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They’re meant to be heroes within the Star Wars universe, but the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work
The acronym “JEDI” has become a popular term for branding academic committees and labeling STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) initiatives focused on social justice issues. Used in this context, JEDI stands for “justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.” In recent years, this acronym has been employed by a growing number of prominent institutions and organizations, including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. At first glance, JEDI may simply appear to be an elegant way to explicitly build “justice” into the more common formula of “DEI” (an abbreviation for “diversity, equity and inclusion”), productively shifting our ethical focus in the process. JEDI has these important affordances but also inherits another notable set of meanings: It shares a name with the superheroic protagonists of the science fiction Star Wars franchise, the “Jedi.” Within the narrative world of Star Wars, to be a member of the Jedi is seemingly to be a paragon of goodness, a principled guardian of order and protector of the innocent. This set of pop cultural associations is one that some JEDI initiatives and advocates explicitly allude to.
Whether intentionally or not, the labels we choose for our justice-oriented initiatives open them up to a broader universe of associations, branding them with meaning—and, in the case of JEDI, binding them to consumer brands. Through its connections to Star Wars, the name JEDI can inadvertently associate our justice work with stories and stereotypes that are a galaxy far, far away from the values of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. The question we must ask is whether the conversations started by these connections are the ones that we want to have.
As we will argue, our justice-oriented projects should approach connections to the Jedi and Star Wars with great caution, and perhaps even avoid the acronym JEDI entirely. Below, we outline five reasons why.
The Jedi are inappropriate mascots for social justice. Although they’re ostensibly heroes within the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities (or “Force-sensitivity”). Strikingly, Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: These supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes. So it is that Force potential is framed as a dynastic property of noble bloodlines (for example, the Skywalker dynasty), and Force disparities are rendered innate physical properties, measurable via “midi-chlorian” counts (not unlike a “Force genetics” test) and augmentable via human(oid) engineering. The heroic Jedi are thus emblems for a host of dangerously reactionary values and assumptions. Sending the message that justice work is akin to cosplay is bad enough; dressing up our initiatives in the symbolic garb of the Jedi is worse.
This caution about JEDI can be generalized: We must be intentional about how we name our work and mindful of the associations any name may bring up—perhaps particularly when such names double as existing words with complex histories.
Star Wars has a problematic cultural legacy. The space opera franchise has been critiqued for trafficking in injustices such as sexism, racism and ableism. Think, for example, of the so-called “Slave Leia” costume, infamous for stripping down and chaining up the movie series’ first leading woman as part of an Orientalist subplot. Star Wars arguably conflates “alienness” with “nonwhiteness,” often seeming to rely on racist stereotypes when depicting nonhuman species. The series regularly defaults onto ableist tropes, memorably in its portrayal of Darth Vader, which links the villain’s physical disability with machinic inhumanity and moral deviance, presenting his technology-assisted breathing as a sinister auditory marker of danger and doom. What’s more, the bodies and voices centered in Star Wars have, with few exceptions, historically been those of white men. And while recent films have increased gender and racial diversity, important questions remain regarding how meaningfully such changes represent a departure from the series’ problematic past. Indeed, a notable segment of the Star Wars fandom has aggressively advocated the (re)centering of white men in the franchise, with some equating recent casting decisions with “white genocide.” Additionally, the franchise’s cultural footprint can be tracked in the saga of United States military-industrial investment and expansion, from debates around Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative to the planned Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (another “JEDI” program), sometimes winkingly framed with Star Wars allusions. Taken together, the controversies surrounding Star Wars make JEDI at best an inappropriate way to brand justice work—a kind of double-edged sword (or better yet, double-bladed “lightsaber”). At worst, this way of branding our initiatives is freighted with the very violence that our justice work seeks to counter.
When we consider the relationship of JEDI to Star Wars and its fraught cultural legacy, a more general caution comes into view: When we label our initiatives, we must be careful about the universe of narratives and symbols within which we situate our work—and the cultural associations and meanings that our projects may take on, as a result.
JEDI connects justice initiatives to corporate capital. JEDI/Jedi is more than just a name: It’s a product. Circulating that product’s name can promote and benefit the corporation that owns it, even if we do not mean to do so. We are, in effect, providing that corporation—Disney—with a form of free advertising, commodifying and cheapening our justice work in the process. Such informal co-branding entangles our initiatives in Disney’s morally messy past and present. It may also serve to rebrand and whitewash Disney by linking one of its signature product lines to social justice. After all, Disney has a long and troubling history of circulating racist, sexist, heterosexist and Orientalist narratives and imagery, which the corporation and its subsidiaries (like Pixar) are publicly reckoning with. Furthermore, Disney is an overtly political entity, critiqued not only for its labor practices but also for its political donations and lobbying. Joining forces with Disney’s multimedia empire is thus a dangerous co-branding strategy for justice advocates and activists. This form of inadvertent woke-washing extracts ethical currency from so-called “JEDI” work, robbing from its moral reserves to further enrich corporate capital.
A broader lesson can be learned here: When we brand our initiatives, it pays to be mindful about whether the names we endorse double as products in a culture industry. We must be careful about the company we keep—and the companies that our initiatives help to keep in business.
Aligning justice work with Star Wars risks threatening inclusion and sense of belonging. While an overarching goal of JEDI initiatives is to promote inclusion, the term JEDI might make people feel excluded. Star Wars is popular but divisive. Identifying our initiatives with it may nudge them closer to the realm of fandom, manufacturing in-groups and out-groups. Those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Star Wars—including those hurt by the messages it sends—may feel alienated by the parade of jokes, puns and references surrounding the term JEDI. Consider, as one example, its gender exclusionary potential. Studies suggest that the presence of Star Wars and Star Trek memorabilia (such as posters) in computer science classrooms can reinforce masculinist stereotypes about computer science—contributing to women’s sense that they don’t belong in that field. Relatedly, research indicates that even for self-identified female fans of Star Wars, a sense of belonging within that fandom can be experienced as highly conditional, contingent on performances “proving” their conformity to the preexisting gendered norms of dominant fan culture. At a moment when many professional sectors, including higher education, are seeking to eliminate barriers to inclusion—and to change the narrative about who counts as a scientist, political scientist, STEMM professional or historian—adopting the term JEDI seems like an ironic move backward.
However we feel about JEDI, a more general insight to apply to our work is this: How we brand an initiative can shape perceptions and feelings about that initiative—and about who belongs in it.
The abbreviation JEDI can distract from justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. When you think about the word JEDI, what comes to mind? Chances are good that for many, the immediate answer isn’t the concept “justice” (or its comrades “equity,” “diversity” and “inclusion”). Instead this acronym likely conjures a pageant of spaceships, lightsabers and blaster-wielding stormtroopers. Even if we set aside the four cautions above, the acronym JEDI still evokes imagery that diverts attention away from the meanings of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Such distraction exacerbates existing problems and challenges endemic to institutional justice work. For instance, it is already the case that in institutional contexts, terms like “justice,” “equity,” “diversity” and “inclusion” are routinely underdefined or conflated, robbed of their specificities and differences. These terms and related abbreviations like DEI can thus come to be treated as institutional buzzwords that are more slogan than substance, signaling commitments that institutions fail to meaningfully honor. We must be more attentive to the meanings and particularities of our words, not less. JEDI does not help us with this. Now is not the time to confuse social justice with science fiction.
Importantly, the acronym JEDI represents an extreme variant of a more general challenge associated with abbreviations: Acronyms are useful for quickly and concisely representing dense concepts, but there is a thin line between indexing ideas and rendering them invisible—and we must be careful to not lose sight of what our abbreviations stand for.
Put simply, the baggage of Jedi and Star Wars is too heavy to burden our justice-oriented initiatives with and may actually undermine these efforts. If we feel that we need to have an abbreviation for labeling our commitments to diversity (D), equity (E), inclusion (I) and justice (J), several alternatives are already available to us, including the abbreviations “DEIJ” and “dije.” The additional dangers and distractions imposed by the label JEDI are an unnecessary encumbrance that can strain and stain even our most well-intentioned initiatives.
While we’ve focused our critical attention on the term JEDI, the cautions above provide us with a list of questions to bring to any effort to label or brand our justice-oriented initiatives:
If you are, like some of the authors of this piece, a longtime fan of Star Wars (or Disney) and have found yourself defensively bristling while reading the paragraphs above, take a moment to consider that response. We suggest that such a reaction reveals how easily Star Wars and JEDI can introduce distractions and confuse conversations. How ready are we to prioritize the cultural dreamscape of the Jedi over the real-world project of social justice? Investing in the term JEDI positions us to apologize for, or explain away, the stereotypes and politics associated with Star Wars and Disney. How eager are we to fight Star Wars’ battles, when that time and energy could be better spent fighting for social justice?
It’s worth remembering and reflecting on the fact that the first Star Wars film opens by telling viewers that its sci-fi story lines take place not in an alternative present or potential future but during a period that transpired “a long time ago….” It should give us pause if we are anchoring our ambitions for a more socially just future in fantasies so dated that they were, at the time of their creation, already the distant past.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
J. W. Hammond is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, where he researches and teaches about rhetoric, writing and racial justice. His current scholarship centers on educational assessment history, theory and technology, as well as the ethical, political and rhetorical dimensions of research access and use. A (nearly) lifelong Star Wars nerd, he believes that science fiction shapes our ethical horizons and sense of scientific possibility in ways good and bad, big and small.
Sara E. Brownell is a discipline-based education researcher and professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University who studies how we can create more inclusive undergraduate biology learning environments, particularly for women, religious students, community college transfer students, and LGBTQ+ students. You can follow her on Twitter @brownell_sara.
Nita A. Kedharnath earned her M.A. in educational leadership and policy from the University of Michigan. She is the project manager for the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) Collaboration, coordinating multi-institutional and multidisciplinary research and teaching projects focused on making introductory STEM courses more equitable and inclusive.
Susan J. Cheng is a forest ecologist and instructional consultant specializing in data analytics, assessment, and instruction of undergraduate courses. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and leads research projects in two intertwined strands of scholarship: understanding how ecology shapes Earth’s climate and how classroom climate shapes student learning. She is on the advisory board for 500 Women Scientists and serves on the American Geophysical Union’s Education Section committee. You can follow her on Twitter @susanjcheng.
W. Carson Byrd is a sociologist focused on the intersections of race and racism, higher education, and scientific and knowledge production. He is a Senior Fellow-in-Residence in the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan. He was selected as a member of the 2021 cohort of William T. Grant Advanced Quantitative and Computational Scholars for the Institute in Critical Quantitative, Computational, and Mixed Methodologies. You can follow him on Twitter @Prof_WCByrd.
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