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Are We Willing to Make Real Structural Change?

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

By: Barbara Peterson - November 2019

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas, we are shown how we accept, with relatively little resistance, that certain people must inevitably suffer from the societal systems so many of us enjoy. I wonder if we can do better. Taking another look at this beautiful and very different short story, I reflect on what it might teach us about restructuring our society so that no one must suffer abominably from the systems we build and maintain.

Le Guin's story opens with a utopian pageant.

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved.

Music plays, women and men walk happily along chatting, some carrying their babies, and children dart blithely in and out of the pageant line. On their way to the Farmer’s Market, the most wondrous building in the city, they pass banners buoyed by gentle breezes, and see horses braided and beautiful waiting in green fields for the race that follows the parade. This entire marvelous spectacle is to celebrate the perfection that is Omelas.

We readers are asked to participate in the creation of Omelas by imagining an ideal and flawless city. Le Guin makes some suggestions to get us started and help us along: no crime, no poverty or pollution, she says; everything and everyone is pure and picturesque, happiness for all, luxury and comfort without excess. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? she asks, and she suggests perhaps drooze, a slightly intoxicating but non-addictive drug. The place you imagine is Omelas, says Le Guin; it is the very dream of utopian bliss you believed only existed in your imagination.

After having us envision such an extraordinary city, Le Guin worries that we don’t believe it could exist. Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? She worries that we don’t believe in Omelas and, worse, that we find it all rather boring and uninteresting.

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.

To remedy this, she reveals the dark side of Omelas.

Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes--the child has no understanding of time or interval--sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometime speaks. "I will be good, " it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

The horror of the child’s life is like a punch in the gut as it is juxtaposed with the sunny radiance of perfection Le Guin encourages us to picture so vividly. As readers, we can’t help but feel badly for the child, and many of us believe we would help it. How many of us, after all, could live peacefully in our clean, comfortable homes, enjoy the taste of our rich foods, and say to our children with any level of moral integrity that they must always be kind, caring, and compassionate all while knowing that our joy is being paid for by a lonely, frightened, and tortured child? Not many, at least I hope.

Perhaps, though, the people of Omelas find it easier to ignore the child, to convince themselves that it’s none of their business, that it’s not their job, that they give a little to charity every year so that should be enough, that helping the one child will never solve the entire problem because it will be replaced by another so why bother. It could be that the people have concocted so many semi-believable stories in their heads, in the media, in their conversations with friends and family over sumptuous meals that they have effectively cushioned themselves from this unpleasant reality. Some may use anger as a barrier, deciding that the child is to blame for its own misfortune. Others might rally behind demagogues and vociferous charlatans who denigrate the child for making the citizens miserable by having to deal with such despair.

Why does it harm Omelas to help the child in the closet? Are they better people, more capable of love, compassion, caring, and joy only when there is suffering about which to feel compassionate? Does the citizens’ despondency enable them to feel grateful for their own fortune? Do they believe they can’t have light without darkness? Or do they believe that all societies have what has been termed ‘necessary evils,’ terrible things like war that allow the good to exist?

In our society, when our nation is at war, we learn that ministering to the destitute is egregious if they are our “enemies.” We are told through powerful and persistent propaganda that helping our adversaries, most particularly during times of war, is not only unpatriotic, but it causes irreparable damage to our loved ones. But this is precisely what the children of Omelas learn about helping the child. We too, it seems, would be more reluctant to help the child in the broom closet if we learn that s/he is our opponent. In a sense, the child is the enemy because to help it is to harm one’s family, friends, and neighbors. Yet, to leave it tormented interminably, what does that make us? How does one choose what to do in such a case?

In Omelas, only the one child suffers rather than hundreds of thousands because there is no war.

But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world's summer.

While Omelas doesn’t have war, they do have the child. So, how much better are they than are we who have war? Conversely, how much better are we than they? In Omelas, citizens are willing to sacrifice the life of another to abject hopelessness so they may live glorious lives. In our society, we are willing to sacrifice countless people – in war, poverty, oppression, bullying, and terror – while we enjoy the fruits of our labor without guilt. How much easier it is to blame the victim, to hate it for making us on occasion notice its wretchedness. And how much easier it is to accept the belief that such dejection is inevitable and unavoidable.

Although we cannot help everyone, and we cannot fix the problems of the world, can we not work toward a society where we do not structurally harm others – a society that by the very way it’s set up, causes some to live miserably so that others may live well? In Omelas, they cannot; to help the child is to harm everyone else. So, what do they do?

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

I hope the choice in our own society is not so drastic: the choice between living off the misery of others or committing suicide (which is how I read the ending of the story). Regardless of how you may interpret where the ones who walk away from Omelas go, certainly we have a choice in our society. There are no hard and fast rules (are there?) that dictate we must harm our loved ones and ourselves if we help those in need.

The problem with change, real change, that creates new societal structures, systems, and power distribution is that we can’t envision it. We don’t know what real emancipatory democracy looks like, for example, because none of us has ever seen it. So, we continue on with what we have, making alterations in this or that legislation, choosing this person to lead instead of that one, but maintaining our current inequitable, hegemonic power relations. Many of us are Omelas citizens, afraid to make radical change because we fear it will lead to disaster. Instead, we put all our hopes in new leaders or new laws – temporary improvements at best that do nothing to help the child in the closet.

While none in our generation have ever seen a true democracy, we might gain some valuable insights by looking to our colonial era. In the days when Europeans formed their own communities in this North American continent, they made local laws to shape and uphold their societies. The word “freedom” meant the process of having a direct role in making rules and policies by which oneself and one’s neighbors abided for the good of everyone in the community. Foreign dignitaries visited the colonies and were amazed at the idea and the actual fact of people governing themselves, of people engaged in a community of inquiry, debate, and decision-making, a process that produced official agreements by which everyone lived. Although decision-makers were only land-owning white men, and we should never gloss over the hateful racism and the near genocide of native peoples, we can still be instructed by the community-level democracy where rules that impacted people directly in their daily lives were decided by those people. Imagine such decisional practices today that include equally people of all religions, races, genders, sexual preferences, and ethnic origins.

But today, due to many political leaders who don’t trust people to make decisions for themselves and who, therefore, advocated for and got a national structure with far more centralized power, and due to corporations successfully suing states for decades to get the Supreme Court to pass federal legislation that gives corporations more power than people, our democratic freedoms have been severely reduced. While states have the authority to regulate an industry, they don’t, under the federal Commerce Clause, have the right to refuse one. If a fracked gas company wants to set up shop in your neighborhood, your only right to safeguard your water is to challenge the company, taking a tremendous amount of time and money and effort lobbying state appointed committees and regulation agencies, and fighting years-long court battles just to hopefully win stricter regulations against chemical poisons and environmental destruction. We don’t have the power to say no to these companies. We don’t even have the power to make regulations that the company argues are too strict, that is, regulations that they claim make it too difficult for them to do business. In short, we don’t have the legal right to insist on a safe and sustainable environment for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.

An emancipatory democracy is possible. We can even envision it if we look back at our own history to a time when local communities were empowered to make rules that protected people’s rights to clean water, air, soil, economic strength, and local control of land use. While communities cannot and should never have the authority to restrict anyone’s rights or freedoms granted to them by state and federal laws, they should have the power to decide if and how this corporation or that company can operate in their neighborhood. They should also be able to revoke a corporation’s charter if and when that corporation violates the terms of the charter. Without such authority, our democracy is too weak. It allows for charlatans in political office and corporate executives to pursue their own agendas at the significant cost of the people’s economic and physical wellbeing.

Great art can teach us so very much about what it means to be human. It has the power to shine a light on the truth of ourselves, that which we often don’t want to see, that which is ugly and shameful. However, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. We can learn from the ugly truth; do better. Maybe we, too, can walk away from Omelas, a place where joy only exists on the backs of the suffering. Perhaps we can go to a place that does exist, a place where happiness and goodness is celebrated, revered, and paraded throughout the cities, where those who suffer are helped rather than ignored, kicked, or derided. A place where people are free to ensure that their communities are safe. Can such a place exist? Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?

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