Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
December 12, 2014
Peace through Understanding
It is an all too often occurrence in our world’s history that foreign cultures and peoples are chastised by what is deemed normal and socially excepted. Ignorance to the acceptance of difference frequently results in violence and many times, war. We have seen such ignorance and judgment targeted towards Native Americans in the early settlement of North America and towards the treatment of African Americans through the cruel means of slavery. Currently we see the media and government damning the actions of Palestinian suicide-bombers but they have failed to try and understand what made these people so desperate. Cultural gets ignored by those who think that their way is the only right and just way. Peace is only found by those who take time to understand new things; who set aside their idea of normal and right to see other reasonings. This is the outlook that is developed through the study of cultural anthropology. Ironically, in Lilith’s Brood, Lilith was an anthropologist. It is my belief that Lilith’s study of anthropology made her conducive to her peaceful approach of the Oankai which led to them favoring her. Lilith’s disposition is also shown in her children Akin and Jodahs. These characters exemplify this willingness to learn before judging often leads to peaceful understandings rather than needless conflict. I believe that if everyone possessed in them this willingness to understand, there would be far less conflict and unrest in our world.
To grasp these ideas fully you must first look at the fundamentals of cultural anthropology. As an anthropology textbook defines it, to study cultural anthropology is to “strive to look beyond the world of everyday experiences to discover the patterns and meanings that lie behind that world,” (Robbins, 2). As this text explains, we often participate in ethnocentrism or “the idea that our beliefs and behaviors are right and true, whereas those of other peoples are wrong and misguided,” (Robbins, 8). By taking an anthropological view you must abandon much of that ethnocentrism and open yourself to understanding. You cannot just look at a person’s actions, but at the cultural factors that lead to those actions.
As hard as it may be, one cannot just look at the death and destruction caused by Palestinian suicide bombers as the media and government often prompt us to. Instead you must look at what caused these people to take such drastic action against innocent lives which they view as martyrdom. The media and government fail to mention the Palestinian connection to their land. This is an almost spiritual connection that was broken by the Israeli occupation that forced Palestinians into concentrated clusters. Nasser Abufarha takes an anthropological view of this in his book The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance. He concludes that the systematic separation of Israelis and Palestinians and fuels the tension between the two and, in the minds of the Palestinians, legitimizes the destructive actions. Yet measures are not taken to aid the Palestinians because people fail to look into these other factors. The Israelis are seen as the victims and the Palestinians are treated as lesser peoples. (Abufarha; 4, 238)
Lilith displays Abufarha’s way of understanding in her actions of the Oankali. When she met her first Oankali she did not react violently as many others did. In fact, Lilith was able to be comfortable with Jdahya faster than other humans. When talking to Paul Titus about her life back on Earth, she mentions her study of anthropology. She even makes the remark, “I suppose I could think of this as fieldwork,” (Burlter, 87). Lilith eventually becomes part of an Oankali family and sets to her job to Awaken and teach other humans how to survive on the post-apocalyptic Earth and even allows of genetic alterations in her body to be made. This full integration into her subjects’ culture that only intensifies throughout the trilogy has strong parallels to that of anthropologist Kenneth Good who studied the Yanomami.
Good was participating in fieldwork in the Venezuelan Amazon by studying a tribe of Yanomami. An immersive study that was supposed to last only fifteen months, ended up becoming a life-altering experience that included his marriage to a member of the tribe. Anthropologist and other groups had classified the Yanomami as the “fierce people.” Their culture included a normalcy of rape and premarital sex along with the betrothal of young children. Despite this, Good did not create preconceived ideas of these people or judge them; nor did he try to change their ways. Instead, he worked to understand them.
Deep down, all I really did want was to find some way to make a living and to get back into the jungle. Not only to study the Indian – I already had enough data for three books – but to live with them. More especially, to live with Yarima. That was what I had come to, after all these years of struggling to fit into the Yanomami world, to speak their language fluently, to grasp their way of life from the inside. My original purpose – to observe and analyze this people as an anthropological researcher – had slowly merged with something far more personal. (Good, 103-104)
As Lilith ended up mothering children conceived by the Oankali, Good ended up fathering two children with his Yanomami wife, Yarima. It is in this way that Lilith echoes the fictional side of very really possibilities.
The adverse of these two scenarios are prevalent is our history. In colonial times, Native Americans were driven out of their sacred lands and often murdered. They were seen as uncivilized savages due to the Europeans’ ethnocentrism. People did not try to understand their way of life. Instead they reaped genocide or attempted to force their Christian beliefs on them. This dispute over land and ideology caused bloody conflicts that almost always ended in tragedy for the Native populace. Had the settlers been more open to these people and less greed-driven, I believe that our history would have much less bloodshed.
Lilith is exceptionally different in her beliefs. This becomes prominently noted as she begins to Awaken the other humans in the first book of the trilogy. She is attacked several times and she is made to look like a traitor to the humans because of her cooperation with the Oankali. Despite her best efforts to persuade the other humans that she was acting in their best interest, she develops the reputation equivalent to that of Satan. Fear and ignorance overpower the other humans, Lilith’s partner is murdered and the project fails.
Lilith is not the only character to embody this anthropological understanding. Her part-Oankali son, Akin, also demonstrates great eagerness to understand those that are different. For him is humans who chose not to live the safer Oankali-based lifestyle. These “resisters” fascinate him despite their potential danger. While it is in Akin’s genes to be naturally curious of new and different things so that he may learn and share his findings with the Oankali at large, he possesses a genuine concern for these people. Since Lilith was taught that human nature is conducive to conflict, she gives Akin heartfelt advice; “When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference,” (Butler, 329). Akin connects with the humans and feels sympathy towards them. He understands that their only desire (to have children) cannot be granted to them because of the Oankali’s belief of a flawed human genome. As we become more familiar with Akin we see how his qualities shared with his mother are almost beyond the abilities of the superior Oankali. While they see mostly practicality, he sees the emotional and psychological consequence that plagues the resisters. By having longer lives, infertility, and almost no meaningful purpose; the resisters often resort to extremes such as kidnapping, violence, and suicide.
The Oankali are not unreasonable beings. Earth was destroyed and they saved what they could and worked with the human species to assist the Oankali’s survival. No human should have survived but, when they were ungrateful for their situation which allowed them life, the humans were given an alternative option to live on Earth free of the Oankali. Infertility was no a punishment but, instead a means to prevent a reoccurrence of the disaster that almost killed all of mankind. The Oankalis’ perception of humans is not a biased judgment. It is a perception based on genetic evidence supported by the history and destruction of Earth; facts.
On page 426 of Lilith’s Brood, Dichaan tells Nikanj that Akin’s infatuation with humans will lead him to try and save what’s left of them from their dying out. What they don’t know is how he would be able to do such a thing. Once he matures, they believe, he won’t be as interested in the humans and will focus more on the other sexes. But, upon his maturity, he finds his life purpose in working with the resisters to give them an alternate to living infertility on Earth or mating with the Oankali. Although Akin’s genetic makeup should make him see the logic and practicality within the Oankali’s decisions/views, he lived among the resisters and understood their grievances. This is the same anthropological approach that Lilith and Kenneth Good used in their situations.
The Oankali can be viewed as beings of peace and understanding. The see the genetic makeup of humans as conducive to violence. However, humans living in Phoenix reject the idea of trading or using firearms because of their inevitable cause of bodily harm when conflict breaks out among the people. Guns are only brought into Phoenix when they are required to defend themselves against other villages. It is Akin’s openness to this different culture that leads to the ultimate understanding of the people and the development of the Mars colonial. He showed the rest of the Oankali, even though he was not yet mature, the resisters’ side and was able to give the resisters another option to their existence.
Rape is a prominent topic to both the resisters of the Oankali and the Yanomami tribes. It is in the reactions of the act that is significant. With the resisters so eager to reproduce, women are often kidnaped, raped, and traded among other resister villages. When the Oankali are witnesses to these acts they intervene to protect the women. When Kenneth Good witnessed the very common act among the Yanomami, he did not intervene but deeply regretted it afterwards. Before leaving once, Good threatened the tribe to not touch Yarima.
Until Good provided the anthropological world with his story, the Yanomami were viewed as the “fierce people” for their brutal actions. Although Good’s approaches of intervention are not always supported for anthropological research, it is also a part of anthropology to know what can and cannot be accepted. If the brutal acts of different cultures were always acceptable as a cultural ideal then Hitler and the Nazi party’s actions would have been excusable. Being a detached observer, as anthropology usually suggests for research, is not always ideal to the culture. The Oankali protect the humans from destructive acts just as Good became more intervening with the Yanomami.
Parallels in the fictional world of the Oankali and the real world of the Yanomami are always prevalent and lead to the validity of Butler’s work. Butler’s work can be viewed as a means to promote peace and understanding to her readers by the showing them the destructive effects of our current actions and aggression towards each other. If we do not approach each other with the same willingness to learn and protect one another as Good and the Oankali do, we can only imagine what outcome we may face. The connection between the fictional and nonfictional works provide us with the validity of Butler’s ideas behind her warning.
Lilith had another child who exemplified her approach of peace. Jodahs is not very similar to its brother, Akin, at first. Early in “Imago,” Jodahs views the Mars colony as a cruel set up for another human disaster. He sees giving the option of Mars as almost a false hope for humans to continue their lives with fertility. Jodahs even tries to convince a human woman to join with the Oankali instead of going to Mars on pages 530 and 531. He tells the women and her partner that, because humans are hierarchical and intelligent, their new world would be destroyed as before because of their urge to dominant it.
As Jodahs begins to mature and is conflicted with his potential gender, it begins to escape into the forest to be alone. When it meets and heals Jesusa and Tomás, Jodahs becomes infatuated with the fertile humans and is appalled by their physical afflictions. As it becomes closer and closer to the humans it sees how desperate they are to keep their species alive. They don’t want to be bred into a species of alien hybrids; they would much rather suffer from the genetic corruption caused by inbreeding. It begins to see why the Mars colony was created and begins to advocate the option without pushing a preference. While the Oankali side of Jodahs tells it that mating with the aliens is their best logical decision, the human side shows it the importance of carrying on the human species is.
Jodahs also shows us how it does not discriminate. It heals his guards while it is in captivity and ends up curing a large amount of the resisters who are disgusted by its kind. By its peaceful approach of the people and its eagerness to help them, they begin to have a more peaceful and calm demeanor towards it. Jodahs tells the people, “My people are coming here, nut they won’t kill. They didn’t kill your elders. They plucked them out of the ashes of their war, healed them, mated with those who were willing, and let the others go. If my people were killers, you wouldn’t be here,” (Butler, 730). This is yet another lesson told by Butler of the positive outcomes that come with calm and reasoned approaches of others even when they are different in beliefs and physical appearance.
It is said that the scent of the Oankali can make one relaxed and less inclined to violence as they are. I believe that this is merely a symbol for their calm and logical approaches being adopted by those they interact with. This is the extraterrestrial version of the Golden Rule. If you treat others the way you want to be treated, they will treat you as you want to be treated. Jesusa did not like the Oankali but she eventually risks her life to save Aaor. By the end of “Imago” the resisters are cooperating with the Oankali and willing to stop their inbreeding to partake in one of the alternative options presented by the Oankali. Had a more aggressive approach been taken, they would probably have been causalities on both sides.
One may say that Lilith was too inexperienced of an anthropologist for her actions to have anything to do with her studies. This may be true to an extent. Perhaps her actions have nothing to do with anthropology. This however, has no effect of the overall message. Even if Lilith is inexperienced in the field, she still had knowledge of her subject ad was able to put it into practice with the Oankali. If Lilith and her children are naturally open to learn from others than we should be as well.
One may also say that all these links and symbols are probably just coincidence and that I’m reading too much between the lines. How could aliens mating with humans after an apocalypse serve as any kind of warning to the readers? I do not think that Octavia Butler would write a trilogy with no message behind it especially considering her background in writing about social issues such as race and power as mentioned at the end of “Imago.” There must be some type of lesson that is to be learned from this reading. What would it be if it isn’t the promotion of peace and understanding? These lessons can be put into effect throughout the world and in our personal interactions. Between understanding the conflict in Israel and Palestine and approach others with the intention of resolving issues instead of fueling conflict, we can use Lilith’s Brood as our guide.
The world is made up of so many different cultures that it is inevitable to have disagreements between them. But we must not be so conceited to believe that our ways are the only right ways. We have to be sensitive to one another and not so inclined to change people, who are not harming anyone, to practice our ways. Butler shows us, just as Good did, to know when to intervene and when to understand difference.
While the Oankali may be right in believing that humans are a flawed species, they are also right in believing that we are intelligent. We are intelligent enough to know when we are wrong. Hindsight may be 20/20 but if we just sit down to think about our actions towards one another we may see the potential mistakes before we make them. Kenneth Good shows us how to adapt to different ways and be open to new ideas without always voicing your opposing opinions. Lessons are more likely to be learned when your mouth is closed and ears are open. Perhaps if Butler’s predicted outcome for Earth were to happen to our aggression and misunderstandings, we won’t be as fortunate as Lilith to have aliens save us.
Abufarha, Nasser. The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian
Resistance. Duke University Press: 2009. Print.
Butler, Octavia. Lilith’s Brood. New York; Warner Books, 2000. Print
Good, Kenneth. Into the Heart. New York: Longman Publishers, 1996. Print.
Robbins, Richards H. Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach. Wadsworth, 2006.