The Parable of Baltimore

The recent news of riots turned chaos in Baltimore have an eerie similarity to the speculative future that Octavia Butler writes about in her Parable series–a future where humans lose regard and respect for one another and revert to destructive means of fulfilling desires and surviving. Granted, the Baltimore riots haven’t taken over the country and created an apocalyptic reversion to naturalistic life, the insight with which Butler foretells the cultivation of primal conflicts is uncanny.  Just as John states in his recent blog, Octavia “has a knack for giving us some bleak futures to look forward to,” but I think that these speculatively bleak futures are imperative to explore as humanity attempts to avoid catastrophe.

Butler gives us little insight into the years leading up to the pre-apocolyptic state of affairs that leads to the dog-eat-dog world of The Parables, but what the reader does know is that there is discernible corruption in the government and law enforcement. A mutual mistrust seems to filter between the two parties of power and the citizens they’re supposed to protect. And furthermore, Butler creates a world where the division between the rich and the poor is steeply magnified until it becomes directly visible. For example, differences in wealth and power can be seen with the symbolic differences of walled communities to un-walled communities,  between the population with access to firearms and the un-armed population, and between those with chances of mobility, possibly through access to vehicles, and those made immobile by their poverty. It is ultimately the culmination of these and other factors that leads to a reversion of society to primal instinct.

Comparing the factors that lead to the bleak world Butler paints in The Parables, I’m afraid to say that I see little difference. Our country has come to fear and mistrust law enforcement and the justice system. In return, law enforcement and justice officials have come to fear and mistrust the citizens they serve. This has resulted in a bombardment of “police brutality” cases in popular news.  And furthermore, a recent article has come out stating that a total of 85 people own almost half of the world’s wealth.

Perhaps the case in Baltimore is a case of The Parables on a smaller scale. Maybe the abysmal state of oppression that individuals have experienced has finally cultivated itself in desperate acts of violence. But I must also wonder if maybe the looting, violence and acts of arson in Baltimore are the acts of a few brutal individuals strategic enough to disguise themselves among a sea of outraged and mourning people. Or perhaps those same strategic individuals had the insight to prey on a group of people that is currently susceptible to lashing out in acts of passion and rage.

Regardless, I believe the current events in Baltimore show just how easily a mob mentality can be cultivated. Just as Butler speculates, an environment of fear, oppression and grief has the volatile capabilities of tearing our nation apart. But what I believe that Butler also suggests is that empathy and community, especially communities that embrace interdependence, can go a long way in the most desolate of circumstances.

In Parable of the Talents, Lauren Olamina writes in her journal “My father loved parables–stories that taught, stories that presented ideas and morals in ways that made pictures in people’s minds” (14). I think Butler’s Parables do just that–they paint a mental image of how complete corruption manifests itself. And if Butler’s parabolic images of where our society is headed fail to reach the masses, the images of Baltimore will have to suffice.

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