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Argument: The Droids of Star Wars Are Slaves

(Images: Lucasfilm)

R2-D2 and C-3PO are cute, often funny characters that add a bit of comedy to Star Wars. But there's nothing amusing about this minstrel show that suggests that the droid life is a happy life. They're actually slaves. Jonathan V. Last published a comprehensive and absolutely damning indictment in the Washington Free Beacon. First, Last argues convincingly that the droids are, though mechanical, sentient begins:

The first thing you notice is that C-3PO would easily pass the Turing Test: in a conversation, he’d be hard to distinguish from a normal humanoid. But they’re so much more than that. The droids are conscious. Speaking of R2-D2, Luke says that he’s “never seen such devotion in a droid.” The concept of “devotion” implies choice. A droid who is “devoted” to a task, or a person, is choosing loyalty over abandonment. And choice implies free will. Around that same time, C-3PO begs an annoyed Luke not to “deactivate” him. Deactivation is clearly seen by C-3PO as something to be feared, like death. Which means that droids both understand their own mortality and experience emotions, too.

They also have their own theology. When C-3PO is lowered into an oil bath to repair his joints, he exclaims, “Thank the Maker!” It’s one of only two times in the series that a character references theism. We’ll get to the other instance in a moment, but it’s instructive that in both cases, it’s a droid, not a humanoid, who refers to a supreme being.

Free will, emotions, and their own elementary religious system? We’re way off the AI scale now. C-3PO isn’t just intelligent. He’s conscious. He’s sentient. He’s a person.

And he’s a slave.

This ugly fact becomes very clear at the slave auction in Episode IV:

At this point they are lined up for display. Owen inspects them callously, pointing out flaws and problems with the docile droids. He converses with C-3PO. He haggles over the price and then completes the sale. The only reason the droids aren’t in literal chains is that, as we learn later, the Jawas have fitted them with “restraining bolts” that prevent them from escaping. The very need for restraining bolts reinforces the notion that the droids are sentient creatures with free will and their own ideas, hopes, and dreams.

When the droids first talk with Luke, we are given our clearest look at their place in society. “Behave yourself, R2,” C-3PO cautions his companion, “You’re going to get us in trouble. It’s alright. You can trust him. He’s our new master.”

And if you’re still not convinced about the parallels with the African-American experience, think about what happens when Luke, Ben Kenobi, and the droids go to Mos Eisley looking for transport. They walk into the cantina—not a fancy bar, but a watering hole for criminals and brigands—and the barkeep shouts angrily, “We don’t serve their kind here.” It’s a disgusting act of prejudice. The droids wait outside.

Now you may feel uncomfortable watching Star Wars. After all, it's set in a society in which slavery is morally acceptable. But it gets worse. Last explains that the Rebel Alliance is an eager supporter of the vile institution of slavery:

We see the same general attitude toward droids in Return of the Jedi. At the beginning of the movie, C-3PO and R2-D2 return to Tatooine. They have been instructed to go to the palace of Jabba the Hutt and deliver a message from Luke. That message? Luke is presenting the two droids to Jabba as a gift. Jabba accepts this gesture as a matter of course. Giving sentient beings away as trinkets, evidently, is just something people outside of Imperial control do.

In Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance is even more brutal to its non-droid slaves:

How about the moon of Endor? The Empire builds a critical military installation there without enslaving or even antagonizing the indigenous peoples. Yet when the Rebels show up on Endor, the first thing they do upon meeting the natives is present themselves as gods. Using this trickery, the rebels then dupe the Ewoks into launching an attack against the Imperial garrison armed with nothing but sticks and stones.

When it comes to maintaining a labor force, the Rebels rely far more on slavery than the Empire, which prefers human workers. If you want to fight slavery, you'd better back the Empire:

Look through the original trilogy and you’ll see that the rebels rely on droids extensively. It’s not just C-3P0 and R2-D2—there’s the medical droid on Hoth who treats Luke and the other doctor droid at the end of Empire Strikes Back who gives him a new hand. The rebellion’s primary starfighter, the X-Wing, is designed to require a human pilot and droid co-pilot. In the background of just about every scene at a Rebel stronghold, you see droids scurrying about. It’s hard to imagine how the rebellion could have survived without uncompensated droid labor.

The Empire relies on droids to a far lesser degree. Wherever possible, the Empire employs human labor rather than droids—TIE fighters have no droid co-pilots, for instance. On the contrary, we do see the Empire make use of non-sentient robots: The torture robot that hums at Princess Leia. The little Roomba robots zipping about the Death Star. In the whole of the trilogy, I’ve found just one instance of a droid being used by the Empire: another protocol droid whom we see walking through the Death Star.

Read the rest of Last's devastating arguments here. You'll never root for Luke, Han, and Leia again.

-via Debby Witt

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