Jar-Jar Binks didn’t deserve the hate he got

Today started off like pretty much any other Saturday for me. Lazy morning, woke up later than probably I should have, grabbed the laptop and tooled around on there for a bit, checked twitter and a few websites to see what I had missed. I got up, pulled the sheets off the bed to throw them in the washer because I try to wash them every week. It’s a ritual I use to try and stave off acne since I have issues with breakouts if I’m not fastidious about it. Also, happiness is just getting out of a steamy shower in the dead of winter and climbing into bed with freshly laundered sheets. It’s so comforting and wonderful. I do highly recommend you wash your sheets regularly if only for that.

I cooked some lunch and put on a Youtube playlist on the TV in the den. This is kind of my usual little ritual. I look through my subscriptions and see what’s new, tossing things into my ‘watch later’ playlist. I love that function. I’ll even spot things in my recommendations and throw one or two into watch later, which updates as I watch. It’s a great system and I adore it. It makes it so easy to tack on new subscription-published videos as they appear. One popped up in the recommendations through the Youtube app on my Nexus Player, a little puck-shaped device that runs Android TV, Google’s answer to Apple TV. It was about Ahmed Best, the man who played Jar-Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels. And the thumbnail said it was about how he considered suicide at one point.

The video in question

I added it to my watch later playlist, which isn’t an easy thing to do in the Android TV version of the app. But I found a quick and easy method that I’ve used ever since it occurred to me. You open the video, let the actual video play for a moment (not just the ads that might come before if you don’t have Premium), then back out of it. It’s now loaded into your history. I open up Youtube on my phone, go to my history, then tell it to add that video to my watch later list. This is a fantastic, quick, easy way to get around some of the missing features in the Android TV app. You do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.

Anyway, I go through the playlist until finally, his video comes up. I’ve just sat back down from moving the sheets from the washer to the dryer so I’m just in time. I devote my full attention to the video. I watch. I listen. I process.

Ahmed Best had been in the cast for Stomp, performing the show without realizing a casting directory working for George Lucas was in the audience. He was contacted after and told they wanted him to be in the next Star Wars movie. Of course I’m oversimplifying the process, I’m sure it went differently than just having someone walk up and say “We want you in Star Wars”. That’s not the point. Ahmed was rather enthusiastic to say the least to get a part in a movie. He was amazed to later discover that what he was doing was actually rather ground-breaking; motion capture and computer generated replacement. They were writing code to do what is seen in the film as he was performing the part of Jar-Jar Binks.

It was a remarkable–one might even call magical–experience. This was his big break, and it was Star Wars. Star Wars for Christ’s sake. You can’t really hit it much bigger than that. He was riding high, thinking he was going to be renowned for his work with such experimental technology and filming processes.

Instead, he was utterly reviled.

Jar-Jar Binks resulted in one of the most gigantic pop-culture backlashes I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think he was that terrible a character, but as time went on, my perception of him shifted. Part of it was going back and watching it and not feeling the same thing I felt when I first saw the film. There’s also the fact that I was still pretty malleable back then, quietly absorbing the opinions of those around me without even really realizing I was doing it. I suppose it was so I wouldn’t get picked on. “Oh look, it’s that dork that actually likes Jar-Jar. Let’s go shoot spit-wads at him because he’s such a dork.” It wasn’t a terribly happy time for me and I was far too eager to please, to be accepted.

Ahmed had it far, far worse than me. He actually played Jar-Jar. And people have never been known to shy away from trying to formulate the most hateful, horrible, nasty, cutting, biting, venomous, poisonous things they can possibly say. It’s almost like a contest to see who can dunk the hardest. From critics to theater-goers, pretty much everyone absolutely despised Jar-Jar. And when someone found out he was the one who played the character, the hatred shifted from the character to him. They insulted his heritage, calling him ethnic slurs and making fun of him for being Jamaican (he isn’t), and just being racist and awful. Sometimes directly to his face.

He mentioned early on in the video that growing up, he liked to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge because the view of the city from there would inspire him. At that lowest point, he described himself as being in a fog, so he went for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. While he was out there, he thought about jumping. He was ready to do it. He didn’t have anything there to stop him. Now, thankfully, he didn’t do it. He tells the story so much better than I do, but I’m not here to re-tell the story he’s already told. I’m writing this because I want to get my thoughts and feelings about the story he told down to share them with whoever might wish to come read this.

This attitude of pouring hate onto something or someone like with Jar-Jar Binks is so unbelievably awful. It doesn’t matter if you hated the character, the kind of response that character got was not deserved. That kind of bile and emotional sludge is never deserved for a character like Jar-Jar, or Ahmed, the man who played him. He was pursuing his passion, doing something he believed would be great. Sure, the character had flaws, hell the whole of the prequel trilogy had flaws. But why is it was ‘dunk on’ them so hard? Why do people dunk so hard on the new Star Wars movies? Why are we as a society so god damned obsessed with being pissed off?

Sometimes it’s well deserved, like when a public figure or head of a major company does or says something so awful they need to be publicly shamed. Driven to suicidal thoughts though… I don’t think I can condone pushing that far. But if the target is someone who isn’t hurting anyone and they’re just pursuing what makes them happy, why do we still treat them as though they are why Flint doesn’t have clean drinking water (because they’re still suffering, in case you weren’t aware), or the Prince who ordered the brutal murder of a reporter?

We all know Prince Mohammad Bin Salman ordered the death of Jamal Khashoggi, and yet we have more vitriol for Jar-Jar Binks, a fictional character. And don’t give me that bullcrap about “But he’s the dude that gave Palpatine emergency powers”. No, he opened the vote on the floor. The senate gave him emergency powers. We know that Kim Jong Un is a horrific despot guilty of some of the worst human rights crimes. And yet, we still hate Jar-Jar more. I remember the hatred that came from Episode One, most of it directed at the Gungan. I don’t exactly remember the same kind of backlash against David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. And it’s not because he died some time ago, because he’s still alive, and he’s been politically active. He even supported Donald Trump in the 2016 race.

So why? Why do we do this? Why is there a churning, fermenting, bubbling, foaming, rotting culture of hate on the internet directed at people and things that are so very undeserving of it? Is it because the people who engage in it are themselves the target of abusive conduct? So they feel they deserve the right to be that way to someone else?

I’m asking in all seriousness because I have engaged in it myself. I don’t exactly know why. There’s a brief rush of feeling high and mighty, but it’s got to be more than just that. There has to be something else. I want desperately to know so I can take steps to avoid the behavior myself. I spend too much time being angry, and it doesn’t help anything. I’m not able to channel that anger into a productive direction. I know some can. That’s why the mid-term elections when the direction they did. That’s why there have been so many protests against the current administration. People are angry–rightly so–about real problems, and they want to do something about it.

Then we have people who got angry over a few ‘edgy’ tweets by James Gunn from numerous years past. That was little more than a ploy by certain hateful groups online to ‘own the libs’. I hate that phrase. It’s been used to justify so much stupidity. Like throwing away or burning possessions they’ve already spent money on. I hate it almost as much as the phrase “It was just a joke”. I cannot tell you how much I loathe that defense.

We love to hurt one another. We have entire swaths of the entertainment industry devoted to that exact concept. Prank channels on Youtube, reality TV that encourages people to backstab and betray one another, talk shows that are purposefully explosive and violent, I could go on. Apparently, human suffering is profitable. It’s no wonder the Vulcans are staying as far away from us as possible. We have commodified our own misery, wrapped it up in a shiny, flashy graphics package, and sell it as pay-per-view or beg for patreon support.

“Yes, for just five dollars a month, you can support the nut-shot-420-libtard-own channel and get access to our discord server so you can tell us what crazy-stupid thing we should do next! We’ll even have some rando out in the middle of nowhere Africa sing and dance while holding a sign that says ‘Pizza-gate is real’! Why? Because we can!”

Carl Sagan wrote the book ‘Contact’. You may have seen the movie that was kind of based on it. I don’t know if the book said it, but it was certainly said in the film, describing our current state of being as a sort of adolescence. Not us individually as humans, but our society, our civilization. And we certainly are. We’re in that moody, self-destructive, smells-like-teen-spirit phase of our existence as a society. And it’s not because of the threat of nuclear war. That was just the opening salvo to this part of our civilization’s life-cycle. It has led to a state where people punch each other in the face in the hopes that it goes viral. And then other channels pick those up and compile them into ‘fail compilations’. So even the internet knows it’s wrong and stupid and pointless, and yet they still capitalize off it. All to get clicks. To get attention. And it just so happens that attention can be directly converted into money.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

But even before we could actually convert stupidity and hatred into money, we were still doing it. Now, it’s just more lucrative.

I know you probably think I’ve been wandering and meandering and straying off my original topic, but really, I think it’s all tied together. The monstrous things that were said and done to demean Jar-Jar Binks, and subsequently Ahmed Best, come from that same place. We see something different, something we define as ‘bad’, and we immediately start to tear it apart, feeling no shame whatsoever. Because it feels good to kick someone when they’re down. You are in a position of power over them. They cannot possibly hurt you back. It’s an act of trust, what Ahmed did, playing the role. He’s trusting that, even if it isn’t well received, he’s not going to be made to feel as though he has no reason to continue living. And we as a society violated that trust.

How many other Ahmeds are out there? How many other actors and actresses, musicians, artists, writers, game developers, clerks, baristas, customer service agents, bus drivers, students, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, just ordinary people have we attacked for some ultimately innocuous thing? What’s even stranger is at the same time, many of us will allow ourselves to remain completely blind to the true outrages, genuine crimes or general horribleness of someone or something.

We have a lot of misplaced anger, like an angsty teen. Some of us have figured out how to use it correctly. Some of us get off on just being angry. Some of us will push so hard on someone that it will make them want to kill themselves, like Ahmed. I for one don’t want to be like that. I want to grow up. I want to only be angry when it can be useful. I recognize I have a short temper and very little patience. I want to correct that in myself. I want to channel my anger, my displeasure, my embarrassment, all my negative emotions into something productive. I did that last year. It was a brief time. It was right after I had gotten fired. I spent roughly 24 hours in an anger-fueled cloud of blind, bitter, desire to destroy. Then, in a moment of almost absolute clarity, I realized something.

Sure, I was going to need to hunt for a job, but I wasn’t going to be spending every waking moment hunting. I could dedicate so much more of my time to my writing. And I did. I thought, to paraphrase Mark Watney, “I’m gonna have to smut the shit out of this.”

I liked the result of that. I got super excited to write. I dedicated a large amount of my days to it. It of course was an unsustainable effort. I ended up needing to find a balance between writing and non-writing time. I’m still working on that. But occassionally, I have little spurts like that, where I just go nuts and write and write and write. I love those. I want to figure out how to channel whatever fuels those and make them happen on a regular basis. Waffle House seems to help. Seriously, late at night, when I’m one of maybe two or three customers, I can just pick a quiet corner, order some food, and get to writing. It’s marvelous. Not internet to distract.

Earlier in my Youtube playlist was a video of Adam Savage answering questions at some convention. A young lady said she was just getting into making and she wanted to know how he picked what project to work on next. While he didn’t exactly answer her question in a direct way, he kind of did in an indirect way. He answered with a statement about how the biggest hurdle is to just get started. It doesn’t matter how great the idea is, how terrible it is, how many of them you have, whether or not you have the materials to make the final product, but just to start. He equated it to like being a shark; movement is life, being still is death.

I want to take all the motion of my negative emotions and run it through some Star Trek style matter converter to use it as an energy source for the things I want to do. I want to stop being angry over stupid stuff. I want to stop having ‘practice conversations’ with my dad, pretending he’s in his chair and shouting at him about how he’s wrong to make me feel like crap for liking a thing I like. They are not productive… and I’m sure the neighbors are wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

I truly want to be a better version of myself, for my friends, my family, and especially for me. I want to look back on my life and say that I really tried to be the good person I thought I was, and that at least in some small way, I succeeded.

So I’m going to just come out and say it. While I do recognize he can be annoying, and bumbling, and a little cringy, I like Jar-Jar Binks. I liked him when I first saw the film. I thought he was an interesting take on non-human life. He was part of a greater society that appeared very fleshed out. He still tried to do what he thought was right, even if ultimately, it had terrible consequences. As someone who struggled with being clumsy and felt less intelligent than everyone around me, I kind of related to Jar-Jar. I was on his side. I felt like he could be a buddy you just sit down and hang out with. He wasn’t bad or disgusting or an abomination. He was just different. And different doesn’t automatically track to something worthy of ridicule. I liked him. I like him perhaps less now than I did at the onset, but only because as a writer, I can see places in Episode One where he was played up more than perhaps was worth doing for humor’s sake.

He was there for slapstick comedy, which honestly should be used sparingly in the Star Wars universe. Not done away with completely, but used when appropriate. That may be where a lot of the disdain comes from, that he felt inappropriate for Star Wars. Just like how a lot of people thought the humor in Episodes Seven and Eight felt inappropriate. And yet, the humor in Four, Five, and Six is perfectly acceptable. Artoo and C-3P0 were largely there for comic relief, the sort of Abbot and Costello of the group. Han was the quick-witted, snarky little smuggler we all loved. Leia had some great one-liners too. Yes, the overarching story is super serious, but that’s what makes it so easy to fall into it and not feel overwhelmed by the burden of the drama. In the real world, you do the same thing. People make jokes to try and lighten the mood so they don’t spiral into depression.

So yeah, I like Jar-Jar Binks. Is he my favorite character in all of Star Wars? No. Is he my favorite character in The Phantom Menace (pronounced Mih-notch-ay if you’re nasty)? No. That spot I have a hard time filling. I really like Darth Maul. He makes a great villain. I would have liked to have learned more about him in-film. I also like Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu. Again, I would have liked to have learned more about him in-film. And we only got to see a little of him in the other two. No, I haven’t read the books or watched any of the animated series where he’s featured. I’ve got so much content to consume I don’t have time for all of it. But that doesn’t make me any less of a fan. Fuck gatekeeping.

I wish I could sit down and talk to Ahmed about those times, leading up to the attempt, and then how he survived after backing down from the attempt. He clearly was doing something right, because here he is, two decades later, and he’s still around, and he’s got a son. I wish him nothing but the best and a hearty ‘Me-sa think yousa real good actor!’

Because you have to be flipping brilliant to utterly disappear into a character like that.

So, next time there’s a piece of pop-culture that isn’t necessarily to your liking, but it isn’t actually hurting anything (I’m looking at you, assholes who harassed the ladies from the 2016 Ghostbusters film), maybe shut your fucking face and don’t be a god damned asshole about it. You have no way of knowing how what you say or do can affect the other person. You don’t know if they’re going to take it way harder than you intended. You would NEVER say such hateful things to someone’s face like that, so why even bother letting them out online? Just let the thought float away without acting on it. Save your outrage and your bile for the things that truly deserve it, like the asshole who ran the NXIVM pyramid scheme sex cult, or Purdue finally admitting they have been lying about Oxycontin being non-addictive. REAL horrible things, not “I don’t like that they made the Ghostbusters girls because I don’t wanna have sex with a female Egon, that’s just weird, I’m not gay, I don’t like dudes, I don’t wanna have sex with a MALE Egon, is it weird I brought that up unprovoked?”

Let’s all grow up a little. It doesn’t mean we have to put away all childish things, like enjoying cartoons, or getting excited about video games and toys and science fiction or fantasy novels. But it does mean we have to put away childish mindsets like being angry just to feel angry. I need to learn how to do that more myself. Join me. Let’s be a better us together.

Be kind to one another and stay weird.