These aren’t the Droids you’re looking for: Social Justice Warrior Robots in Solo and Bladerunner

After watching the recent movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, one thing struck me above the rest: the social justice warrior robot.  After reflection, I realized that there is a long history of the justice warrior robot/android in films and books.

Early on in the movie, we see L3-37, Lando’s robot, attempting to free other robots from some kind of cage fighting situation while humans look on.  Just like our modern day SJW’s, this robot is in-your-face, combative, and has little room for any argument or nuance.

Just like our modern day SJW’s, this robot is in-your-face, combative, and has little room for any argument or nuance.

This character brings us back to Star Wars episode IV where the bartender in Mos Eisley says of Droids, “We don’t serve their kind here.”  This is a clear reference to the discrimination that happened under Jim Crow laws in the south.  Throughout the rest of the franchise, droids are depicted as servants, even slaves; 3PO and R2D2 even refer to their human owners as “master.”

L3-37 has a strong reaction against the notion of droids as slaves.  She also entertains the idea that that droids could somehow have a human mate despite her construction which lacked any semblance of flesh and blood.  At the end of the movie, L3 tragically dies in an attempt to free all kinds of creatures from a slave-colony.

Another notable set of social justice warrior robots appear in the world of Bladerunner, a franchise loosely based on the sci-fi novels of Philip K. Dick, peace be upon him.  Dick was a prophet of sorts in the sci-fi world, seldom to be surpassed by any contemporary sci-fi writers.  We see androids rebelling against social degradation in the novels and movies, attempting to strike back and seek their own freedom.  But there is subtle twist in Dick’s world. The question arises about whether androids really are human-like enough to be considered people with equal rights (this is more true of the book than the movies).  Since they cannot feel as humans feel, they are actually far more dangerous, able to kill others at the drop of a hat. Androids are then a kind of pseudo-human in Dick’s world, a tragic, Frankensteinian mix of human qualities and robot.

Androids are then a kind of pseudo-human in Dick’s world, a tragic, Frankensteinian mix of human qualities and robot.

The issue lurking in the background to much of this social justice the issue of human rights.  How exactly is a human being constituted.  Our liberal democracies today recognize racial minorities, women, and sexual minorities as in need of the same protection under law as anyone else. Back when Star Wars made the comparison between robots and race in the 70’s, it made a lot of sense.  George Lucas’s robots appear to be able to feel emotions and act as if they had free will, unlike Philip Dick’s deranged and tragic bots.  Dick, I think, was writing not about race and gender etc…but about the ethical status of artificial intelligence in the future. For Dick, it’s a literal question of robotic rights. But Star Wars is fond of using robots as a metaphor for the status of minorities, pointing to the way of equality. With that said, Dick’s stories have an application; we ought to consider the facts of every claim about the need for equality, weighing that on the scale of reason. Otherwise our policy actions will be haphazard, reactionary, and haywire.

With out social justice warrior movement today, there are some troubling aspects, such as calling people Nazis who are clearly not Nazis, picketing and shouting down any speakers who challenge their worldview, and outright advocating of things like socialism or communism as the way forward.  What is it that drives the social justice warrior mindset today?  Philosopher Harry Frankfurt puts his finger on it in his fascinating book, On Inequality; he says people often fear “the unbearably deep suffering and dread that may be caused when people are treated unjustly.” Further, he suggests they feel that “their personal reality is threatened by a denial of the importance that is required by respect.” To understand these feelings, one need only watch a movie like Imitation Game, about the scientist Alan Turing.  The brilliant man is forced to take drugs by the government to reverse his homosexual orientation, to a soul-deadening effect. This kind of dread drives many people to action, striving for equality. But, as I said, pursuits of justice ought also to be based on facts as Solo illustrates.

In the movie, E3 quips that she could have a romantic relationship with Lando, her counterpart.  Yet one wonders if the curious lack of flesh and blood on the robot might get in the way a bit. The strange thing is that the makers of Solo apparently failed to see the stark absurdity of this statement. This recalls the movie Her where Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in the future who has a romantic relationship with a sentient artificially intelligent program.  In one scene, the AI program brings a woman to make love to the protagonist as a proxy, so that she can see through her eyes and experience something like that reality. The absurdity of this scene is part of the comedy of the movie. I’m not sure if the movie makers at Disney would get the joke about the robot copulating with a human. So at what point does a pursuit of equality get qualified by the facts? If a robot literally has no humanlike parts to its body, and it wants romance with a human, how exactly is that going to work? I’m imagining android body implants right now.

One can draw some parallels to a few minority groups today who seem to want to throw out all reason in pursuit of their existential dreams. One group I’m thinking of are the transgendered, people who identify as the opposite of their inherited biological gender. Now, first of all, I’m for protecting the rights of anyone, regardless of how they identify.  But I wonder about the wisdom of trying to compel others to truly think that the transgendered are the gender that they identify as. I understand using the pronoun that they ask us to use to be polite, but I only think of that as a kind of fiction. I listen to biology on this one, not ideology. Yet many want to compel others by law to use the pronoun of their choice. It’s already law in Canada. Another related point regards child rearing from gay and lesbian couples. What I’m about to say has nothing to do with your official stance on gay marriage. Sociological research and biological realities demonstrate that a father and a mother are the optimal setup for raising children. A gay or lesbian couple attempting to raise children is going to have a tough go of it and, at minimum, might consider bringing in the biological, opposite-gendered parent to be part of the child’s life. That’s the way biology suggests that things are set up.  Another popular pursuit for justice warriors today is economic equality.  Yet if you think about that for five seconds, it’s obvious that we can’t make everyone really equal in talents, intellect, ability, or economic status. If we did, the world would be hellishly dull and unproductive.  Now, by saying all this, I’m not suggesting from this that we should all go back to the 1950’s.  That ship has sailed.

So every quest for justice and equality ought to be limited by reason, science, and biological facts. In other worlds, nature does provide a limit to nurture that no amount of social engineering, re-education camps, gulags, or lovable movie characters can change. At what point can an “equality at all costs” ideology bend to incorporate facts?  That’s the question. Power to the robots!

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash.com

Are You a Grace or a Truth Person?

Most people are either geared towards grace or truth. Either we believe in unconditional love and forgiveness or we tend to put a higher focus on what is true and right. Sometimes we are grace oriented in one sphere of life and truth in another. There is a way, however, to bring both grace and truth into every area of our lives, and if we think about it, we desperately need both. Let me explain what I mean.

Grace oriented people often see how deeply weak and wounded most people are, including themselves. Their creed is a “all we need is love,” always looking for redemption. They often point out that the truth people are hypocritical. Truth people tend to emphasize what is right and true and sometimes exclude anyone who does not conform to their standards. This can be seen perhaps most starkly in religious people who appear to have little love or compassion for the sins of others. If you are a grace person, you are probably nodding your head here. Does not attachment theory in psychology tell us that the love we received or failed to receive as a child powerfully impacts us? Only healthy, loving attachments can heal those wounds, and who is more loving that almighty God, who, according to Christianity “is love”? Therefore, the grace person mostly concerns herself with loving others, giving them uncritical freedom. She thinks we should rarely correct or judge behavior to be wrong even if we see how destructive it is.

Grace people, however, have to realize that there is a limit to their perspective. Truth actually does matter. Truth leads to wisdom and boundaries. It highlights the stark realities of human nature. Though we sometimes look like we are born from angel dust, more often than not we appear born from sin. How many of us have been left trembling by the callous, selfish, and outrageous actions of people we thought were incapable of such things? And how much worse when we realize how selfish we ourselves can be. Anyone who has studied history will know how brutal the past was; the present is not that much better. In our own century, we had the Nazi (National socialist) and Communist regimes, both of which together inflicted over 100 million casualties in their pursuit of utopia (Utopia is ironically a very grace-oriented idea). And we all know that even forgiveness does not mean letting other people hurt you again and again. Forgiveness means letting go of need to inflict justice over a wrong, not making the person pay anymore. It does not mean forgetting what happened or stupidly leaving ourselves open to more abuse. Grace has limits, at least in the sense that people often refuse it and go their own way.

Truth people will be nodding their head to all that I’ve said in the last paragraph. They care about facts, right and wrong, and reality. They see the outcome of flakey philosophies which state that there is no truth or that everyone should be equal in every way. These notions are not grounded in any facts. Truth people understand simple biological facts about gender differences. They are astounded at the mob mentality of social media. They can see when people are doing something self-destructive or irrational and usually are the first ones to point it out. They also note that the grace people have a pattern of being hypocritically intolerant of anyone they think does not belong to the grace-tribe.
But truth people need to see that even they fall short of their own standards. How good is really good enough? This is especially true as it relates to relationship with the Almighty. Nobody is capable of being perfect, says Paul. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Jesus told parables about self-righteous people like the pharisee who “thanked God he was not like everyone else” and the elder brother who refused to go into the party the Father had laid out for the wasteful younger brother (Luke 18, Luke 15). Truth without grace ultimately crushes the truth person under the weight of the law that they themselves have failed to keep. It often leads to callouse self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and mere outward conformity to the rules. All the while the truth person is desperately trying to cover up his own need for grace and forgiveness.

For all these reasons grace without truth and truth without grace are incomplete. Only in Jesus Christ can we really put the two together. How so? Jesus Christ is the one who embodied these two realities perfectly, so in him we have a perfect example of what it looks like. He could speak a word of truth with absolute love. Just read the gospels to see for yourself. But more than that, Jesus loved us to death, literally, showing us how we can reconcile grace with truth. At the cross, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). Jesus bore our sins and the weight of God’s justice on the cross to reveal God’s great unconditional love. The cross turns our grace into real grace that recognizes falsehood and sin, rather than just overlooking it or explaining it away. The person who zealously strives to balance grace and truth without Jesus has to ask herself a question. What philosophy or religion has ever united grace and truth in a more coherent, beautiful, and historically accessible way than that of Jesus Christ? Often I suspect that the rejection of Jesus Christ, either outright or in practice, is for one of two reasons. Either the truth person does not want to accept that radical message of forgiveness available to the worst offenders who embrace Jesus, or the grace person does not want to accept that God would speak clearly in a way that seems to exclude those who don’t accept it. But Jesus can offer forgiveness in a way that bears the weight of truth while telling the truth in a way that beckons in grace to the loneliest outcast. “In him we have all received grace in the place of grace” but also the fullest expression of “grace and truth.” (John 1:16-17).

Isms and Facts

Can facts correct your isms?  Or do isms correct your facts?  We all have particular beliefs.  Some of them we hold onto without even noticing them.  The philosopher Charles Taylor called these our “unthoughts.”  These are what we think without reflection, often without confirmation.  J. Warner Wallace, a famous cold case detective, says we ought to seek facts, not evidence.  Evidence so often helps us rationalize our unthoughts.  But most of us want evidence, not pesky facts that could challenge us.  Few people, in fact, step outside of what society generally allows them to believe.

So, for example, society tells us that religion is alright if we find our own personal meaning in it.  Most people only think of meaning as a property of their minds. Meaning is just in our heads, not out there in the real world.  But it’s not generally understood today that a religion could actually be true, even historically verifiable.  Since religion is something we simply make meaning of, it cannot have the ability to change our lifestyles much.  We don’t need to take up our crosses and follow a real Jesus very much.  Thus we can go to church on Sundays and live mostly for ourselves the rest of the week.  It goes without saying, though perhaps I need to say it, that this depiction is at odds with historical and orthodox Christianity.  I also think the idea of making your own meaning is incoherent, but that’s another story.

Another example of “unthought” is our preoccupation with race, class, and gender.  Many of our assumptions about this modern trinity go completely unchallenged.  We are told there is systemic racism and instead of researching what that means and looking for facts to support it or deny it, we simply accept it.  For white people it is good virtue-signalling to accept it because if you don’t, you are considered racist.  Sure there is still individual racism, which is very unfortunate, but systemic racism?  How do we define that? We have so much “white guilt” (as the much ridiculed black conservative author Shelby Steele points out) that we’re afraid to look into it. But when we boil it down, it is very hard to substantiate systemic racism as existent today. As far as class goes, we are told that when the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, as if economics were a zero sum game.  One reading of Thomas Sowell’s Economic Facts and Fallacy would blow this view to smithereens, but that takes away from watching our favorite TV shows. With gender, we are told that it is simply a social construct with no biological meaning.  If you examine these concepts, you will find out very quickly that all this is based on extremely muddled thinking rather than facts, research, stats and so on.  But again, most of us feel our way through life, keeping ourselves busy with constant amusement, unaware that “a-muse” means to not think.  We don’t think while we slowly walk onward towards our mortal end with nothing substantial to truly follow, leaving life half-lived and truth half-sought.

And we wonder why people are so sensitive today.  Well, if your worldview is completely subjective, not based on facts at all, and I challenge it, how are you going to react?  You’re going to react like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Jingle All the Way,” with total panic. “Put that cookie [fact] down! Now!”  Or perhaps you’ll be more like one of Jim Jones or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cult followers.  You’ll just smile, knowing that you know the truth because…well…you just feel it.

How Jordan Peterson helped me see that I should clean things

I’ve always been a messy person.  As a child, my military father would make me clean my room and do my homework.  But it never stuck.  I’ve struggled with organization my entire life.  Part of this is my Platonic nature.  I’m often more concerned with ideas than the physical world. At least that’s what I tell myself.  But recently I watched a video that actually changed my life.

In the short clip, Jordan Peterson explains very simply how our brain interprets things as either tools or obstacles.  He explains that for about five minutes.  When we see things out of place, we see obstacles. That does a number on our productivity.  It often makes me feel out of sorts, for example.  Tools, on the other hand, are things that are useful in our work.  Some degree of order is therefore a tool.  After his explanation, the good Dr. explains that this is the reason we should clean up our workspace.  Peterson had already been speaking my language, the language of ideas, science, and abstraction.  But then he connected it firmly to a very concrete thing: my workspace.

I’m not sure exactly how to explain this, but somehow that little bit of  commonsense has dramatically changed the way I function.  I now make my bed every morning, put away clothes after I wear them, clean up the kitchen and living room, and clean up my desk.  I even organize my days now with a tasklist, and I get most of the things done!  Anyone who knows me a smidge can testify that this is out of the ordinary for me.

I have continued my study of Peterson by reading his book, 12 Rules for Life, and even reading some of the books on his reading list.  He has expanded my understanding of this quest for order as a cosmic fight for the good, true, and beautiful.  And all this lines up perfectly with what the Bible says about our creation in the image of God as his stewards on the earth.  We’re here for order, creativity, and conservation of the good.  All of this ordering helps us begin to launch out into areas where we have never been before.  It can help us get a better handle on our very purpose for living.

How should we pursue equality?

Well-known philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, in his book, On Inequality, argues that extreme economic inequality is concerning because of its tendency to cause social unrest; yet he doesn’t think we should try to eliminate all inequality.  Instead, he argues that poverty is the major culprit that we should all agree to fight, not inequality itself.  But that’s not so much what I want to talk about in this article.  An intriguing part of Frankfurt’s book highlights the psychology of many crusaders for equality.  He points out that many equality justice warriors treat equality as an end in itself.  Yet, Frankfurt, like Immanuel Kant before him, believes that people are ends in themselves.  Mutual respect for the person should underlie any reasonable pursuit of equality.  Frankfurt argues that pursuing equality for its own sake can lead people into an inauthentic existence, to what the existentialists call “bad faith.”  It can lead, for example, to constant comparison with others; through envy we lay waste our souls, not to mention society at large.  Frankfurt argues that instead of this surface level envious pursuit of equality, we should take careful note of our gifts, abilities, nature, and context. Who are we? What are we? And what are we and other people able to accomplish in our current context?  If we do this, we will have a much savvier  perspective on how to advance both ourselves and others. If we do not start there, we can never have an authentic equality. The foundation for all this is always a respect for our shared humanity, along with knowledge of individual needs and abilities.  The answer is not always re-organization of society’s resources, institutions, and relationships as the cultural Marxists of today would have it.  We know from history, just as the book Animal Farm teaches, that even in “utopias,” some animals still be more equal than others.  I’m inclined to agree with Frankfurt that there are a lot of flakey pursuits of equality today that are not well-thought through, do not take account of nature, context, or ability.  Instead of shouting, we should learn through quiet reflection and study how we can make the world a better place.  We should look at the world in terms of respect for individual people, not merely social groups. And that also includes asking and answering the larger philosophical question posed by the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry, “what are people for?”