The Amish and Community (an earlier post revised)

I don’t know how I feel about the Amish. I don’t know if it’s fair to bring someone into that lifestyle without their consent. This might sound like a familiar dilemma to my classmates.

First, allow me to clarify that when I say “that lifestyle,” I do not  wish to insinuate I have anything close to first hand experience the way an actual Amish person or even one of their neighbors would have. I grew up among the comforts of suburbia and therefore my first-hand experience is limited to public markets and driving past buggies on back roads. My exposure and understanding of the Amish is product of my own community, which plays upon my reading of things independent of the thing which I’m trying to reach a judgement on. All said, I’m going to use this source mainly as my basis for talking about the Amish in this post.

Amish children are raised in a certain lifestyle all their life, one that is intentionally separated from the practices of the world at large. Sometime recently either in my notes or perhaps in class I spoke about the way cultures creates a homogenized opinion of something, and the larger the culture the greater potential for this general opinion to be established. (There’s probably a word for this, so Sociology students are invited to get at me. I think what I’m talking about is Freud’s superego but that kind of sounds wrong to me too…)

Because of how they’re raised, Amish are given little reason to think life could be any different, or more importantly, any better. Are we assuming that everyone deserves to pursue their most ideal life? Is Amish kids’ ignorance to a “better” life something that needs to be remedied? How do we arrive at the belief that life is better with the modern conveniences most of us don’t share with The Amish? Do these beliefs hold water? At best, I think it is possible to equate access to modern healthcare and information with higher quality of life. But according to recent statistics, The Amish are generally healthier than the rest of the population anyways.

Because humans are naturally curious, Amish youths are allowed a brief window where behavior reflecting the outside world is hesitantly accepted as inevitable. But, by the age of 16 they are expected to be baptized into a life which they cannot alter from lest earn the shunning by their community or excommunication by their church. These two outcomes would commonly be perceived as bad and ideally avoided.

This blog post is my attempt to use what Butler has written about community to understand my complicated feelings toward the Amish (of which there are some 18,000 living among us in New York State — In a large-framed view this is included in our community of New Yorkers).

Amish and Quaker communities even adopted Native American people into their families to protect them from abuse by other whites after the removal acts. In a way this sounds like The Oankali in Lilith’s Brood. In this case The Amish sounds like saviors instead of captors, compared to the rest of the white Europeans who did awful things to Native Americans. In Lilith’s Brood the Oankali necessarily stand out because they are not human. The Amish that adopted these Native Americans supposedly did this with the Native American’s consent because it was in their best interest. Or some of their best interests. Because still, it is a loss of the Native American’s community, land and identity. That’s the thing that makes this scenario morally tricky, which has nothing to do really with The Amish lifestyle.

Here I see a similarity between the ideas of interference brought up in class. Although interference may be required to prevent outright destruction, it is an intervention of an act set forth intentionally. But intervention must be different between cases where one community’s act upon another verses when one community acts in response to another. What would the Native American people be able to keep through joining the Amish that they would lose otherwise? If the Native Americans lost their culture, language and land regardless if they joined the Amish or not, then did The Amish act mercifully or advantageously?

In Clay’s Arc and Bloodchild, the struggle facing the communities in the books is that no new members would willingly join if they knew beforehand what their lives would entail. For The Amish, only 75 people since 1950 have converting into Amish lifestyle. There are some who try the lifestyle for a period of before leaving. There are even communities that mimic the simple lifestyle without ever fully entering the specific Amish faith community. There are also those former Amish who are shunned for their behavior which too strongly differs from The Amish guidelines. What happens to them? How does that compare to what happens to them within the system?

This entire course has been leading the class in the direction of this realization, regardless if you as an individual buy the idea wholesale: That there is in fact very little consent, choice or autonomy in our world. Perhaps the very reason we see consent as so sacred is because it reflects human idealism, it represents the best of human intentions.

The things that we have that allow us to know ourselves: our family, our community, our language, our country — these things that are closest to us which externally help us create our understandings of ourselves… even these things are given to us before our consent. If these are the things that humanity wants to hold onto against the perceived threats of erasure that an alien invasion poses, it’s curious to see humanity try & choose one non-consented set of realities over another. It’s just the same when two countries go to war on our planet. Although nobody chose to be member of one nation, they’ll die and kill in order in defense of what they had never chosen to be versus conceding any consent to another nation’s will. Isn’t it all devoid of choice? Whether we’re stuck with ourselves or with aliens, the conclusion might be that we have less autonomy than we are comfortable admitting.

This is one of the most significant things that Butler’s fiction reveals: When nothing has ever been truly consensual, people will still choose US over THEM. In Lilith’s Brood, although Humanity destroyed the planet in a nuclear holocaust, even though the Oankali offer redemption, most humans meet the Oankali with revulsion. Some humans kill and die in defiance of that offered redemption. Maybe that’s a kernel of what brings and binds together. There is ownership that is significant even if its ownership not asked for or consented to, such as national identity. In the end, the majority of Amish children remain in the Amish lifestyle after their brief curious forays into the larger world because of this ultimatum, because of the implicit threat of expulsion by their community if they stray too far.  The only choice is to stay within the community, to pick the US over the THEM. At this point, it doesn’t matter if part of that choice is accepting the limitations of the lifestyle. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a choice at all.

In revealing how little about our worlds and our lives is actually consensual, actually chosen by any of us, Butler almost suggests that consent itself is a Science-Fiction idea: It doesn’t exist in this universe, so she imagines how extraterrestrials can show us what it means.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.