Fighting what you hate isn't enough
Successful rebellions are fighting for (not just against) something
One more day until the new Star Wars series, Andor, on Disney+. Today’s email is part 3 of a series on the political ramifications of hope vs fear when it comes to organizing for change of any kind. Part 2 can be found here.
Saving what we love
Star Wars introduced a fracture into the formation of the Rebel Alliance for a reason. It was to reflect on how we choose to fight against forces of darkness, not just why. In Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Resistance fighter Rose Tico says to ex-Stormtrooper turned freedom fighter, Finn, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not by fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.” Nicely put. But is Tico saying it’s wrong to fight? Of course not.
When she says this Rose Tico is lying amidst a pile of rubble on the battlefield, after nearly losing her life to save Finn from the First Order’s gigantic mechanical walkers. There’s more than cheesy romanticism at play here, it’s real wisdom.
There’s fascinating research on the subject regarding what kind of rebellions or social movements are most successful and why. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan authored through Columbia University, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” which compiled data on mass movements from 1900-2006, including 323 cases of maximalist campaigns and mobilizations to overthrow either an incumbent leader or pursue the establishment of an independent state.
In Star Wars terms, a “mobilization to overthrow either an incumbent leader” would be the Rebel Alliance against the Empire as seen in the original trilogy films. To “pursue the establishment of an independent state,” would fit more into the mold of what the Separatist Movement was trying to do in the prequel trilogy with their secession from the Republic and formation of the Confederacy of Independent Systems.
In their research, unarmed and nonviolent techniques of pressure were far more likely to succeed, by a rate of nearly 2 to 1. Success was defined in a somewhat narrow way. They required that a regime not only be overthrown but that a de facto legal state be set up shortly after without any foreign intervention. The importance of that last part to Chenoweth and Stephan, was to point out that new regimes who met this criterion of success were more likely to end in democratic governance and not devolve in more civil war in the following years.
Non-violence in this paper was characterized by coordinated boycotts, strikes, protests, go-slows, economic and social non-cooperation and doing so without causing physical harm or threat to bystanders. Now let’s be clear. The Rebel Alliance was not a “nonviolent” movement. It was an orchestrated military alliance that sought to build a coalition of the willing in hopes to cobble together a large enough fleet to do open battle with the Empire. In addition to limited targeted engagements with the Empire, the Rebels did this mostly through covert action such as stealing military hardware, and broadcasting to the galaxy about the evils being perpetrated by Emperor Palpatine.
There’s an old quote from Frederick Douglass that goes, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” This is a timeless truth. Palpatine was ushered into power by thunderous applause and a popular mandate, a sort of tacit consent from the people of the galaxy to do what must be done to bring order and prosperity. Mon Mothma focused her energy on eroding the perception of galactic consent to the Empire’s rule by making it known there was neither order nor prosperity and limited the Rebellion’s use of violence. The Empire’s indiscriminate use of violence served as the means to delegitimize them. This kind of restraint on the part of the Rebellion is what expands the size and appeal of social movements. They also make them more diverse.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood all of this and picked up much of it from veterans of Gandhi’s movement in India against British colonialism. Living in the 2000’s, it seems somewhat like awarding participation trophies to laud white Americans for getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement, which was obviously was in the right, but the fact remains that nonviolent tactics and similar methods of showcasing the illegitimacy of enforcing racial segregation had the broadest appeal. That matters.
When faced with growing opposition, entrenched regimes or whoever holds power tend to employ a consistent tactic whether it be in Star Wars, Gandhi's India or the American South. Divide and conquer. Exploit divisions over tactics in the opposition movement, highlight their most violent actions and consolidate support from onlookers who are apprehensive about change.
This is where hope comes in. Organizers, activists, politicians and community leaders within democratic societies have to take on the challenge of expanding support for their causes. This can only be done credibly through consent, not force. Achieving this necessitates grappling with the facts on what motivates people to join up in the first place, and a message of anger, despair and nihilism doesn’t have a strong track record.
Hope — however, it does. Rebellions are built on hope.
Built on hope
So I ask you again, do you have hope? If you don’t, it’s okay. You’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s important to be good to yourself and know that others like you have felt that same sense of despair. That’s why Star Wars has always stood out to me as a beacon of light in a changing and tumultuous dark world. Luke Skywalker’s loneliness on Tatooine, Princess Leia’s choice to be bold even after the annihilation of Alderaan...there will always be people who feel this way and leaders who face what seem like insurmountable odds. In the Star Wars universe, what each generation of characters seem to face is the lifecycle of democracy and self governance, in the face of dark forces pulling the galaxy back toward totalitarianism. We’re at a turning point ourselves aren’t we? I don’t think you have to be a liberal or conservative, a Republican or a Democrat, to look at the state of the world and see that democracy, rule of law and liberty is not a guaranteed or natural state of affairs. There are new challenges to it for every generation.
The Last Jedi’s chief villain, Supreme Leader Snoke, said to aspiring Jedi and Resistance fighter Rey, “Darkness rises and light to meet it.” Of course, he hoped to snuff that light out, but Snoke demonstrated an understanding there about how each of our galaxies work. Change is guaranteed. The choice we have is how to face change and challenge darkness. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,”
Martin Luther King Jr. once said on the floor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on Christmas 1957. King continued, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I can’t think of a more Star Wars-esque reminder from our own history. I can’t think of a more compelling reason to hold onto hope as a virtue, even when it is not something we feel everyday.
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I hope you enjoyed this primer for Andor as it hits Disney+ tomorrow. Please let me know what you thought of this 3 part series by subscribing, commenting or sending me a note on Twitter @stephen_kent89
This is the way.