Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Oankali's Assessment of the Human Contradiction

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 human contradiction that caused the downfall of humans.  This human contradiction is defined by the fact that humans are both intelligent and hierarchical.  The argument that I would like to present is that the Oankali are correct in their assessment of the human contradiction, and that the human race should aspire to evolve in a way that moves us closer to becoming a non-hierarchical species.  I will describe some examples of how our society may look if it becomes non-hierarchical, and explain how the Oankali present a society that possesses many characteristics that we should try to incorporate into our society.
Jdahya explains to Lilith, “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 alternative that the Oankali present to the human contradiction is a society that is non-hierarchical and non-violent.  The Oankali assert that this alternative is far superior to what humans practiced on Earth long ago.  They believe that the new race of beings that are being created will be a great improvement over the previous inhabitants of Earth.  They believe this because these inhabitants will be similar to the Oankali in nature, and “will be free of the genetically rooted contradiction that led to the war that nearly destroyed all life on Earth” (Tucker). Many of the humans are resistant to this viewpoint of the Oankali; some even believe that if given a second chance, humans would be able to overcome the human contradiction and avoid utter destruction.  This is where the idea of Mars comes into play; Akin believed that humans at least deserved a second chance at creating a society.  He thought that maybe by chance or mutation, the humans might be able to overcome the contradiction; this chance however, as Akin admitted, is slim to none.  Most of the Oankali believe that giving humans a second chance on Mars is a grave mistake, but were swayed by Akin to help them.  I believe this thought by Jodahs sums up the Oankali’s feelings toward Mars perfectly, “He couldn’t read the gene combinations as I could. It was as though he were about to walk off a cliff simply because he could not see it—or because he, or rather his descendants, would not hit the rocks below for a long time. And what were we doing, we who knew the truth? Helping him reach the cliff. Ferrying him to it” (Butler, 531).
The critique of the human contradiction that is presented by the Oankali is correct in my opinion.  The contradiction was the likely cause of the downfall of humans in Lilith’s Brood. 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 the war that destroyed human civilization may have never occurred because there would have been no such power struggles. I also agree with the Oankali in that humans will most likely never be able to overcome their hierarchical tendencies.  This quality seems to be so entrenched in the humans, that any attempt to overcome it would be futile.  This is supported by the persistence of hierarchy after the humans were rescued.   Despite the Oankali’s attempt to eradicate hierarchical tendencies, hierarchy remains ever-present throughout the story.  One way that hierarchy rears its head is through a new type of racism that the humans form.  “Racism does not vanish upon the arrival of aliens; the human propensity for hierarchical thinking sustains it and maps it on to another group, at a higher, species-oriented, taxonomic level”(Tucker). The human resistors develop a hatred for the Oankali that is comparable to the way a racist feels toward the race he or she is prejudice against.  Although this new type of racism overshadows inter-human racism, the humans still make distinctions between their races. “And the diminution of race and racism at the human level goes only so far in Xenogenesis. The resisters divide themselves into villages that are organized around language, religion, ethnicity, and/or nationality; the villages bear names that announce the origins of their inhabitants, such as Hillman, Siwatu, and Vladlengrad” (Tucker). The fact that humans still maintain their racial distinctions at a time when an entirely alien species is attempting to interbreed with them, speaks volumes to how entrenched, and perhaps automatic, the hierarchical tendencies of humans really are.
Another moment 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 and ended up beating her.  Here we see the classic case of a male dominating a female that we are used to seeing in our hierarchical society.  Paul Titus lived amongst the Oankali for quite a while before this incident took place.  However, even after spending so much time with the non-hierarchical Oankali, Paul’s hierarchical nature came to the surface.  He could not resist the opportunity to dominate Lilith.  This once again proves just how unlikely it would be for humans to somehow overcome their hierarchical inclinations without altering their genetic makeup.  Putting this into consideration, I find myself siding with much of the Oankali on the issue of Mars.  Why should they give the humans a chance to live on Mars, when it seems that they will just destroy themselves again?  I do not see any outcome where the humans will not eventually destroy themselves again; I do not see the point of creating another society that will eventually be killed.
Now that we see how fatal the human contradiction turns out to be in Lilith’s Brood, what does this mean for our society? Are we doomed to eventually destroy ourselves? Should we aspire to be non-hierarchical like the Oankali? How would a non-hierarchical human society look?  Would we even want to live there? While these are certainly difficult and huge questions to answer, I believe Oankali society may be able to clue us in on some of the answers.
There are several instances throughout Lilith’s Brood in which we can see how a truly non-hierarchical society would look. 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.  Nikanj explains to Lilith, “I teach. You teach” (Butler,55).  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 immensely.  This is an excellent example of the Oankali rejecting the hierarchical tendencies of humans; there is not the classic teacher-student relationship, both are students of each other.   If we were to apply this way of learning to our society, our education system would be drastically different from the current one.  Instead of class rooms being led entirely by a teacher or professor, students would likely have a much more active role in learning from each other and working together to further their education.  In today’s society, we often emphasize individual work and success when it comes to education; in a non-hierarchical society, working together to learn would be valued over individual work.  If the results of this kind of learning in Lilith’s Brood are any indication, we may find it to be a much more effective and efficient way of learning compared to the current system we have in place.
Another aspect of the Oankali society that may be beneficial for humans to adopt is its organization.  There does not seem to be any instances of one being dominating another in any way.  The gender relations are very unlike that of humans in that no one seems to “wear the pants” in the family.  Everyone’s voice seems to be heard.  This is also true for the Oankali government, or lack thereof.  There is no bickering between political parties, and progress always seems to result.  This is because the Oankali communicate deeply with each other to form a consensus before any action is taken.  It is like the ultimate form of democracy.  In addition, there are no Oankali countries that wage war on each other over resources or mere difference of opinion.  The Oankali have an organized society that is non-violent and efficient.   In our society, government seems very inefficient at times, and countries seem to always have weapons pointed at one another.  If we were to adopt the societal organization of the Oankali, I believe we would be a much better race of beings.  We would accomplish so much, there would be less inequality, and violence would be almost non-existent.
In conclusion, the Oankali are correct in their critique of the human contradiction.  The hierarchical tendencies of humans caused the destruction of human society, and are likely a problem that humans will never be able to overcome.  This was proven time and again by the rescued humans’ actions after they were awakened.  If the humans started over again on Mars, the same destruction of their society would likely result.  I believe that there are many aspects of Oankali society that would be beneficial to humans if we incorporated them into our society.  Such aspects are the Oankali’s non-violent nature, and the way that the Oankali learn.  It is unknown whether or not our society will suffer the same fate as the humans in Lilith’s Brood, but adopting many of the Oankali’s qualities and values will make us a more peaceful, efficient, and productive society.

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989
Tucker, Jeffrey A. "'The human contradiction': identity and/as essence in Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy." Yearbook of English Studies 37.2 (2007): 164+. Academic OneFile. Web. 16 Feb. 2012

1 comment:

  1. Many of your peers have struggled to form and claim arguments which are *their own*. It's very nice to see a clear, direct argument right away in your essay.

    While everything in the 2nd paragraph has some relevance, it's at least as much plot summary as directed argument; this could have been streamlined, or more directly rooted in your main argument.

    Your agreement with the premise that humans are doomed to self-destruction seems to be rooted in your own beliefs - and yet your evidence comes from Lilith's brood itself. This is an opportunity (since you agree with Butler) to bring world and novel together. This is the time to talk about nuclear arms, or biological weapons, or terrorism and how "civilized" nations leverage terrorism to justify their own policies, or about the persistence of wealth and poverty, etc., etc. Returning to the novel makes your argument seem circular. Surely Butler convinces you because her assessment of human nature makes sense based on other knowledge and experience you have? If so, bring that to bear!

    Similarly with Paul Titus. Presumably you find his kind of sexual violence to be representative of humanity; if so, you need to articualte that.

    Your discussion of non-hierarchical learning remains promising. I would have been happy to read more on that subject, especially as someone who has been accused from time to time of being more hierarchical in the classroom than some people might believe is best. I also continue to like your brief discussion of Oankali (anti)politics.


    There's a lot to like here. The introduction is good, and most of the material near the end is excellent and insightful as well. The gaping whole in your argument is a problem, though: you are trying to prove that Lilith's Brood is in some sense accurate and correct without ever really looking outside it for evidence. I'm not hard to convince on this subject: for my part, I think the fact that the richest nation the world has ever known lets children die for lack of medical care is almost proof enough that we are destined for self-destruction. But even if I'm an easy mark, I need *you* to make a coherent argument, and you're not doing it. On a related note, you sometimes (although not always) drift into summarization instead of actual argument, when discussing the novel.