I want to start out by saying, if you haven’t read The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula Le Guin, I strongly suggest you do so now, because it’s amazing and it’s a huge part of what I want to discuss for this week’s blog.
Here’s a link: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
Or if you don’t want to read it, I’ll summarize:
(skip to the ***‘s if you’ve read it)
“In the streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and the singing.”
The story starts out with a description of an average day in Omelas. A festival takes place, people dance in the streets, there’s clear, clean air, a horse race, and naked, gleeful children.
Immediately after that happy description, the author addresses something; she addresses the fact that these people of Omelas are not stupid. They’re not ruled by an evil king, they don’t have any slaves, no stock exchange or bombs, no cars or helicopters and there’s beer but no soldiers. They only had what was necessary – necessary without being destructive.
Le Guin wrote, “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. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else.”
And for that reason, she says it’s hard for us to imagine the people of Omelas without thinking they’re sort of barbaric or goody-goody. It’s crazy, because I’ll be the first to admit, these were exactly my thoughts as I was reading. This can’t be true. This could never happen. The world can’t be like that…happy…
Le Guin continues her story, describing the festival in Omelas, and then she asks readers:
Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
Le Guin then describes a basement located under one of the beautiful buildings of Omelas. In the basement there is a single room, with no windows, and a locked door. The room is tiny, dirty and a little damp, and in this room there is a little child around the age of 10. The child sits in the room and picks their nose and fumbles with its toes or genitals. The child is starving, naked and cold.
The people of Omelas know about the child. Le Guin wrote,
“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.”
If the child was set free, Omelas and all of its happiness would be destroyed. The people of Omelas cry over this, they feel extremely sorry for the child, but then they start to justify and accept it. They tell themselves even if the child was set free, it’s so mentally/physically damaged that it would not live a happy life. They tell themselves this and move on.
The author asks again. Now do you believe in Omelas? Does it all seem like it could be true considering this one, suffering, child? This one “flaw” in society? And it’s interesting, because I, like many people, find myself believing in it more than I did before.
But then the author explains one last thing. She explains that there are those who walk away from Omelas. After they hear of the child, or go and witness the child themselves, they go silent. Something changes in them. They walk right out of the beautiful gates of Omelas and never look back. The author describes that she doesn’t know where they’re going, no one does. But they walk towards the mountains – sure that Omelas is not for them any longer.
***I first read this story when I was only fifteen or sixteen years old. I had not read anything like it. Well, maybe that’s not true. I had read The Hunger Games and seen movies like I Am Legend or Children of Men. But The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas had a very, very, strong effect on me. These were my initial thoughts:
- What is Le Guin trying to say about our own world through this story? Is she trying to say that we are under the belief, as a society, that there is no great pleasure without great suffering? No justice without injustice?
- What is our world’s “child in the basement?” If the argument is that each society must have one, what is our version? What injustice do we choose to participate in, that perhaps we do not have to? Or if we do have to, how do we decide what is the “lesser of evils?” Is a child in a basement not quite as bad as war, racism, starvation, etc.?
- Why do we view “happiness” as “simple” or “stupid” Could happiness be achieved while still living a complex life?
My thoughts on this story could go on and on. And these were thoughts I was having for the very first time. At a young age, I don’t believe I had ever thought thoughts like this before. I think stories like this one (stories about Utopias or Dystopias) have a message that is worth being heard. Reading this story altered the way I thought about America, but I don’t mean to say that everyone should have a negative attitude towards America. America is great in many ways. But it taught me not to simply think “America is the Greatest!” and instead think, what makes it so great? How do we maintain our greatness? What suffering comes at the cost of our greatness? Does it have to be that way? How could it be better?
It made me realize that I can’t easily answer the question, are we living in a Utopia or Dystopia? Or if there are only those two options, which one are we closer to?
I think that in order to answer that question, it’s important to know more about what a Utopia and a Dystopia actually are.
According to ReadWriteThink.org, a Utopia is as follows…
Utopia: A place, state, or condition that is ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.
- Citizens have no fear
- Citizens are free
- There is perfect harmony
- The natural world is embraced
- Citizens only do work that they enjoy
- The term ‘government’ is used loosely, as power can quickly become corrupt
Dystopia: A futuristic, imagined universe in which oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control. Dystopias, through an exaggerated worst-case scenario, make a criticism about a current trend, societal norm, or political system.
- Propaganda is used for control
- Citizens live in fear
- Individuality is bad
- Freedom is restricted
- One specific figure or concept is worshipped
And here I am, sitting in a coffee shop looking at those brief summaries of both Utopia and Dystopia, and to me, it seems obvious that we are closer to a Dystopia. However, I’ve found some interesting videos and articles on this topic. I’m going to discuss two views.
Everything is okay vs. everything is not okay.
Everything is not okay: Are We Living in a Dystopian Movie?
Check out that article titled, Are We Living in a Dystopian Movie? by Alexander Billington, senior international student-athlete from England, studying Political Science and Philosophy at LIU Post. From reading his article, it’s clear that he’s a talented writer and has a strong message. He shows this image:
Of a Syrian infant’s cold, dead, body lying on a Turkish vacation beach. He then asks you to do the following…
“Pull up the picture of the cold dead Syrian boy, and imagine where he came from. Now imagine staring through the holes in the fence, imagine glimpsing the world you don’t have. Imagine the white picket fences, the green, green grass and the all around luxury that you do not have. And now imagine facing a life-threatening decision, to attempt to escape to a relative utopia, but in order to do so, you have to put your life at risk, because that utopia has great big walls, and soldiers with guns whose purpose is to prevent your entry.”
He then asks, considering the point of view of that young boy, are we really that different from the dystopian movies or novels that are so popular right now? Which I find to be incredibly thought-provoking…
But then I also found a Youtube video of comedian, actor, writer, producer and director, Louis CK being interviewed by Conan O’Brien, titled “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy.”
Watch the video here: Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy
Louis CK makes statements like, “we live in an amazing world, and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots. People look at their phone and their like, ‘ugh, it won’t load,’ and I’m like GIVE IT A SECOND! IT’S GOING TO SPACE!” and “I was on an airplane and there’s high speed internet on the plane now, that’s the newest thing that I know exists, and it’s fast, I’m sitting on a plane watching Youtube clips…it’s incredible, and then it stops working and they come over the intercom and apologize and the guy next to me goes, ‘pshh, this is bullshit.’ like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.”
Comparing the two, the man on the plane complaining about losing wifi while soaring through the sky, and the boy staring through holes in the fence… it’s hard to believe we live in a world where there’s both; such polar opposites. Why? How? I can’t wrap my head around it. I really can’t.
Last video I’ll make you watch, but Angelina Jolie sums up my thoughts perfectly:
“I have never understood, why some people, are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I have, to have this path in life, and why across the world there’s a woman just like me, with the same abilities, same desires, same work ethics and love for her family, who would most likely make better films and better speeches, only she lives in a refugee camp. And she has no voice.” – Angelina Jolie
The past few months I was a part of an Anthropology of Violence course while studying in Florence, Italy. We discussed media, what shows on the news and what doesn’t…how we pay more attention to Paris, when there are mass killings going on involving many, many, more deaths all over the world. We then tried to dissect why this happens, and the best conclusion we could come to was that if every single bad thing that happened in the world was shown to us, on the news, every single day, we would all be severely depressed. The world would be incredibly depressing.
And there’s a big part of me that says that’s not okay. Louis CK had a point in saying “everything is amazing and nobody is happy,” because surely a lot of things in this life are absolutely, breathtakingly, beautiful and in lack of a better word, happy. But of course, there is also great suffering going on every single second of every single day that is heartbreaking.
- Complain less. It’s okay to be upset, and you should not discredit your emotions, but you can still try and complain a little bit less, each and everyday.
- Acknowledge more. Educate yourself more. Education is a huge advantage and can most certainly be used for the greater good.
- Question more. Ask yourself, what is the media showing? What is it not showing? What is going on in the world right now that I might not know about? Why don’t I know about it? What can I do?
- Show emotion. Laugh out of pure joy next time you’re on an airplane because of how cool that is, or smile when you’re swimming in the ocean. But also sympathize with others. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine the pain that they feel.
- Do what you can with any privilege you may have. A lot of the time it seems like this comes from money and donations, but maybe it can come from simple, smaller, actions as well. Or at least it can start from there.
- Remember Jolie’s words, “nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others.”
Maybe we do live in a Dystopia, and maybe some do choose to “walk away from America” like Le Guin’s story of Omelas. But maybe there’s hope, and maybe there’s more that some of us can do than we are currently doing.
All images & information from:
“American Dystopia More Reality than Fiction.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, n.d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/american-dystopia-more-reality-than-fiction/>.
Billington, Alexander. “Are We Living in a Dystopian Movie?” Odyssey. N.p., 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 23 June 2016. <https://www.theodysseyonline.com/are-we-living-in-dystopian-movie>.
“Dystopia by Jacob “Oprah”” Dystopia. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2016. <https://www.thinglink.com/scene/619208024740855808>.
“Homepage – ReadWriteThink.” Readwritethink.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.readwritethink.org/>.
K., Le Guin Ursula. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 1993. Print.
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“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 June 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Omelas>.
“Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” Is Beautiful in Map Form.” Torcom Ursula K Le Guins The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas Is Beautiful in Map Form Comments. N.p., 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.tor.com/2015/11/19/ursula-k-le-guins-the-ones-who-walk-away-from-omelas-is-beautiful-in-map-form/>.
“Utopia: The Promise of Virtual Reality.” Socialvr. N.p., 20 May 2016. Web. 23 June 2016. <https://socialvrhub.com/2016/05/21/utopia-the-promise-of-virtual-reality/>.
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