Sydney Bosworth on the Interdependence of Change, Learning, and Violence

When I first heard the phrase “Learn and Run!”, my immediate train of thought led me to images of guidance counselor posters featuring books and smiling children. In Octavia Butler’s Dawn, however, I was impacted by the expression’s gravity and significance. It represented Lilith’s plan of escape, her survival mechanism, and her means to adapt. In a world where humans are stripped of their choices and autonomy, knowledge and thought are the only the forces they have a semblance of authority over. It will also be the only tools available in their survival. Yet, violence becomes an essential tool in education, for both humans and the Oankali. The association of these two concepts has greater implications towards the interdependency between change, learning, and harm. Lilith’s motto “Learn and Run!” not only reflects her understanding that adaptation and change require learning, but also the chaotic nature of obtaining and applying knowledge. Butler’s extraterrestrial dystopia epitomizes these concepts to contemplate the consequences of knowledge and its role in our division and bonding.

The Oankali’s genetic compulsion to breed with other species without an obligation to consent both implicates the Oankali as an inherently violent species and reveals the complexities in obtaining knowledge. Jdahya explains, “We acquire new life─ seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in…a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies” (Butler 41). Yet, this “investigation” and “manipulation” is not done at the species consent, as demonstrated through Lilith’s experience, “I think I wish your people had left me on Earth…if this is what they found me for, I wish they’d left me” (Butler 43). So, is it possible for the Oankali to evolve without the use of harm? They ignore consent in order to gain the knowledge required for them to interbreed, change, and prevent the extinction of the human race. This does include removing Lilith’s cancer, enhancing her strength, and granting a perfect memory, but the lack of explicit consent is inevitably a form of harm. However, Lilith notes, “humans had done these things to captive breeders─ all for a higher good, of course” (Butler 60). Here, she seems to notice the moral ambiguities that may exist within learning by recognizing the similarities between Human and Oankali practices.

The ethics of learning are still relevant in our modern, non-apocalyptic society, such as the removal of ancient artifacts. In October 2020, archaeologists opened a mummy’s coffin from ancient Egypt for the first time in 2,500 years in attempt to learn more about the mysterious civilization. However, just as the Oankali did not have consent to study humans and tear down their ruins, the Egyptians did not consent to having their artifacts removed and tampered with. Many found the opening of the coffin disrespectful towards Egyptian culture, but many also claim it was necessary for learning. Butler thus exemplifies the many moral grey areas existing within in the pursuit of knowledge; To what extent does a “greater good” justify the use of harm? Is it possible to obtain knowledge without causing harm? Does the use of harm increase or negate the value of the knowledge learned? Butler does not attempt to offer or imply a correct choice; she instead layers the complexities into a massive grey area in which the reader must define their own morality.

Thus, “Learn and Run!” emerges with several meaningful nuances outside of a simple getaway plan. It also illustrates the inequalities that exist between the Oankali and humans, and mimics the many emotions the humans experience. Lilith, along with the rest of humanity, faces two options once captured by the Oankali: Adapt or Die. Jdahya offers this choice to Lilith directly by offering to sting her, but she cannot go through with it (Butler 43). Therefore, learning and change becomes integral to the human’s growth and survival. They must acclimate so the Oankali will return them to Earth, “that meant they must control themselves, learn all she could teach them, all the Oankali could teach them, then use what they had learned to escape and keep themselves alive” (Butler 117). However, harm and violence become the primary tool in forcing this change. The Oankali are choosing to evolve, but humans are being exploited. Thus, “Learn and Run!” echo’s the desires and despairs of the imprisoned humans. The phrase is rather laconic, but when used as an exclamation, it expresses urgency and uncertainty. Ergo, it is imitating the human’s in their fear towards adapting and desperation for autonomy.

As previously mentioned, the Oankali question the moral dilemmas in learning and research. The Humans, on the other hand, demonstrate the consequences of flawed knowledge and its role in division and bonding. Throughout “Nursery” Lilith struggles to bind the humans into a functioning community, primarily due to people’s refusal to learn. Denial is an expected reaction from anyone first Awakening, however, turmoil arises from those who continuously dismiss the truth. Lilith seems to recognize the extent to which denial can influence other’s opinions and perceptions when she says, “they’ll believe me for a little while. Then some of them will decide I’m lying to them or I’ve been lied to” (Butler 167). As contradicting “truths” are spread, a dichotomy forms between those who follow Lilith and those who agree with Peter’s skepticism. Yet, Lilith is the only source of first-hand experiences and knowledge pertaining to the Oankali. In the search to learn and change, those who discredit her information are limited to their own speculations. For example, Lilith’s enhanced strength aroused gossip after her fight with Jean, claiming she is a man or not human. Such distortions, provoked by fear and confusion, repeatedly splinter the group and spark cynicism, especially towards Lilith. This goes to show the power and influence of false information is just as pervasive as any other piece of intel.

As misinformation and suspicion increases, its ability to incite violence becomes increasingly evident. Lilith explains, “all he has to do to hurt us is refuse to believe we’re on a ship. After that, everything he does will be wrong and potentially deadly” (Butler 134). Again, following Lilith’s scandal, Joseph warns her “you’re probably not in any danger now, but you will be soon” (Butler 147-148). Rumors, though spurious, increase skepticism. Derrick, for example, suffered the consequences of Peter’s inaccuracies after sneaking inside a cabinet in attempt to find people on the other side. Instead, he was retrieved and put back to sleep by the Oankali (Butler 171). As he was getting in, Lilith notes, “[Peter] had been told that the cabinets refilled automatically. Just one more thing he had decided not to believe” (Butler 172), indicating Peter and his misinformation to be at fault. Lilith’s experience not only demonstrates the many ways ignorance can manifest, but also its extensive and dangerous consequences.

The most direct interpretation of “Learn and Run!” advocates for the power of knowledge, and Octavia Butler would likely agree with the juvenile proverb, but in her own wry manner. As per her style, she dissects this concept to question and investigate its limitations, consequences, and implications. Many carry the subconscious assumption that learning and knowledge are inherently positive, however, Butler attempts to demonstrate the ways in which it can be abused or cause harm. She doesn’t work against learning or knowledge, but rather offers insight to the many intricacies that convolute its morals.   

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