The Omnipresence of Contradiction

I’d say that the main way that my own thinkING habits have evolved over the course of this semester is to recognize how wildly different people’s interpretations of the same events and/or texts can be. One of my favorite parts of this class was reading the insights of my fellow classmates and marveling at how many connections they made and points they brought up that I would never have been able to see or come up with. I think that understanding is going to help me take more care in my work and how it plays with the ideas of others. 

One thing I found absolutely striking in Butler’s work was the abundance of contradictions in every aspect of them. Butler tells us right from the beginning in Dawn that humans are composed entirely of a genetic contradiction between intelligence and hierarchy, but contradiction has been everywhere in this class, and more often than not, the lesson is that the contradicting forces are as interwoven as they are conflicting. We’ve discussed already how harm and care are far more intermingled than we typically think, (and I’ll go more in-depth about that in a later move in this essay), despite their contradictory nature, and the same can easily be said about the Oankali’s knowledge of humans and surprising lack of understanding of human thought processes. In addition, I would argue that another theme that continuously shows up throughout the trilogy, and leads to quite a bit of contradiction in it of itself, is free will.  

I would argue that one of the things that Butler teaches us about what brings people together is a shared desire for a legacy. All the communities we see in Butler’s work are built of individuals with a shared view of the future. Whether that be the Oankali, who view the future as an opportunity for their species to go through another exciting trade, or resister colonies like Phoenix that are desperate for a way to get to a future where they can have entirely human children and allow the human race to survive. It’s clear from both the human and Oankali perspective that the continued and long-lasting existence of their race is one of the most important things in their communities.

This becomes even more evident when you consider that typically, the biggest conflicts that we see in Lilith’s Brood are also typically caused by someone’s idea of the future, especially how their legacy will fit into that future, is threatened. For example, almost all the horrible acts committed by resister humans are reactions to Oankali making them infertile and taking away their chance to have fully human children. From the stealing of the most human appearing construct children in the hopes that raising them among humans and breeding them with each other will result in the closest possible thing to another fully human generation, to the increasingly common raiding of other resister towns to secure the future of their own. In fact, the whole reason that the later decision to allow humans to have an akjai colony on mars is a divisive one is that the Oankali as a whole believe that this can only lead to a future where humans exterminate themselves. While this is morally abhorrent to the Oankali on its own, it also directly contradicts the Oankali’s view of their own legacy of leaving other races better off than before they traded with them. We find that this contradiction of Oankali respect for human autonomy versus the Oankali’s inherent value of life above all else is a central focus throughout all the Oankali’s interactions with humanity. 

When comparing the legacy of the Oankali to the legacy of Humanity, it may seem easy to say that the Oankali legacy is about embracing difference, while the Human legacy involves rejecting it. In my opinion, however, this is a gross oversimplification. Most of the time, the Oankali embrace difference only when it’s convenient. Oankali, especially Ooloi, rarely embrace differences of opinion or desire. We see this various times throughout the trilogy, from the scene in Dawn when Nikanj responds to Joseph saying he’s decided he doesn’t want to mate with it by saying “Your body has made a different choice.”(Butler page 189) to Adulthood Rites when Nikanj admits that it made Lillith pregnant “Against one part of her will”, and even Lillith admits she doesn’t know if she actually wanted it, or if Nikanj just made up a justification that sounded like it could be true after the fact in order to manipulate her into going along with it (Butler page 300 & 301). On a broader scale, we also know that they don’t accept difference of opinion from humanity as a whole, because despite the very clear consensus among a large portion of humanity that they would like to be unsterilized and repopulate human society on their own, it isn’t until a being that is part Oankali urges them to accept this request that they actually listen. 

Meanwhile, while many of the humans in Lillith’s Brood do tend to negatively respond to difference when first confronted with it, we see several humans go on to embrace difference, or at least disregard it. Akin bonds with several humans during his time away from Lo, and while it is made abundantly clear that this is initially made possible by his human appearance, there are plenty of humans he meets along the way that accept him even after they know how different he is from them. Even after he goes through metamorphosis and looks fully Oankali, his bonds with Gabe, Tate, and several others from Phoenix remain. Of course, there are also plenty that react with fear or outright violence, but the fact that this is not the reaction of all or even most of the humans Akin comes across serves as evidence that humans can embrace difference just as much as Oankali. 

I’d argue that the real contrast between Human legacy and Oankali legacy is not whether or not to embrace difference, but how much value is put in individual freedom. This is perhaps most easily demonstrated with the reaction the resisters have to the news of the Mars colony. While the humans are initially full of shock and disappointment at the prospect of having to abandon the planet that Humanity has called home for its entire history, by the time Akin is able to perceive things after metamorphosis, a fair number of humans have dismissed those feelings almost entirely in favor of the overwhelming relief and excitement they feel at the chance to be able to be truly free and autonomous again. Contrast this with the Oankali model, where freedom is rarely a topic of conversation, and most Oankali seem content with whatever role their society expects them to play, and it seems fairly clear that they don’t place nearly as heavy an emphasis on free will as humanity does. 

With this in mind, we arrive at another contradiction. What brings and binds people together appears to be the desire for a legacy, but the main legacy that people seem to value above all else is free will, which allows groups of people to divide and split apart from each other just as easily as they are brought and bound together.

Despite being a fundamental part of what it means to be Human, free will is also inherently dangerous, and it’s important to analyze why we might want to commit a certain act or make a certain choice before we make it. In Lillith’s Brood, Butler takes one of the most common human motivators, care, and explores how it can cause people to do themselves and each other harm. Butler’s trilogy shows us countless times that harm and care are not mutually exclusive. The Oankali seem to truly care about the health and wellbeing of humanity, but through this care, combined with their fumbling to understand human thought-processes, they cause a great amount of harm and death to come to quite a number of humans. We see this in the very beginning of Dawn, in the harm they accidentally inflict on their human subjects by isolating them, right up to the very end, in Joseph’s death and the other disastrous consequences of their refusal to heed Lilith’s warnings about how humans would react to the Oankali’s methods. Additionally, due to how much the Oankali care about humanity, they are incredibly reluctant to allow humans to go back to having an autonomous society completely free of Oankali influence, despite their continuous pleading, because they believe that doing so would be to allow humans to eventually inflict upon themselves the ultimate harm; extinction. We see this plain as day in Akin’s interactions with the Akjai Ooloi on Chkahichdahk (who, as far as I can tell from my searching through Adulthood Rites, never makes his name known to Akin or, by extension, the reader), when it says to Akin: “You and those you help will give them[humans] the tools to create a civilization that will destroy itself as certainly as the pull of gravity will keep their new world in orbit around its sun”(Butler page 475). However, it is also through this care that Oankali create Akin, as close to a truly half-Human-half-Oankali being as they possibly can, to help them decide to give in to the will of the humans and allow them to have an akjai colony, because even if they don’t entirely understand it, they seem to recognize on some level that denying the freedom of an entire species is, in the eyes of humanity, far crueler than extinction. 

I think this also nicely ties in with our key course concept of consent. Several times throughout Lillith’s Brood, we as readers witness decisions made and actions taken due to how much one character or group cares for another, but in almost every circumstance where those decisions and actions are made without the consent of all involved parties, there are disastrous consequences. We see this in Dawn both in Lillith’s isolation and the psychological trauma she endures as a result, and in the catastrophic results of the Oankali refusing to show the humans Lillith wakes up that they are on a ship. This continues over into Adulthood Rites, as the Oankali decision to sterilize the human populace without their consent and only reverse the process for those who would mate with them results in the disastrous consequences of countless resister humans dying avoidable deaths due to either the brutality of resister society, their desperate desire for children, or their own distrust for the Oankali. It also has the far more subtle but equally negative consequence of creating a quiet but powerful rage in human characters like Lillith and Tino who live with the Oankali, as they feel like traitors to their own race. We see this to the extreme in Imago, where Jodahs’ struggle to master its Ooloi gene-manipulation powers causes it to make subconscious choices to manipulate genomes without the consent of either itself or the thing it’s genetically altering. Of course, it is inherently contradictory to harm someone because you care about them, but I believe that by including this theme throughout the trilogy, Butler helps demonstrate to readers just how intermingled harm and care can be, but also perhaps warn us to be wary of how much free will we take away from a person or group in the name of caring about them. 

Honestly, this is the question I’m having the hardest time with. While I do think this course has helped me better prepare “to change and be changed”, this is by far the claim that I would have the hardest time relating to the text. Butler’s work has helped me better understand how people change each other, but other than the lessons I’ve already discussed, I’m honestly not sure how I have been fundamentally changed, and I certainly don’t know how I would go about preparing to change anything or anyone else, for better or worse. I believe this is likely in large part due to my own failures in this class. I have not been nearly as present as I’ve wanted to be this semester, and though I’ve tried many times over the course of these few months to correct that, and recommit myself to this class and the work we’re doing, I still found myself so overwhelmed with my job and life and my other courses that I kept consistently falling behind here. I’m aware that in this way at least, I have failed to prepare “to change and be changed” and it is a failure that I hope not to repeat, but find myself unsure of how to avoid. It’s yet another contradiction, between my own desire to be present and engaged in every aspect of my life and my learning, and my own limited human time and energy capacity. 

To be clear, despite my own personal failings, I do think this course has taught me some incredibly important lessons that will be instrumental to me as a person going forward. Among them are the importance of free will, the need to be aware of and ready to fight our desire to commit possible acts of harm out of a place of care, and perhaps most importantly, that contradiction is everywhere, and they are an important part of both the Human and Oankali experience.

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