I recently read The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned, and was struck by near-universal hatred of the character of Jar Jar Binks. This is far from a new phenomenon in Star Wars fandom–the character was despised from his initial debut in Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I find this rather disappointing–I have argued before and will likely argue again, that Jar Jar Binks has an important lesson for us.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, I have noticed a decreased tolerance with any annoyance or inconvenience. As such, I feel it is time again to take a stab at highlighting the value of Jar Jar Binks, and the lessons he holds for us in this time.
One of underlying assumptions that seems to drive and fuel the criticism of Jar Jar Binks is that he was thrown in as a concession for younger fans. His physical comedy, his goofiness and pigdin dialect are used to justify this. Yet this assumption is questionable–Star Wars already performed quite well for fans of all ages, and indeed among younger fans–adding a character for that draw was hardly necessary.
This assumption also misses the internal story logic. Early in the film, the contrast between Qui-Gon Jinn’s philosophy and Yoda’s is established, with Obi-Wan Kenobi being influenced by both. Jar Jar Binks is seen as a waste of time by Obi-Wan–with the implication that the rest of the Jedi order would quite agree with him–while Qui-Gon goes out of his way to assist Jar Jar despite Binks nearly getting Jinn killed at least once already. Obi-Wan’s reactions make it clear that this is far from the first time Qui-Gon has looped in a seemingly irredeemable character making the mission “more complicated” in the eyes of Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi. Later scenes show Padme Amidala’s largely in agreement with Qui-Gon–she listens to Binks, empathizes with him, and calls on him for assistance.
In Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones we are shown that Binks is now on Amidala’s staff. The criticisms of Binks in this film revolve around him moving to pass the Emergency Measures Act to give Palpatine emergency powers for the duration of the Clone Wars. That is hardly fair to Binks, as the other Senators are clearly in agreement–and while he may have moved to pass the Act, the Senate had to ratify it. Binks is morally culpable–but no more so than the rest of the Senate and the Jedi who failed to curb Palpatine’s excesses before it was too late.
So what are we left with from this? In my opinion, Binks’ annoying qualities are an intentional choice by Lucas in TPM. We are meant to dislike the character, to agree with Obi-Wan’s view and to question Qui-Gon’s judgment in taking him in. Yet the events of the film, show that Jar Jar’s connections to the Gungan community are integral to foiling the plot of Darth Sidious and breaking Naboo free of Trade Federation control.
Is it worth it though? Couldn’t he be useful without being so annoying and such a nuisance? Here I’d like to turn to another fictional universe for insight: The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. In the famous Harper Hall trilogy, Masterharper Robinton tells Apprentice Menolly this during her week of adjustment to the Harper Hall:
“You’re over-young to appreciate the value of a nuisance“(emphasis added). But what possible value, you may ask, could there be in a nuisance? Aren’t they a waste of time?
To answer this we must look back to one of the earliest lessons Obi-Wan gives Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. In teaching Luke to anticipate a training remote’s attacks, Obi-Wan tells Luke, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” A surface reading would limit this advice to this specific setting or vision as a specific sense–but the point is made over and over in Star Wars that our assumptions and prejudices prevent us from realizing the truth of a situation or the worth of an individual. Yoda’s size and behavior prevents Luke from recognizing him as a Jedi Master; Luke’s assumptions and prejudices limit his own ability to control the Force; C-3PO’s whining causes the heroes to ignore him when he has important information–the examples are countless.
The value of a nuisance then, is that learning to see beyond the behaviours, and beliefs, and actions, and individuals who annoy us and seem like a waste of time, to the worth residing within each and every one of us, is how we live much fuller, wiser, and fulfilling lives. The process involves constantly challenging our assumptions and prejudices–we must not judge based on outward appearances, but see with another sense, see into the essence of another.
As someone with autism, I am neurodiverse and I have many other friends who are neurodiverse. Among my friends, there are people who are energy drains at least some of the time, people with traits that evoke annoyance and frustration in me–and yet I have learned, over the course of my life, to see beyond that–to recognize that despite those traits–and even because of those traits–there are many lessons I can learn from their stories and my life is made better by being in relationship with them.
So befriend those who you find annoying; recognize and celebrate the value of a nuisance; unlearn what you have learned, judge with right judgment, and constantly challenge your preconceptions, assumptions, and biases. We might just make a better world as a result.