Sophie A. Montecalvo
December 17, 2020
Professor Beth McCoy
ENG 431: Octavia Butler & Social Ties
“If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”
- Dalai Lama XVI
“Treat others how you would like to be treated,” the Golden Rule, is well-known and applied by many. The concept is simple – be kind and try to treat others with respect. Be caring towards them. Do not cause harm. However, this can be harder than it initially sounds. One can unintentionally cause harm to someone by performing a good deed gone wrong – is this, then, harm or care? Does it matter what the intention was, or only the action? Or what if a person claims that they do not want something that they secretly do – would forcing it on them be harm or care? How can this be decided?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verbs harm as “to damage or injure” and care as “to feel trouble or anxiety” or “to feel interest or concern.” Despite the words themselves being perceived as opposites, their technical definitions are not as distanced as one might initially think. One could very well harm someone with the intent of care – of interest and concern – and end up injuring them, such as baking them cookies without knowing that they have a nut allergy. Is this where the line is crossed? Or what if someone knows that this person wants to travel to France and takes them on a sudden, surprise trip? Would this be harm, as it is essentially kidnapping said person and not giving them a chance to say yes or no, or would it be care, as the person has technically had their wish granted?
Consent should be an easy, open-and-shut issue. If someone verbalizes their wants or desires to another, but that other person abuses them and does not listen to what they have to say, then that is wrong. If someone explicitly says “I don’t want this” and then experiences having it forced upon them, that is wrong as well. Even if someone says “I don’t want this” but actually does, the other person should regard their words as their wants, not their actions or private thoughts. When the Oankali come into the issue, however, this topic grows complicated, messy thorns.
“I went after Francisco, caught him, took him by the arms… He stood still for a moment, then abruptly tried to wrench free. I held him because his body language told me that he wanted to be held more than he wanted to be let go… After his first effort, he would not shame himself by continuing to struggle against me. I let him go when he truly wanted it.”
- Imago, Octavia Butler
In this scene, the ooloi Oankali Jodhas is interacting with the human Francisco. Francisco, fearful of the idea of having Oankali mates, tries to fight against Jodhas’s embrace. However, Jodhas, being Oankali, “knows” that Francisco’s resistance is not what he “truly” wants, and so it does not stop. Technically, this is care – Jodhas is giving Francisco what it is he actually wants – but it is done in a way that could be seen as controlling or possessive. It is only because Jodhas genuinely does know that Francisco wants its touch that this is not strange – if a person forced a hug onto someone else who fought against it but didn’t stop because they “knew” they wanted it, that would be perceived as a violation of boundaries despite the other person’s personal wants. This is why boundaries are usually discussed in a normal relationship – if one person appreciates being held when they are upset but the other does not, then they know how to treat one another without crossing any lines. The latent “knowing” that the Oankali have greatly complicates this issue. Take this controversial scene from Dawn, in which Nikanj forcefully shows Joseph that he should accept it:
“[Joseph] pulled his arm free. ‘You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!’
‘You have, yes.’ [Nikanj] opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. ‘You see. Your body has made a different choice.’
He struggled violently for several seconds, then stopped…[Joseph:] ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Nothing. Close your eyes.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘You’re not afraid of me. Close your eyes.’
After a long while, he closed his eyes and the two of them lay together. Joseph held his body rigid at first, but slowly, as nothing happened, he began to relax. Sometime later his breathing evened and he seemed to be asleep.”
- Dawn, Octavia Butler
I have included almost this entire scene to best show the lengths that Nikanj goes to, what Lilith describes as, “seducing” Joseph. While Nikanj only lying with Joseph is not sexual in and of itself, Nikanj’s intense persistence and force are disturbing to read about – it reads like a rape scene in many ways. Despite Nikanj’s undercurrent knowledge that Joseph is not afraid of it and did enjoy lying with Nikanj and Lilith previously, this does not make it acceptable for Nikanj to behave in this way. In SUNY Geneseo’s policy on affirmative consent, this is one of its facets: “Affirmative consent to any sexual act or prior consensual sexual activity between or with any party does not necessarily constitute consent to any other sexual act.” Another tenet of the issue of consent follows these lines: previously given consent does not give the right to repeated sexual activity. A person who wants sex one night but not another is perfectly within their rights to do so. This can be applied to Joseph, who did secretly like lying with Lilith and Nikanj the first time – despite his being not fully present for it. Joseph was asleep when this happened: and, once more, this violates SUNY Geneseo’s policy, saying that “affirmative consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated,” defining one of the ways a person can be incapacitated as being asleep. However, even assuming Joseph willingly joined Lilith and Nikanj that first time, that does not mean that Nikanj can force itself on Joseph whenever it wants.
Circling back to the concept of harm and care, it can be asked where Nikanj’s actions towards Joseph fall. The obvious, knee-jerk answer is that Nikanj is harmful – it openly disregarded Joseph’s boundaries, words, and actions. Forcing someone to accept an idea or concept can rarely be effective. However, it is through Lilith and Joseph’s relationship that Nikanj gives protection to Joseph, as well as the ability to heal himself if he is injured. This is care, certainly – but in the end, it is this protection that kills Joseph. When the rebelling humans see his unnatural healing, they murder him for good. As was previously stated – if the intent is care but the outcome is harm, which holds true?
Having written this essay, I should now give a concrete answer to the questions I have posed. I should say with complete surety that it is only the intent that matters, or that only the outcome does, or that such a process should be taken into a case-by-case basis. The last is probably the closest to true – even intent itself can be mixed, further complicating the issue. However, I am unable to give one true answer. Harmful behavior can ultimately produce care, or vice versa. It has not been easy for me to distinguish the two, not in the Oankali for one, but there are other areas in which this applies.
The quote from the beginning of this paper is confusing when brought into this context: “do nor harm” others sounds reasonable, but it is a clouded issue. The first part of this, then, can still hold true: “help others.” Doing so, while it may not always guarantee care, is one of the best ways that I have learned from this class to work towards doing so in the world.
One Reply to “The Intent of Care or Harm”
Hi Sophie! I have really enjoyed getting to know you through this virtual forum each week, both in the discussion posts and the Zooms.
I admire your brave questioning in this essay, and especially, how you end your essay with not giving a hard and fast answer, but instead honestly saying, “However, I am unable to give one true answer. ”
I think before taking this class, I thought a lot of things were much more clear cut than I think they are now. I would have said that consent is necessary in every action, in every circumstance. I appreciate your willingness to discuss and dissect such a complicated scene. When I read the scene with Nikanj convincing Joseph for the first time, I was extremely uneasy. Even reading it again now, I had to pause for a moment before moving to write this response. This encounter between Joesph and Nikanj could be read as harm or care in so many different ways. Both sides could be argued that they are right and be correct. But, I think, as you mention throughout your essay, that it’s possible for an act to be of both harm and care. It’s important to realize that once we make a choice, we are starting a chain reaction and we don’t know where that one singular choice will lead us. I didn’t know where I would be led when I chose to come to SUNY Geneseo. I didn’t know where I would be led when I enrolled in ENGL 431. I didn’t necessarily consent to all of in the steps in between, but here I am all the same. Have I been harmed in this chain reaction? Have I experienced acts of immense care? The answer is yes to both.
This attitude of being open to multiple understandings, the necessity of believing the both/and concept, is so important. Without it, we would get stuck in our interpretations, trying to find the “one right answer” because how could something possible cause both harm AND care? Before this semester, I would have said it has to be one or the other. But, after reading Lilith’s Brood and your essay, I am realizing that there can be both. And this is okay.
I loved how you ended with the concluding thought of “help others”. Even though we may have the best intentions, there is still a risk of causing harm, even if we don’t mean to. But this is a risk we have to take. This is a risk the Oankali took to save Humankind, which started a chain reaction that fueled the entire book. I think the important thing, whether to worry about whether we are causing only harm or only care, is to keep true intentions at our heart, and continue to self-examine and correct.