Empathy for Stormtroopers

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Written by: 
Published:
January 2, 2020

Even if you aren’t into science fiction, undoubtedly you’ve heard of Star Wars. People around the world have shared in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo and their expanded universe for over forty years. While the franchise may not be one you indulge in, you’ve likely heard that this past December, the Skywalker saga has come to a close. The ninth of nine movies is now playing in theaters.

For those not well versed in Star Wars lore, the heroes are the Jedi who follow the Light Side of the Force, while the antagonists use the Dark Side. The bad guys also employ the use of a Nazi like regime staffed by soldiers called Stormtroopers. Stormtroopers are clad in identical white and black armor. They are the faceless disposable army that attacks our protagonists. That’s not an unusual narrative element in this genre of film. Often a battle must ensue. And although the good guys get faces, names, and back stories, the enemy side will often have interchangeable minions who can be dispatched and summarily killed without much emotional impact on the audience. This is how it’s always been. However, within the last three Star Wars films, it comes to light that Stormtrooper ranks are filled with people taken as children and forced to be in their army. Many fans have expressed that this was a distressing element of the story’s development – no one wants the enemy humanized. When that happens, one may have remorse, or at least pause, when they are destroyed.

It’s fascinating to see human moviegoers in real life recoil from the thought that fake characters on a screen maybe getting a bum deal by being identically labeled and fired upon when, in  fact, each of them is supposedly an individual person. I was amazed to observe the feedback. There has been a nontrivial amount of empathy extended to admittedly “bad guy” characters in a movie. This was achieved by simply reminding the viewers of their humanity.

Oddly enough, people are reticent to extend that same empathy to other humans in real life. We are quick to dismiss that which is “other” as “the enemy”, and we don’t have compassion for those with whom we feel no connection. This is human nature though. From a psychological perspective, we group those who are like us into our “in group” and all others into the “out group”. Fundamental attribution error is the concept that excuses flaws in oneself as circumstantial but explains flaws in others as a characteristic of who they are (e.g. I was late because I had a good reason, but that person was late because they are irresponsible). When people are in our out group we don’t relate to them; it’s easy to apply fundamental attribution errors to them. We are less willing to be understanding towards them. And we are more likely to paint everyone of “their kind” with the same brush. Like a featureless identical Stormtrooper uniform, our preconceived notions about those unlike us can strip them of their humanity, in our minds. We prejudge them. Many times we regard these groups as our enemies. At best, we are merely indifferent to their suffering.

Dehumanizing the “other” allows us to justify our lack of compassion toward their plight. This has implications in government policy, principles of our justice systems, rules of engagement for war, and even Christian behavior. If we think about “foreign migrants” as a monolithic block, it colors our thinking differently than if we knew the story of a single child seeking asylum as a refugee. It’s easy to advocate for a war on an abstract concept like “the War on Drugs” or “the War on Crime” and impose punitive sentencing until we focus on the circumstances of the individual young addict whose story reminds us of someone we know in our own life. Supporting drone strikes against “enemy combatants” that results in “minimal collateral damage” seems justifiable as long as we ignore the fact that some of these insurgents were conscripted as children and are little more than adolescents themselves, and that the collateral damage includes kids and families not unlike our own. It’s easy to spit venom at those who adopt a theological position that’s dissimilar to yours as long as you don’t think about those who hold that view as your brother or sister, who is just as sincere as you are.

Our long held beliefs about our in groups were challenged by Christ. The question posed to the Lord asking “who is my neighbor?” was met with an answer that defied social norms and expectations. Jesus told a story of a good Samaritan – an individual from a group traditionally viewed as being at odds with Jews. And yet Christ demonstrates that ideals of love and kindness were embodied in someone from this group. He humanized the other.

Later John writes to the Church with a reminder that expands on this concept: “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”(I John 4) The people we view as the antagonists in our saga are also our brothers. That was a radical thought in the first century. How much more countercultural is it in the 21st? In this day and age we are divided into distinct camps that despise the “others” in opposing factions. And our churches are not immune to such fractious thinking.

It may feel as uncomfortable as admitting the humanity of Stormtroopers, but I admonish us to begin to view one another as more than a label. When we find ourselves tempted to dismiss someone as “liberal” or “conservative” or “sinner” or “unfaithful”, let’s slow down enough to recall that they are more than the ideas they hold. We are all more than our labels. We are brothers and sisters. If filmmakers were able to make moviegoers empathize with the definitive “bad guys” of a 4 decade drama, most assuredly there is hope that we can develop empathy for the real life people who are our brothers and sisters.

 

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: 

https://spectrummagazine.org/author/courtney-ray 

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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