Browsing the Guardian website this afternoon, I came across this story: Jedi religion founder accuses Tesco of discrimination. (Tesco, for anyone not from the UK, is a cheap and utterly ubiquitous supermarket chain, who make news every few months for planning to build a new store in some small suburb that already has 7.) And it’s a light enough story, fairly clearly meant as a novelty item, and I do think Tesco’s response is funny. It got me thinking about two things, however: firstly, the attitude people have towards the Jedi way (more evident in comments than in the article) and secondly, the somewhat disquieting implications of Tesco’s jokey answer.
I don’t get the joking about Jediism. I will be the first to admit that it’s a horrendously ugly word (and I will try not to use it again) but look: it has 500,000 followers and it’s no stupider than any other religion. People find spiritual comfort and fulfilment in any number of things, from prayer to fasting to ritual dance to self-flagellation to sex, and as long as nobody who doesn’t want to get hurt is getting hurt I honestly don’t see why the wider world can’t just let them get on with it.
The Jedi religion, or perhaps more accurately philosophy since no deities are involved, is – considered on its own tenets as laid out in SW canon – no more or less bizarre than most real-world faiths. Adherents to the Jedi way profess belief in an omnipresent, perhaps semi-sentient (‘the will of the Force’) mystical power that can be communed with via meditation and employed by skilled practitioners to do things normally considered impossible.
Plenty of real-world, non-geeky people believe in an omnipresent, non-incarnate higher power. We call them pantheists or panentheists. Meditation – sitting still, in silence, and opening one’s mind – is a core practice of Buddhism, and a similar practice is found in Western society in some forms of Quaker worship. And as for the doing of impossible things, there are reports of miracles of healing going back centuries; mystics slowing their breathing or heartrate almost to nothing; and in the mind-tricks department, Derren Brown has proved that one can be an accomplished hypnotist and trickster without professing any kind of religious belief at all.
There is nothing in Jedi practice that is inherently objectionable or even very bizarre, and its mere ‘artificial’ origins are not an automatic disqualifier. All religions must have a founder, be it the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, the Buddha, Zoroaster or George Lucas. There is no requirement that a religion must be hundreds or thousands of years old to be legitimate: there are, for instance, considerably more mainstream Mormons than Jedi, most of whom evidently have no trouble accepting that divine revelation was still happening as late as 1830, and yet Mormons rarely if ever have their beliefs dismissed as a joke. (Questioned, yes, criticised, yes, but rarely dismissed out of hand.)
What does probably need to be taken into account when deciding whether or not something constitutes a religion is the size of its congregation. Cults of the dangerous type are usually no more than a few hundred people, enough for every one to be under the personal sway of the necessary cult leader. The worldwide Jedi contingent is five hundred thousand strong, and has no leader, which would seem to fail the definition of cultism on both counts.
Given that the Jedi faith has so many adherents, contains no ideas not already widely accepted in religious practice, and was founded in seriousness (Lucas did not conceive of it as a joke; the Jedi he portrays take it very seriously indeed) the eye-rolling dismissive attitude seems somewhat discourteous, not to mention discriminatory. The Jedi way is no more ridiculous than Buddhism, Mormonism, Wicca or Catholicism and deserves no more mockery. To quote Tom Stoppard, “Consistency is all I ask!”. You mock the Jedi way as a load of woo-woo, you’d better be prepared to mock the Church of England or the Church of Rome as well. And, to be fair, plenty of people are.
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At least two or three commenters in the CiF thread raised the question of what Tesco would do about other faiths that demand adherents, or certain categories of adherent, cover their heads in public: some Muslim women, Catholic nuns. And it does put them in something of a difficult position. Their response is based on the fact that it is nowhere stated in the Star Wars films (or, to my knowledge, EU; the article does not inform us whether Jones accepts the Expanded Universe as canonical or not) that Jedi must cover their heads when out in public, and it’s apparent that several don’t.
Yet asking a Muslim woman to remove her headscarf on the basis that other Muslim women have no problem with showing their hair, while logically equivalent, seems a lot more problematic. The problems become a lot more apparent when the analogy is extended further: you wouldn’t ask a random person to remove their underwear on the basis that other people don’t mind going commando.
In fact, citing the fact that ‘other people do it’ as a reason why anyone should do anything – wear this, watch that, do this in bed – is irrelevant, dangerous and wrong. It leads to people ending up miserable in relationships, unhappy in their own bodies, and feeling crushed under societal pressure; I imagine everyone can think of at least one occasion when they caved to peer pressure and the results were awful.
It seems a rather large conclusion to reach from a news story that’s clearly intended as the tail end of the silly season, but there seems to be some unpleasant logic behind Tesco’s tongue-in-cheek response. It’s that reasoning, not the request, with which I have a problem: if they don’t want people with covered heads in their stores, so they can be more easily surveilled or whatever, that is their prerogative as a private business. (It would probably be most easily accomplished by a large sign at the store entrance and possibly a security guard / greeter to turn away those who can’t or don’t read the sign.) Given that, though, their only reason for requesting Mr Jones or anyone else to uncover his head should be ‘Because you’re in our building and it’s against our rules not to’. Saying that Mr Jones should somehow not mind uncovering his head because these other people don’t is insidious and dishonest, even if the other people in question are masters of the Force.