Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Oankali values

Matthew Gerstbrein
Dr. Adam Johns
English Comp 0200
29 October 2014
Oankali Values
            The book “Lilith’s Brood” written by Octavia Butler focuses on an alien race called the Oankali. This species is seemingly quite wise, and has numerous differences in terms of values as compared to humans. One of the more explicitly stated differences is of hierarchy. While humans place a great emphasis on hierarchy, the Oankali place seemingly no value on it. In fact, not only do they give the idea of hierarchy no place in their society, they claim that it is the reason humans are hindered from being one of the most intelligent species.
            We are taught from an early age that hierarchy is what determines order in the world. As kids, we are the lowest part of the hierarchy, compared to the top which is our parents. In this way, we are taught of hierarchy through experience. Hierarchy is also commonly found in the structure of businesses all across the world. Leaders always emerge to guide. One person is even appointed to lead nations, whether it is in the form of a president, prime minister, emperor, or dictator. So we can see that the structure of the human world is built off a fundamental basis of hierarchy. And we believe that hierarchy is part of what makes us successful in our endeavors.
            From the Oankali point of view, hierarchy actually limits the capacity of humans, and is something to be considered illogical. The clear example that proves this point of view is when Butler writes “’You are intelligent,’ he said. ‘That’s the newer of the two characteristics, and the one you might have to put to work to save yourselves. You are potentially one of the most intelligent species we’ve found, though your focus is different from ours. Still, you had a good start in the life sciences, and even in genetics.’ ‘What’s the second characteristic?’ ‘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…’ The rattling sounded again. ‘That was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing.’” (Butler 39).
The Oankali consider hierarchy to be so dangerous as to compare it to a cancer. The critique on the hierarchical structure of humanity is presented quite clearly, and taken to an extreme. It would be difficult to overstate the Oankalis’ aversion to it. In their eyes, it is dangerous, deadly, and the single reason as to why humans are not among the most intelligent species in the universe.
In my opinion, the Oankali have a flawed viewpoint about hierarchy. I believe that this form of structure is necessary to keep all agendas in order. Without designated leaders, there would be chaos. Hierarchy allows people in power to delegate tasks to other subservient individuals. Otherwise, large corporations would not be able to maintain order in the ranks of the common employee. Little work would get done because no one would have anyone to answer to. A business is like a machine, and without someone overseeing the proper maintenance of it and guiding it in the right direction, it would fall apart. So hierarchy is essential to keep progressing.
In fact, it appears that the Oankali rely on hierarchy more than they would admit. Lilith recognizes this when perceiving that the males and females give deference to the ooloi. It would make sense that Oankali would place ooloi in a position above males and females because all Oankali highly value the continuation of their species, and it is the ooloi that are responsible for genetically designing each Oankali.
Another way in which Butler lets us view the Oankali as hierarchical is in how Lilith compares herself to a pet. Before she is given the ability to open doors, she must ask an Oankali to do so in order for her to get food, go to the bathroom, or go outside to explore. Also, part of her Oankali name is “eka”, which translates to a child so young that it does not have a gender designation yet. With this title, it is easily conceivable that the Oankali believe themselves “above” Lilith in a hierarchical sense. So although Jdahya claims that Oankali despise hierarchy, contradictions can be seen between words and actions. In my opinion, Butler intentionally created this contradiction so that readers can see an imperfection in the seemingly flawless Oankali society.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Grand Central, 2000. Print.

1 comment:

  1. “they claim that it is the reason humans are hindered from being one of the most intelligent species.” -- that’s not exactly true. They view hierarchy + intelligence as a poisonous mix, but that doesn’t stop the intelligence from being real.

    “And we believe that hierarchy is part of what makes us successful in our endeavors.” -- at the risk of being a jerk, who is the “we” here? Humanity as a whole? The United States? Capitalist societies? It’s not that you’re wrong, necessarily, but who you’re speaking for, or as part of, is rather important here.

    “Hierarchy allows people in power to delegate tasks to other subservient individuals. Otherwise, large corporations would not be able to maintain order in the ranks of the common employee.” One thing to keep in mind is that the Oankali would agree - *for humans*. They believe that hierarchy is hard-coded, and that we can’t exist without it. They also believe it will destroy us. So you need to think about what parts of the book’s critique of hierarchy you agree with. Do you disagree that it’s hard-coded? Do you disagree that it will inevitably lead to our destruction? Or do you disagree with the premise that escaping from our hierarchical tendencies would save us? The details are important here.

    At the end, you accept Lilith’s occasional suspicion that the Oankali themselves are not hierarchical uncritically. Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t make the point that you’re making - but it does mean that you need to ask some basic questions. If we could have a non-hierarchical society, would that mean that children (or the senile, mentally ill, etc.) wouldn’t be under someone else’s direction? What exactly does hierarchy mean? In a corporation, you have worker bees, then bosses, then the bosses’ bosses, all the way up ten levels or more. So is it true that because young children can’t do as they want that Oankali society is like a corporation?

    Overall: The basic problem is that your argument is unclear. You are interested in how hierarchy works in the novel, and despite my particular issues, you certainly have some things to say on that topic. But if you’re right (and you may well be) that Butler is revealing cracks in what seems to be the Oankali perfection, what do those cracks mean? How do they help us understand the novel differently - or, if the novel is ultimately concerned with our world, what do those cracks reveal about us?


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