I used to love reading Scientific American growing up and I wish this weren't
happening to it.
Why the Term 'JEDI' Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote
Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
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.
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