The Importance of Intent

While working on our final class project A Brief Guide to the Many Traps of Octavia Butler’s Fiction, we talked about the traps of consent in Butler’s work. As stated in the final project, one trap that Butler sets for her readers is setting up clearly nonconsensual situations with no clear perpetrator.

One of these examples comes from the first novel we read, Clays Ark. When Blake, Keira, and Rane are kidnapped by Eli and his family, they are brought back to the enclave clearly against their will. We later learn that Eli, Meda, and the rest of the group are acting under the control of an alien microorganism. This microorganism instills in their hosts certain compulsions that serve to further the spread of the disease. These compulsions are often violent and cause them to violate the autonomy of others. As hosts, however, they are physically incapable of resisting these compulsions.

Does this shift the blame for the violence onto the microorganism?

This question made me think about something Sabrina said at the beginning of the semester. She pointed out that humans only became infected with the microorganism because they sent a colonizing mission into outerspace. They landed on an occupied planet, committing an act of violence against the microorganism.

Does that mean the blame falls on whatever humans decided to send the spacecraft?

Well, yes. But also, no. But also, yes?

Those individuals have the most culpability. They were the last people to have any agency over their choice, every action after that was merely a response to that first decision. But they didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know about the existence of the microorganism. They didn’t know that the planet was inhabited. They could not have foreseen the consequences of their actions. Without that ability to predict what would happen there is no intent and without intent, there is no kidnapping.

Does that absolve them of their responsibility?


Intent matters. If your best friend tells you your butt looks great in those jeans it means something entirely different than some random guy on the sidewalk shouting that same thing. But it also doesn’t. Words and actions can hurt regardless of whether or not they were intended to. We should be aware of intent but not forget that is that response that matters.

Besides, there is always wrongful imprisonment.

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