A miserable child and a summer festival are at the heart of the short work of philosophical fiction first published by Ursula Le Guin in 1973. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas was sparked by "forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards" was the answer given by the author when asked where she got the idea from. Matthew Sweet is joined by guests including the authors Una McCormack, Naomi Alderman, Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Kevan Manwaring, and political philosopher Sophie Scott-Brown. They discuss Le Guin's thought experiments and writing career and also the short story called The Ones Who Stayed and Fought which NK Jemisin wrote in response to Le Guin's vision of Omelas.
A Process Commentary
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a philosophical short story written by Ursula K. Le Guin. It tells the story of a fictional city called Omelas, depicted as a utopian society characterized by happiness, beauty, and prosperity. However, the happiness of the entire city depends on the suffering of a single child locked in a basement and subjected to terrible conditions. Some citizens of Omelas walk away from the city when they learn about the child's suffering, while others continue to live in the city, accepting the sacrifice of one for the greater good.
Where do they go? We are not told. The last lines of the story read:
"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."
Why do they not stay and fight? Again, we are not told. "The Ones Who Stayed and Fought," which NK Jemisin offers, is an understandable response to Le Guin's vision of Omelas.
But what Le Guin's story reveals is the human impulse to turn away from suffering and evil, in which one is complicit, because it is, or feels like, too much to bear. The act of turning away, inwardly as well as behaviorally, is a moral choice. A person could choose to stay and fight. But it is shaped by the natural human impulse to avoid suffering, including guilt. It is a version of what the philosopher Whitehead, in "Adventures of Ideas," calls anaesthesia: a cutting off of certain kinds of feelings for the sake of finding a certain kind of inner security. Such anaesthesia is difficult to maintain because the memory of the suffering child and the complicity in the evil cannot be eradicated. The better and only real option is to accept the complicity and stay and fight.
How to fight? The temptation is to fight violently, and for some, this may seem like the only real option. But those of us in the process tradition believe non-violent resistance is the better option, and we recognize, with Jesus, Gandhi, and King, that such resistance is itself a process, a struggle. We must fight against our own tendencies to walk away, which likewise remain within us. One way to walk away is to hide from the suffering; another way is to pretend that we ourselves are innocent; and still another, very tempting indeed, is to dehumanize the others who find their private bliss even at the expense of the tortured child. All are forms of walking away. The call is for courage and honesty, as well as love, even if it only takes the form of recognizing the humanity, the intrinsic worth, of each and all.
This recognition of the worth of each and all gives rise to what one writer, Sophia Said, calls non-binary love. Non-binary love is love that feels compassion for the suffering of everyone. She writes:
I know that expressing compassion for “one group”, even momentarily, can be felt as betrayal of the “other group”. Showing care for the “other group” is hard emotional work because it requires us to reject the binary which says we cannot weep for everyone. However, we, human beings, are very much capable of radical love. We can practice radical empathy for the suffering of all others on the basis of our shared humanity. Please join me in praying for all the innocent lives that are lost, for everlasting peace in this region, which has been suffering for far too long, and let's hold each hurting soul in a place of deep love within our hearts.
And yet, as Said makes clear, non-binary love cannot be blind to differences between power and powerlessness. It is also a love that has a special concern for the intrinsic worth of the child. If we stay and fight, we must undertake what liberation theologians call a "preferential option for the poor." This means that the child becomes the frame of reference by which we understand the world, other people, and ourselves. We cannot simply be about the greatest good for the greatest number, as are the citizens of Omelas. And we cannot simply walk away, anaesthetized by a desire to avoid suffering and guilt. We must be about the good of the child and we must fight, non-violently, for the child.
We live in a world that is not about the good of the child. We see wars around us, and also within us, that place the well-being of the many as higher than the well-being of the child. And who is the child? Look around. The children, the elderly, the outcast, the poor, the lost, the forgotten, the traumatized, the forsaken - our sisters, our brothers. The victims of Hamas, the victims in Gaza. The children. The sin of Omelas is our sin, too, if we presume that our privilege and power take precedence over the well-being of the child: the vulnerable in our world.
The child hasn't the luxury to walk away. The bullets fly, the bombs fall, the child suffers. To stay and fight is to act on behalf of the child, giving up privilege for the sake of non-binary love with a preferential option for the poor and powerless. It is to fight the devil and love others, without dehumanizing anybody -- but with the child, not privilege and power, as the frame of reference. When the child, not luxury or power, is our frame of reference, the Holy One finds its place in our heart. The devil is anaesthesia.