The Intent of Care or Harm

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.

Brought and Bound

Sophie A. Montecalvo

October 7, 2020

Professor Beth McCoy

ENG 431: Octavia Butler & Social Ties

“Crocodiles are easy.  They try to kill and eat you.  People are harder.  Sometimes they pretend to be your friend first.”

       – Steve Irwin

Humanity is a strange species.  The inherent goodness or evil of us has been widely discussed for centuries, with no clear consensus yet reached.  Is our conscious an integral part of being human, or has it been integrated into us throughout the years?  Why do we help others – is it out of a genuine desire to be good, or wanting approval and praise from those we aid?

Robert Louis Stevenson created the character Dr. Henry Jekyll, who searched for an answer as to the duality of man.  He agonized over how some people could be good and some evil.  Jekyll’s conclusion was this: “that man is not truly one, but truly two.”  He reasoned that every person held two minds within them, one light and one dark.  As readers of Stevenson’s famous novella know, Jekyll proceeds to attempt to separate his dual minds, leading to horrifying results.  As Jekyll makes the most use out of the evilness that he tries to “Hyde,” it becomes unclear which version of him is still good.

Stevenson’s work is a spell-binding science-fiction story, but it still brings us no closer to an answer.  It is not so straightforward as a good and bad side to oneself – and no one person is entirely light or dark.  It is difficult to tell at first, or even second or third glance a person’s morals or goodness.  Even time can leave the issue unclear.  As Steve Irwin points out, it is easy for a person to fake goodness.  One’s true character can be hidden, for better or for worse.

Despite the duality of humankind and the impossibility to understand many evils, humans are always naturally drawn to one another.  Human connection is as essential to us as breathing.  Frederick II, the king of Germany, decided in the thirteenth century to raise infants without touch or spoken language to see what language they would speak.  However, this experiment ended tragically, with the babies dying from lack of touch.

If we therefore need other humans so inherently, it is strange and paradoxical that so many people are cruel and evil.  Why is our basic human need flawed at its core – why do we need what can be so harmful to us?  And how do we solve this issue?  Or does the universe address it – our need for communion?  Some of the time, against all odds, humans will bond against their better judgment, or when tragedy seems to blot out all hope for light.  The seeming answer to this age-old question, asofar, as to why we bond as humans is both simple and complex at once.

This is my own perception of the concept of bringing and bonding.  I would like to give my thoughts on the matter, and how I will keep searching for a deeper answer.

“Lilith’s first impulse was to Awaken Joseph Shing – Awaken him at once and end her solitude.  The impulse was so strong that she sat still for several moments, hugging herself, holding herself rigid against it.”

– Octavia Butler, Dawn

From Lilith’s desperation to meet Paul Titus, to her hunt for Fukumoto, to her gradual Awakening of the other humans, it is clear that she craves human contact.  However, none of these encounters end well for her.  Paul Titus tries to rape her, Fukumoto is already dead when she searches for him, and, out of all the people she Awakens, only Joseph Shing is a friend to her.  Asofar, he is her only human ally.  The other Oankali, Jdahya and Nikanj, are kinder to Lilith than the other people she teaches in the ways of the aliens.  Despite each failure, Lilith still desires other humans, to recover their lost planet of Earth and begin humanity again.  Her human wants are not outweighed by her previous experiences, and her faith is not lost.  Lilith does not believe that humanity is doomed, that the Oankali have ruined her species altogether.  Despite her changed self and her new powers, Lilith’s humanity is blatantly clear in her deep desire for others like her and her own world recovered.

It can be wondered if Lilith’s unshakable faith will be rewarded, and if returning to Earth will give her what she craves.  Is she going to be able to trust these humans she has Awoken over the Oankali who have shown her small kindnesses?  In the end, will it have been worth choosing humans for the sole purpose that they are just that – humans?  Lilith is strong and stubborn and brave, and I know that she will not give up on her fellow people.  However, at this point, it is not guaranteed that these fellow people will put the same inherent trust in her.  They are doubtful and whisper, not even considering Lilith truly as human as themselves.  Ultimately, when worse comes to worst, who will Lilith be able to trust – the foreign species or her own?

“A healed femur.”

          – Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead, a notable anthropologist, shares Lilith’s Earthly field of study, earning a mention by Paul Titus.  Mead was once asked what she believed the earliest sign of civilization among humans to be, expecting an answer such as a weapon, a tool, or an act.  However, Mead responded with “A healed femur.”  She explained that the femur bone in the human body would have taken roughly six weeks to properly heal in the early days of humanity, and would be as crippling to an early human as a horse with a broken leg.  For a femur bone to have healed, other people must have aided the injured person, providing them with food, water, and protection.  It would have been the end of the “survival of the fittest” mindset that humans would have finally broken.

Humans, as a species, tend to “pack bond” with not only other humans but other creatures, such as pets.  Even when people swim alongside dolphins or see a gorilla at a zoo waving back, they find themselves in a moment of shared understanding.  However, owning a cat or dog cannot make up for human interaction and companionship.  The care that humans develop for one another, the instinct that drives them to aid others, is something deeper than bonded moments – it is as old as the first healed femur bone among early humans.

I would like to find this point in Lilith’s Brood – this point of pure bonding.  Asofar, the people Lilith has awakened have tended to couple up, men and women pairing together.  However, this does not appear to come from genuine care or concern for one another.  Some crave comfort and protection, some desire granting it.  The difference of their current “leader,” for lack of a better word, Lilith, has shaken the group dynamic in many ways.  Lilith has been awake for significantly longer than any of them, she has abilities no one else has yet been granted, and she made the decisions as to whom to Awaken first and second and third, leaving the others in their comatose state until her choice.  The humans whisper and point among themselves, but not with Lilith.  Their distrust of her and each other has so far divided them.

I hope that this will change when Lilith and the humans finally step back onto their home of Earth.  When they are equals, when Lilith cannot shape the walls and build the rooms, will the distrust and speculations fade?  Will human instinct and desire kick in, or will the beginning of their relationship with Lilith destroy any chance of a loyal and trusting human civilization reborn?

I have my doubts concerning Lilith’s relationship with the other humans and their chances of survival together.  However, I want to believe in the best of humanity.  I want to trust that human compassion and instinct to help will prevail.  That no one in Lilith’s group is hiding their true character.  That they will ultimately come together because, in the end, Lilith is right – humanity is capable of many terrible and beautiful things, but being forcibly brought together they will bond.  I am hoping that they will rise up past their quarrels and do great things.