This post contains spoilers for the The Force Awakens, and possibly the future of humanity
Take a moment to remember the saddest scene in The Force Awakens. Was it Kylo Ren kills Han Solo? When R2D2 wouldn’t wake up, a loyal droid grieving for its missing master? How about the deaths of 35 billion innocent people? When the First Order’s new superweapon, ‘Starkiller’, destroyed five heavily inhabited planets, there was no disturbance in the force, at least none on screen. For a film that heavily followed the plot and motifs of the original Star Wars film, the lack of empathy for the instantaneous slaughter of billions of humans and other intelligent life forms stands out. Remember the destruction of Alderaan, with Leia forced to watch as her home world and all its people were destroyed? Remember Obi Wan’s sudden reaction of dismay?
“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
In the Star Wars universe, those sensitive to the force can feel empathetic mental anguish in response to great tragedies like the deaths of billions. We see none of this on screen when five planets were destroyed. We don’t see the strongly force-sensitive Rey crying out in empathetic anguish. We don’t see Leia doubled over in pain, reliving painful memories of all those destroyed on Alderaan. In contrast, the death of Han is portrayed as the biggest tragedy of the film. We see Leia sense a disturbance in the force when Han dies, and we feel Chewbacca’s rage at the death of his friend. Where are the tears for the billions of innocents murdered?
Humans are notoriously bad at scaling empathy to large numbers of people. Social scientists call this failure scope insensitivity. People can’t naturally feel the difference between 1,000 people suffering and 100,000 people suffering. In the quote above, Obi Wan said “millions of voices” cried out, but if Alderaan had a population similar to earth, the word should have been billions. That’s a vast difference, but human minds have no intuitive way of differentiating between a million and a billion human lives. Through most of our evolutionary history we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups no larger than 100. Our empathy evolved as an adaption to facilitate cooperation with our family and our tribe or group. If your lover Han Solo dies, you cry out in pain. If hundreds of billions of people die, you might feel sad, but it won’t hold the same emotional salience if you’ve lost no friends or family.
How bad was the destruction of those five planets? Let’s assume they each had an earth-sized population, a conservative estimate considering that a futuristic planet could support far more humans than earth’s 7 billion. Together, say those planets had around 35 billion people. The holocaust of the Jews, Poles, and others in World War II amounted to about 11 million deaths. In numbers killed, the destruction of five populated planets was equivalent to 3,181 holocausts. For a story that uses this atrocity to demonstrate the evilness of the nazi-like First Order, remarkably few tears are shed by the good guys.
Star Wars is a huge part of our culture, as Disney’s purchase of the franchise for 4.06 billion demonstrates. People want more Star Wars content, and they will get it in full. The Force Awakens is a film that will reach a wide audience and have a broad cultural impact. It’s important that the film featured a woman and a person of color as its lead protagonists, both firsts for Star Wars films. Stories affect the way people see the world and influence cultural norms. The Force Awakens missed an opportunity to foster empathy for all life.
As a society of humans on this planet, we need to cultivate a sense of empathy that includes all humans. While we cannot feel the difference between the suffering of a thousand or hundred thousand, we can understand how different those two are. We live in a time of extraordinary growth. Our population grew from two billion to seven billion in less than a hundred years. We’ve developed nuclear weapons that would kill most of those people if ever used, and thousands remain on hair-trigger alert. The Cold War may be over, but the threat of nuclear annihilation remains. As we develop even more powerful technologies, the chance of an existential catastrophe — one that ends all human life — increases. Advances in bioengineering or artificial intelligence could threaten our existence if misapplied. Scope sensitivity is incredibly important for our species if we hope to make it through this century. When we imagine the destruction of a planet, we should feel a great disturbance. If we lose ourselves to global catastrophe, there will be no more lovers, no more family, no more Star Wars. Planet destruction should be more than plot device to make the bad guys look evil; it’s an outcome we need to actively and ardently avoid.