For my English/Language Arts class, I read a short story called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin. I suggest you read it, but here's a quick summary (spoilers): Omelas is a utopian town on the surface, but it turns out that there is a child, naked, lean, and in its own feces suffering in the basement. Everyone in the paradise knows about the child, but none do anything about it. At the end of the short story, though, it is revealed that many people leave Omelas:
"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to
weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and 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."
Looking at the last sentence, the story seems to imply that this walking away from Omelas is justified. It's no secret that the child is symbolic of the suffering people of our own society who get compartmentalized and ignored. The story seems to say, walk away. Canonically, "if the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms." So, if you can't help*, do you walk away?**
Welcome to my blog. I'm not a literary-criticism person in general, but a short story I read in class got me thinking–and I think there's a flaw in the message the story conveys. The story suggests that when you are profiting off of the backs of suffering, and you can't help, you should walk away. But that makes no sense–by leaving, you don't stop the suffering, you simply serve to absolve your own guilt. You should stay and embrace the paradise. In this post, I will make this argument more concrete and explain its applications to the real world.
Let's get back into the world of Omelas. You visit the child. You're concerned. Your two main decisions are "Do I help the child?" and "Do I walk away from Omelas?" We've established that you're not in a position to help the child. So the answer to the first one is no. So let's look at what happens to us if we walk away versus if we stay.
Benefits of Walking Away
- No longer feel responsible for the child's situation
- Sends a message that gradually deteriorates Omelas
Benefits of Staying
- Clear access to food, water, shelter
- A city of happiness and paradise
Let's look at the exact benefits of walking away, starting with the latter.
Sends a Message That Gradually Deteriorates Omelas
What this will do is send a message that the child's conditions are not acceptable. But will this message be received? What impact does this have? By just walking away, you're not making clear why. You're not saying that this child is a problem. This seems like an imaginary argument designed to feel better, tying in to the second point I have.***
No Longer Feel Responsible for the Child's Situation
This is what I'm talking about with the guilt-absolution thing. This is an artificial way to feel like you're helping without actually helping.
So that's what I hope this post will do: give you a logical reason to not be anxious about not doing all you can to make the world a better place. Obviously, it's good to fix systemic problems. But simply walking away and feeling like you're not a contributor won't help. So given that you won't help, you might as well enjoy the utopia of Omelas. You have access to food, water, and shelter; a city of happiness and paradise. You don't have to walk away to be a good person. Here, let me say this more elegantly:
You've established that you can't help. So there's no reason to feel guilty.
*This gets us into a debate on utilitarianism. My perspective is probably that the child is worth helping even at the downfall of the utopian facade, but you could argue both sides. For the purpose of this post, we'll assume you can't help.
**Hint: read the title of the post.
***As I was writing this post, I was considering this in conjunction with my vegetarianism. The whole idea behind it is predicated on the idea that not eating meat will send a message to stop these horrible consequences associated with meat production. Maybe this argument suggests I should go back to meat.
The counterargument for that would be to vote with your dollar. In this scenario, by not eating meat, I'm not supporting meat producers. By leaving that meat in the business's inventory, they realize they shouldn't stock up on so much meat. The meat company cuts back on production. Fewer animals are harmed and resources wasted.
But maybe this is imaginary; maybe I should just go back to meat and enjoy Omelas. I'll get back to you.