lest she end up executed and strung up from a public market archway in Anchorhead.

“Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi. Your destiny.”

—Luke Skywalker (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

Power in the Star Wars galaxy is very much like power in this world: extremely desirable when one does not have any, but when one is faced with the responsibility of wielding power — and the difficulty of holding onto it — it becomes more akin to an unwanted addiction. The only answer is more and more is never enough.

I am eager to see what happens to Reva when she has her inevitable confrontation with Obi-Wan Kenobi. I hope she will be portrayed as the multi-layered and complex character with the same shifting perspectives that gives my own life depth and intrigue; that even in her most difficult time, when she is forced to contemplate actions that go against everything she knows to be true (remember, she was once a Jedi, and the Force is strong in her), that someone — perhaps Obi-Wan Kenobi himself — will be there for her, so she knows she is not alone and that good shall not perish from this earth, so long as we are here to keep hope of it alive.

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

— Yoda (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace)

It seems, with the possible exception of Emperor Palpatine (though Luke made the attempt to redeem him in earnest, proving his mettle as a Jedi), even the most evil villain in the Star Wars universe is capable of salvation and redemption (in fact, it almost seems to be their destiny), as long as there is someone who believes that there is still good in them, and who puts in the effort to reach out to them in their time of need.

Perhaps I have grown old and naive and in doing so I look back to the morality fairy tales I grew up on to help me understand a world that seems to have gone completely mad with fear, anger, and hatred. I at least have the solace of knowing I am not alone in my concerns.

My greatest concern is that we seem to relish using social media to encourage each other to be more and more fearful and angry at each other every day. I can’t imagine how that makes our world better, especially when it is done in the name of making our world a better place. Saying a thing does not make it so.

There are role models who work at that difficult job daily, but whom do not get the attention due the heroes they truly are. I wish we would spend half the energy encouraging each other to follow their good examples as we devote to egregious individuals and organizations who thrive on negative attention. I understand that the algorithms encourage it. The Dark Side of the Force is temptation itself, and as Yoda said, “If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you, it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

While I would prefer we as a civilization were busy at work building our Star Trek future, we find ourselves instead tasked to look to the lessons of Star Wars where we will find that part of us that is worthy of redemption and also that part of us that can see in others that they, too, are worthy of redemption.

Then we can perhaps set about the even more daunting task of making a galactic civilization we can all be proud of.

Make it so!