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