By Cat Nadel
The article discusses the importance of sacrifice in achieving social change, using the Star Wars show Andor as an example.
Warning: This article contains SPOILERS.
Young Serbian activists parade photos of their friends’ beaten faces in front of the homes of the police officers who beat them. The family of an Aboriginal woman, killed in police custody, chooses to share their grief with the public. A gay man scatters the ashes of his lover on the White House lawn in protest of a government failing to respond to the AIDS crisis. Gurindji workers and traditional owners strike for 7 years to claim back control of their land.
What do all of these examples have in common? Besides that they are now understood as inflection points for moments of wide reaching social and political change? They all involve acts of deep personal sacrifice that, when combined with tactics that grabbed the public’s attention, moved thousands of people to sympathise and take action in support of their cause, creating the conditions required for transformational change.
The role of sacrifice is not well understood in social movements, but it has been a critical ingredient in social uprisings and moments of wide reaching political change throughout history. It is also a complex reality that people working towards social change must deal with everyday.
This article is the second in a three part series on revolutionary lessons inspired by the Star Wars show Andor. The first instalment focuses on Leadership Development, read it here.
In this article we will draw on lessons from This is An Uprising by Mark & Paul Engler and use contemporary examples, as well as examples from Andor to examine why and how acts of personal sacrifice, in combination with disruption and escalation, move people to take extraordinary action that can transform our societies for the better.
Disruption, Sacrifice and Escalation
Mark and Paul Engler identify how
time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and illuminate injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see three elements – disruption, sacrifice and escalation – combining in forceful ways.
These three elements play an instrumental role in the plot of Andor, with sacrifice appearing as a recurring theme. This is an important narrative choice, because it is essentially how the show gets us to sympathise with Andor as a character. This is interesting to analyse from a community organising perspective, because getting the public to sympathise with our cause is the essential work of social movements.
The word disruption might make you think of a protester blocking traffic, but is much more than that. Disruption is how our movements interrupt business as usual to enable disenfranchised groups to get our messages, issues and stories into the mainstream.
In moments when people “break the rules” of social decorum and step out of their conventional roles, we can expose these injustices and force people to pay attention. (Frances Fox Piven, Poor People’s Movements)
We must remember that not all attention is positive and that strategic judgement is needed to “maximise disruption’s transformative potential while minimising backlash from the public.” (Engler)
This tension between positive and negative attention, is why “personal sacrifice” pairs so critically with disruption. Suffering is central to Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. Gandhi, who led nonviolent campaigns to get the Indian public to stop cooperating with British colonial rule, developed the theory “based on suffering as a social force… it is by inviting suffering from the opponent and not after inflicting suffering upon him that the resultant power is produced.” – (Krishnalal Shridharani, War Without Violence)
The Englers’ note how personal acts of sacrifice can:
Draw attention and invite empathy… A bus boycotter willing to walk five miles rather than to ride on a segregated bus, a teacher going on a hunger strike against school budget cuts… an indigenous rights advocate that chains herself to a bulldozer to prevent construction on a sacred site.
Gandhi argued that these displays activate public opinion to “quicken the dead conscience into life” and make people act and think. When bystanders see someone in front of them suffering it is difficult for them to remain detached and uninvolved, the scene compels them to pick a side.
In Andor, acts of sacrifice help us understand a character’s commitment to a cause. From Vel Sartha (Faye Marsay), the coordinator of the rebel camp on Aldhani, contrasting the rebels surviving on roots and dray milk in preparation for the mission with Andor’s sudden recruitment as a mercenary. To the choice she and Cinta Kaz (Varada Sethu) have made to put their relationship second to their commitment to the rebellion. To the portrayal of Mon Mothma’s personal and political sacrifices as she tries to covertly smuggle resources to the rebellion, leading to an ultimate question of whether she will sacrifice her own daughter for the cause.
In the context of the show, these acts of sacrifice serve to emphasise the moral authority of the characters. It brings the audience into their struggle and allows us to viscerally feel the weight of the Empire’s oppression. Their sacrifice makes the invisible conflict visible and makes it undeniable which side of this fight we should be on.
Successful movements face the public, and sacrifice is a key element of showing what’s at stake, ensuring we are sympathetic characters in our own story. Sacrifice isn’t just about moving bystanders to feel empathy, our lives aren’t a TV show and we need more than just an audience. We need to motivate people in our own social and political networks to move from passivity to strategic action.
A commonly cited example is how black students leading lunch-counter sit-ins in the segregated American South did not seek to convince the white staff and customers of their cause. But instead by peacefully resisting their violence and racism, they reached out through the media to passive supporters in the northern states and to their friends and families who were moved by their sacrifice to donate, volunteer and begin organising for civil rights.
We see this phenomenon in Andor when Cassian’s mother, Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw) is so moved by the heist against the Empire on Aldhani (even without knowing that her own son was involved) that she commits to organising local resistance to the Empire. In doing so, she sacrifices her health and her chance to escape and spend time with her son.
Reprisal and Political Jujitsu
The activating effect of sacrifice is amplified when practitioners of nonviolence provoke unjustified acts of repression from their opponents. Gene Sharp has written about how dictators and tyrannical state police forces are well practised in responding to violent uprisings. In these instances media tend to valorise the state’s attempt to restore order. However
Harsh repression against nonviolent resisters may be perceived as unreasonable, distasteful, inhuman or harmful to society. It turns the public against the attackers, provokes sympathetic onlookers to join the demonstrations and encourages defections within groups that might regularly be opposed to protests. – (Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential)
The movement I am part of, Tomorrow Movement, experienced this phenomenon when even conservative media outlets like Sky News reported positively on our peaceful protest on the first day of Parliament. In preparing for the action we knew we needed to be disciplined in our message and our commitment to non-violence. The contrast of young people, peacefully singing for our future, while police pushed and dragged us down stairs, as fossil fuel billionaires and lobbyists were allowed to freely walk the halls of Parliament, made our message undeniable. Sharing this footage widely on social media, moved many passive supporters to action and resulted in our movement tripling in size over the following months.
We saw this “political jujitsu” effect modelled in Andor when after the rebels used the local Aldhani festival of lights as cover for their heist and escape, the Empire ruled that “the use of cultural festivities as cover for rebel activity will trigger permanent revocation of imperial tolerance.”
The Sacrifice of Revolutionary Organising
Andor’s sacrifice theme comes to a head in Episode 10, One Way Out, when we witness Kino lead an uprising from a prison he personally cannot escape from. The episode concludes with Luthen giving an iconic speech (and performance) when his double agent source at the Imperial Security Bureau asks what he has sacrificed for this movement? It’s worth reading the full speech:
Calm. Kindness, kinship. Love. I’ve given up all chance at inner peace, I’ve made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts. I wake up every day to an equation I wrote 15 years ago from which there’s only one conclusion: I’m damned for what I do. My anger, my ego, my unwillingness to yield, my eagerness to fight, they’ve set me on a path from which there is no escape. I yearned to be a savior against injustice without contemplating the cost, and by the time I looked down, there was no longer any ground beneath my feet.
What is… what is my sacrifice? I’m condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them. I burn my decency for someone else’s future. I burn my life, to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see. No, the ego that started this fight will never have a mirror, or an audience, or the light of gratitude. So what do I sacrifice?
Luthen’s speech and his sacrifice not just of an ordinary life, but of his own humanity, puts the theme of sacrifice in context. The sacrifices every rebel makes impacts not only those around them and in their political and personal networks, but will contribute to the success of a rebellion years in the making.
This speech hits home to me because it reminds me of the sacrifices I have seen my comrades make. People in our movements make grand sacrifices, like putting their bodies, livelihoods and freedom on the line. These risks and sacrifices are multiplied for those on the frontlines of colonial violence and oppression.
But there are also the less cinematic forms of sacrifice. Staring into the heart of the systems that are killing our planet and harming our communities, hurts. It wears you down and it colours your view of the world around you. It drives you to commit time, energy and resources you might not have, towards a sunrise you might never see. Sometimes it puts you into conflict with the people who love you.
That is how sacrifice works – when the people we love start to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, they begin to think about how they can support us, about how their fight might be bound up with ours. When it works in combination with disruption and escalation, allowing many more people to see and empathise with our cause, it can motivate thousands of people to ask themselves these questions.
Human brains are hardwired for stories. We are a relational species and we make meaning together. We allow ourselves to be moved by the sacrifices of characters on a television show and it makes us think about the parallels to our own galaxy and the choices we make within it. Movements are no different. Our power comes from telling real stories about real characters challenging real injustice. Sacrifice is a window into the violence that is already part of our society. When it is wielded with care and strategy it is a spark that can start a rebellion.
Training Opportunity: Lessons on Movement Building from Star Wars’ Andor
Cat Nadel is currently gathering expressions of interest for this workshop which will take place either online or in person in Naarm Melbourne, Australia. The workshop will use Andor as a launching pad to discuss how movements can tell powerful stories and organise effectively. It will draw on teachings from ‘This is An Uprising’ (Mark & Paul Engler) and contemporary social movement examples to examine the core principles organisers can use to trigger moments of uprising and transformation.
If you’re interested in participating in this workshop, express your interest.
- What Star Wars’ Andor can teach us about revolutionary leadership development
- Book review of This is an Uprising: How nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty first century
- Lessons from the Greensboro Student Sit-ins
- The Trifecta of Civil Resistance: Unity, Planning, Discipline
- Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA): Start Here
- Fiction - Science
- Fiction - Star Wars
- Lessons learned_Reviews_Reflections
- Organising - Community
- Television Shows