Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
14 November 2014
What do the manager at McDonald’s, the line leader of a kindergarten class, and your mayor all have in common? Simply put, they’re all ranked in some way in accordance with the hierarchical structure that characterizes the world as we know it. Each have people above them, below them, controlling them, affecting them—they’re part of the grandiose classified scheme of our society. And where would we be without it? What if we completely did away with rankings, categorizations, and classifications of any sort, would we really be better off? Author Octavia Butler offers an insight into what a world might be like without this system, an insight into a society that identifies our hierarchical nature as precisely the downfall of society. However, while simultaneously taking this example into consideration, we are now faced with the question of whether or not hierarchy is the downfall of our society, or if society would even be ours without it.
In order to begin examining this question, it is essential to examine a few key places we see it on a larger scale, and what the Oankali do to offset the need for it. Take the example of governmental structure. No two countries run their governments exactly alike, for if they did they would hardly be considered unique entities. Regardless of whether a nation chooses dictatorship or democracy, government is inarguably the largest-scale paradigm of hierarchy in our world, and for this reason is at the root of global-scale conflict. In this way, it innately creates a power struggle and competition within and between countries. Of this issue, Paul H. Rubin Professor of Economics and Law at Emory University says, “Everyone in a society must be subject to the government hierarchy,” and therefore government creates a sort of umbrella over all the people populating a land (Rubin 269). With this principle comes resistance among those whom are part of a particular nation, take for example the American Civil War; this was a governmental conflict within a single country having to do with flaws in hierarchical structure that allowed for up rise. The American people were at an acute disagreement on the principle of slavery and how the government should regulate it, which was fundamentally a matter of personal principle and morals, as well as economic factors. Since all people in the nation are governed as a singular hierarchy, this discord ultimately resulted in war.
Since the 1800s surely America has come a long way to avoid internal conflicts like these, and in doing so we have put forward a seemingly strong yet ultimately ineffective system-- otherwise known as checks and balances with the reasoning that one branch of government should never have complete dominance over the other. We try to check and balance on a global scale as well, while some countries have more valuable resources or money than others, it is essentially our varying inequalities that equalize our world. Although this concept sounds paradoxical at first, suppose a country (country A) has abundant resources and bad soil, and another country (country B) has minimal resources and quality soil ideal for growing crops that are not indigenous to country A. Then, these two countries have a sort of check and balance system that should be preventing one from becoming dominant over the other. However, in actuality the politics between countries are hardly ever as simple as merely this trade aspect, and the delicate balance is ultimately unachievable. The current problem we face is that many nations are either wealthy or poor, with no substantial in between to balance out power. The same goes for economic systems in America, with the root cause of all of this being hierarchy.
Now that we have briefly examined the prevalence of hierarchy within the human race through a sort of modern day lens, it is now essential to take a look at how the Oankali avoid this. Hierarchy is the characteristic that they find to be most problematic in our society, with these feelings are best summed up be Jdhaya stating of his people that, “We’re not hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life—seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it,” (Butler 41). To sum up what the Oankali believe is to say that instead of being power acquisitive as we seem to be (due to our hierarchical nature), they are knowledge acquisitive. As a society, they do not seek to obtain power individually, but rather they wish to move forward as one body in the acquisition of new life, and with this new life, knowledge. We see this through the Oankali treatment of humans. Their primary focus is to understand them, and through this understanding they gain power as one body, not separate divisions. Jdhaya even goes so far as to give Lilith an insight into the future when the Oankali and humans will essential morph together and explain that, “Your hierarchical tendencies will be modified and if we learn to regenerate limbs and reshape our bodies we’ll share those abilities with you That’s part of the trade. We’re overdue for it.” (Butler 42). Although these intentions may not be as innocent as the Oankali would like them to appear, they are character of their idea of knowledge as a form of currency, and an item valuable enough for trade.
The Oankali also exhibit a gender system that truly adheres to the principles behind checks and balances. The males, females, and ooli, all play different roles in reproduction and general Oankali duties, roles that prevent one from necessarily being considered more powerful than the other—perhaps what a check and balance is supposed to be like. This starkly contrasts with the gender roles we see in society today, which are a hierarchy in and of itself. Although there is surely more awareness of inequality, and a push for women and men to be viewed and treated as equals, the stereotypes we experience today have been paved by centuries of history. From this, we can take a look at two different hierarchies that Rubin lays out for us. The first being “dominance hierarchies” (sometimes referred to as “consumption” or “allocation hierarchies”), these being systems that are, “evolutionarily old and predate humanness,” (Rubin 260). Thus, these hierarchies are homologous to those seen in the wild. The second type of hierarchy Rubin mentions is a “production hierarchy”, which encompasses many productive human activities, such as the running of a business (Rubin 260). In an allocation hierarchical sense, gender inequality has existed for centuries, as seen through the differing gender roles in the animal kingdom. In a production hierarchical sense, these inequalities occur as a symptom of their historical roots in allocation hierarchies. The Oankali avoid a hierarchy in this sense due to the fact that they do not posses hierarchical roots, and therefore have no need for production hierarchy due to their priority of knowledge and lack of evolutionary hierarchical roots. These innate differences in how the Oankali treat and avoid possible opportunities for inequality are at the foreground of what characterizes the two societies.
Now that we’ve examined some ways in which the Oankali and humans deal with hierarchy, or lack there of, we can begin to examine whether or not hierarchy is the downfall of our society as the Oankali believe it to be. On one hand, it is the cause of humanity’s self-destruction in the fictional novel. However, in reality we have yet to come too close to this extreme. Although many contend that is we continue down such a maliciously hierarchical path, humanity is sure to be doomed, I believe that we will never evolve out of our biologically innate “dominance hierarchical” roots. They are the common denominator amongst the animal kingdom, and characterize the living world. Would them could we even call it our world? What would humans live for?
Most of us live to work towards a certain goal. Whether said goal is to fulfill a passion and become known for it, or work our way up in a production hierarchy, achievements are what motivate us to be at our best. Undoubtedly for some, this means also being their worst, and cheating in order to get to the top quickly. It is perhaps the corruption that lies within and comes from these people that the fatal flaws of our society show themselves. These undesirable characteristics are where the Oankali find fault in our world, yet at the same time they lack something that all humans are born with—a drive to succeed, passion, and individuality. No person is born with aspirations to fail, and this is why our concept of hierarchy is a necessary for success. Compared to the Oankali characters that we have met, no single Oankali male, female, or ooli seems to be particularly passionate about anything. They have no individualistic passion because they are always focused on their role in the whole of their society.
To sum up these ideas, I want to highlight a trade off which I believe to be unavoidable in the face of whether or not hierarchy is truly our downfall. This trade off being that hierarchy ultimately comes with passion and individuality, and a lack of hierarchy comes with a lack of the former. Personally, I believe that because of this trade off, hierarchy cannot be our greatest down fall, but rather what makes us human because a world without passion and individuality is a world without humanity.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.
Rubin, Paul H. "Hierarchy." Human Nature : An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 11.3 (2000): 259-79. ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.