The Single Question That Turns ‘Star Wars’ Into a Horror Show

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I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy. I played with the toys; I’ve seen the movies so many times I lost count years ago. I was and remain bitterly disappointed by The Phantom Menace. I already have tickets to see The Force Awakens with my family twice. I talk the talk, and I walk the walk: I love Star Wars. But there’s one question about the Star Wars universe that, when you think about it, makes you realize just how screwed up things are there.

Are the droids in the Star Wars universe sentient?

That’s it; that’s the question. Because if the answer is “yes,” that means pretty much every flesh-and-blood creature in that universe – Empire, Rebellion, whatever – either practices or condones evil. Yes, evil. Consider:

1. The Jawas capture or buy droids and sell them, whether or not they want to be sold. Not only is this an accepted practice, but the very first thing we see Luke do in Episode IV is go with his uncle to buy them some droids.

2. It is a common practice to apply restraining bolts to droids to ensure their compliance. Luke uses his remote control to activate C3PO’s bolt to hurt him so that he’ll come out from hiding when R2D2 runs (rolls?) away.

3. Droids are regularly excluded from entering certain businesses – this is not considered unusual or wrong by anyone. The bartender at Mos Eisley even yells “We don’t serve their kind here!”

4. Droids are considered so insignificant that the Imperial officer who tells the gunner on the Star Destroyer not to shoot down the escape pod carrying Threepio and Artoo doesn’t even consider the possibility that there could be droids aboard it. Their existence matters so little to him that it just never occurs to him that droids could be any kind of threat to the Empire. They’re not even worth shooting down!

5. The rebels may actually be worse to droids than the Imperials are. They put astromechs in their X-Wings (and probably other fighters as well), quite probably against their will, and make them sit unprotected from enemy fire while being ready to fix anything that goes wrong. It’s not as though they’re copilots, either – if the pilot is disabled or killed, the droid is powerless to do anything to prevent its own destruction.

As you’ve no doubt realized, I’m saying that droids, if they are sentient, are slaves. There isn’t any doubt about it; there’s no stretch in this analogy. They’re bought and sold against their will, forced to work at whatever job their master sees fit to give them, tortured if they refuse to comply, and their wants, needs, and desires are always considered less important than those of the flesh-and-blood creatures. Oh, and then there’s the one way they’re actually treated worse than slaves: If a droid gets ornery, or seems troubled by something, or if you’d simply like them to forget that they were built by one of the most evil people in the galaxy when he was a kid, you can just erase their memories. No need to ask them if they want their memories erased; just go ahead and do it.

So what, then, if the droids aren’t sentient? It’s possible, of course, but then, it’s also possible that you, or I, or any other human isn’t sentient. We can only go by how they act, and they sure act sentient. They display fear, sadness, anger, and perhaps most significantly senses of humor. If they aren’t sentient, then the people who make them must go to an awful lot of trouble to make them seem that they are, to no apparent purpose: Threepio and Artoo argue with each other many times over the course of the movies; how could that possibly have been programmed into them deliberately?

Author’s Note: The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of A Man,” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass, does an amazing job of attacking this issue in that universe. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Image: Lucasfilm/Disney.

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