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Whenever I hear someone complain that there’s too much litigation in our society, I think back to when my kids first watched the “Star Wars” movies. (No, they don’t have any solution to that issue, but bear with me here.) Those who bemoan the proliferation of lawsuits are really complaining about an increasingly adversarial society, which, depending on your viewpoint, lawyers either feed or feed off. It’s not just our legal system that is adversarial. Our culture is defined by conflicts, an endless series of battling opposites. There’s us versus them, right versus wrong, win versus lose, blue state versus red state, and so on all the way down to the trivial (diet versus regular) and the contrived (tastes great versus less filling). Whether epic or inane, two options are pitted against each other, typically two options that someone somewhere has defined for us. Conflict creation may be an inescapable part of man’s nature, traced back to when one band of troglodytes got pumped up for battle with the band from the next valley. There is another side to this, often articulated by august bar leaders and elder politicians: They urge parties to seek common ground and a deeper understanding rather than to sharpen their differences and wave their swords. But often it seems as if nobody’s listening. As a citizen, I wonder how seeing the world through the prism of conflicts affects our ability to work together, regardless of who is running the government today. As a lawyer, I wonder about the frequently random results of intensely adversarial litigation. Most of all, as a parent, I worry about outside influences on my children. Might being pushed to choose between opposites stunt children’s ability to see nuances and understand complexities? If they rely on a pair of prepackaged choices, whether good and evil or something else, will they veer toward snap judgments rather than closer examination of problems? FATHER VERSUS SON Weighed down by all this, but also eager to watch lightsaber fights and jumps to hyperspace, I joined my sons in our own “Star Wars” film festival. Talk about conflict: Heroes and villains permeate the “Star Wars” saga. And unlike the many nonfiction evildoers who have terrorized humankind, the “Star Wars” villains freely admit they’re on the dark side. As if this weren’t enough, Darth Vader, the baddest of the bad, wears an all-enveloping black outfit complete with helmet and cape to remind everyone of his unremitting evil. The good guys, meanwhile, are blessed with better looks, snappier lines, and even some ’70s/’80s cool. When the polar extremes of good and evil meet, they tend to get locked into lengthy lightsaber duels. In part that’s due to the primal drama and beauty of a sword fight, but it’s more to emphasize the intractable nature of this conflict. Good and evil don’t fire projectiles across empty space at their unseen enemy. No, they’re locked in a face-to-face battle to the death. In the climax of the last movie, Darth Vader kills the emperor to save his son and main good guy, Luke Skywalker. What does this mean? Has Darth Vader suffered a crisis of conscience, renounced his evil ways, and repented? The end of the movie suggests he has been redeemed and reclaimed his rank among the noble Jedi. As the “Return of the Jedi” credits rolled, I sought my sons’ reaction to this apparent conversion: “So Darth Vader became good in the end?” The older glanced at me. These grownups, his look suggested. “No, Dad.” “No?” I echoed, fearing he had missed the whole Darth Vader transformation thing. Hadn’t that slam-dunk of the emperor down the chute been clear enough? My son continued matter-of-factly: “Darth Vader saved Luke because Luke was his son and the emperor was hurting him. Darth Vader didn’t really become good.” “He didn’t?” I muttered as they ran upstairs. �SORT OF MIXED UP’ Maybe I was the one who missed the point. Having fallen into the trap of extreme viewpoints, I had succumbed to the movies’ dichotomy of good and evil: A person is one or the other. And Darth Vader’s redemption seemed like the perfect flip-flop from one extreme to another, the kind of contradiction that lawyers love to challenge on cross. I imagined toying with him on the witness stand: “So, Mr. Vader, first you were evil. Now you are good. Which is it? Do you have any real convictions?” The jury would love it. But the kids saw beyond this either-or split. I was pleased, but then wondered whether Darth Vader’s final act had affected their overall impression of him. So I summoned the older one. “What was Darth Vader in the end?” I asked. His brow furrowed as he considered my question. “Sort of half-good, half-bad.” After a moment of father-son contemplation, I asked, “Do you mean he was gray, or one-half white and one-half black?” “Sort of mixed up. I don’t know.” “Neither do I.” It was an uncertain conclusion but also an open-minded one. I liked it. It made us look closer at human complexity instead of clinging to glibly devised opposites. Not a bad thing to keep in mind, whether as a parent, lawyer, or anything else.
Gunnar Birgisson is an associate at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, D.C.

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