Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Oankali's Critique of Hierarchy

In Lilith’s Brood, the Oankali make several critiques about the values and actions of the human race.  One of the most fundamental evaluations made by the Oankali concerns the hierarchical nature of human beings.  “You are hierarchical.  That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all…that was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing” (Butler, 39).
The Oankali believe the hierarchical nature of humans is one of the characteristics that brought humans to nearly destroy themselves.  The alternative presented to this characteristic is a society that is non-hierarchical and non-violent.  The Oankali assert that this alternative is far superior to what the humans practiced on Earth long ago.  They believe that the new race of beings that will be created, will be a great improvement over the previous inhabitants of Earth because these inhabitants will be more like the Oankali in nature.
The theme of hierarchy is played with in several instances throughout Lilith’s Brood. One of these instances that I find most fascinating is when Lilith and Nikanj are placed together.  Instead of only one of them having the power to teach the other, they both possess this power.  Lilith is dependent on Nikanj to learn about the Oankali, just as it is dependent on Lilith to learn the English language.  This way of learning seems to benefit both beings.  This is perhaps an example of the Oankali rejecting the hierarchical tendencies of humans; there is not the classic teacher-student relationship, both are students of each other. 
Another instance in which hierarchy comes into play is when Lilith meets Paul Titus.  Lilith was very excited to meet Paul because she had not interacted with a human in such a long time.  However, Paul had more than just a meeting in mind; he desperately wanted to have sex with Lilith.  After Lilith refused to accept his advances, Paul attempted to rape her but only ended up beating her.  I believe this interaction between Lilith and Paul supports the Oankali’s statement about human hierarchical tendencies being a fundamental flaw.  Paul assumed a type of hierarchical power over Lilith, similar to many male-female relationships on Earth in the past.  Paul acted in a selfish manner, placing his urges to have sex over Lilith’s feelings.  I believe that the Oankali may have viewed this interaction as a small-scale example that supported their beliefs; the human characteristic of hierarchy greatly influenced the death of much of the human race.
When Lilith begins training the Awakened humans, the Oankali change many of her characteristics.  She acquires many of their special abilities and becomes much stronger than a normal human.  These characteristics ensure that she is in charge of the Awakened.  They see her as different and as someone who is attempting to lead them.  This makes her stand out like a sore thumb to all of the Awakened; it also makes her a target, as some begin to believe that she is not human or that she sides with the aliens.  Changes are also made to Lilith’s close friend Joseph, leading some to target him as well. Ultimately, the Awakened humans turn against Lilith and attempt to escape. Joseph is killed during this process.  I was troubled by this part of the story because the Oankali seemed to create the hierarchy that they so despised.  By making Lilith and Joseph similar them, the Oankali gave them a sort of power over all of the Awakened.  Eventually a power struggle erupted between the Awakened and Lilith, destroying any hope of the Oankali’s plan succeeding.  On the other hand, perhaps it did succeed.  Is it possible that the Oankali intentionally created this power struggle to demonstrate to Lilith that the hierarchical nature of humans does indeed need to be eliminated for a successful return to Earth?
In closing, I believe that the Oankali might be on to something when they say that the hierarchical nature of humans is a fatal flaw.  The most violent wars in our history have come about as power struggles between two or more parties.  If humans were non-hierarchical, it is likely that some of these wars may have never occurred.  It is not hard to imagine a future war that is capable of destroying the Earth; it would be very easy to do with all of our nuclear capabilities.  Do I believe that the only way to avoid our destruction is to genetically alter us? No, I believe that the Oankali take it too far.  In addition, we do not even have the capability to do such a thing at this present time.  We should aspire to be like the Oankali in that they are non-violent, but that does not mean we have to change our genetics to do so.  If we just look at the critiques presented by the Oankali, I think we may find a solution to our flawed hierarchical nature.  It is mentioned that the humans did not use their intelligence to guide their hierarchical nature; they used their intelligence to serve it.  This caused their destruction in Lilith’s Brood.  If we can find ways to use use our intelligence to guide this characteristic, I believe that we can avoid the fate humans suffered in Lilith’s Brood.   

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989


  1. I think you made a lot of great observations on how hierarchy was shown throughout Dawn. I had not seen how the teaching method showed the Oankali’s non hierarchal stance until you mentioned it. Overall, I think you have a very clear paper. I think you could explore the idea of hierarchy a little more. You mention it many times but you might define what you mean or what you think the Oankali mean by it. Do they mean the system of government or just the will to rule over each other? You could also add on to the idea of the male hierarchy with Paul Titus and Curt if you want to write more and explore some of your examples further. The first sentence and a few of your transitions might also benefit from some rewording so they are not so formulaic. I like the conclusion. Good luck on whatever you chose to revise!

  2. I greatly appreciate that you present the Oankali as non-hierarchical through the detailed example of pedagogy. I'd actually never thought through the question of why Nikanj isn't taught English before being paired with Lilith - so you're explaining something important to me here. I do think that part of the preceding 2 paragraphs is filler - you want to get to the good stuff quickly!

    Paul Titus is a more conventionally obvious example of hierarchy; of course, we are usually taught (rightly, I think) to understand rape as usually being more about dominance than anything, although if this is important to you, you could probably make it more explicit.

    Obviously, I had a lot to say in class about the (apparenty) Oankali recreation of human hierarchy. what you have here, pre-class, if absolutely fine. In a revision, you'd want to either continue or challenge (roughly speaking - in reality, your position might be more nuanced) the discussion in class, where I tried to argue that we can see this is a continuation of human hierarchy which also inverts and hence undermines them.

    Your final paragraph is fine, but obviously very general. Honestly, what most interested me was your discussion of non-hierarchical pedagogy, as an example of what a non-hierarchical society would look like (the Oankali would not have classrooms, with someone having a special status (PhD) firmly at the head of them!). In other words, you are far more interesting when you're working with the details, which enable you, at least in theory, ot imagine the details of what the non-hierarchical society would look like.

    Always do more with concrete ideas, and less with general ones, when you have the choice.