In an earlier post I described how Ursula K. Le Guin confronts her readers with a moral dilemma: is it justifiable for a society to benefit from the suffering of a single “innocent”?
Le Guin prefaces her story by quoting from William James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:
Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
Although Le Guin does not tell us how we should respond to her nameless, faceless child locked in a basement, the inclusion of this passage signals to the reader the response we should feel – it would be a “hideous” thing to enjoy “the happiness so offered” at the expense of “a certain lost soul”.
I have taught this story numerous times, and have tried to make my students understand that Le Guin is not telling some abstract parable. As Le Guin writes, this is “[the] dilemma of the American conscience”. I tell my students that we live in a nation that has embraced the premise that in order for there to be winners, there must be losers. In my early years teaching “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” I would remind my students that some opponents of same sex marriage argued that legalizing same sex marriages would be the end of straight marriages. In essence, straight people like me were being told that for our families to be valid, the families of gays and lesbians had to be invalid. In subsequent classes we undertook the task of putting a name and a face to Le Guin’s child. The child stood for the LGBTQ community, for people of color, for immigrants, for workers in sweat-shops in far-flung countries making our Nikes, our iPhones, our clothes.
I don’t know to what extent this experiment in making Omelas “ours” and claiming the child has impacted those students. I like to think they left my class with the other passage that Le Guin quoted from William James running through their minds:
All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.
Most of my students, I’m sure, walked away from the story without it changing them. They still couldn’t see the child.
But here’s the thing, in the past few months the child in the basement has become real, over and over again. The children of immigrants are torn from their parents and locked away. The official justification for this is that their parents have committed “the crime” of coming to the United States without documentation, and, as “criminals” they do not have a right to be with their children.
The cruel injustice of this policy cannot be overstated. The “crime” these parents committed was that of wanting a better life for themselves and their children. The impulse that drove these families across the hostile desert was the same impulse that led my forbearers to set sail across the stormy Atlantic in a small ship called the Mayflower. Who among us, faced with the reality that the lives of our family were endangered living in the country of our birth, would not make the same choice as these families?
As for the punishment – while the parents suffer in ways I cannot imagine, the harm done to the children must be even more immense. We have known for some time that removing children from their biologic parents has deep and enduring consequences. The trauma we inflict on these children will plant seeds of despair, resentment, anxiety, and fear, and we, as a nation, will reap the harvest we have sown.
At the end of my last post, I wrote:
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown. But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her. We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides. We can make other choices. In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child. We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent soul for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy. We can end “the Festival of Summer.” And what will we replace it with? How will we rebuild Omelas? In any way we want. Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.
We cannot walk away; we cannot abandon our country to the forces of fear and intolerance. But we also cannot simply accept this crime against humanity. We must fight for those families as if they were ours. As William James tells us, “All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary.” The time has come for us to be idealistic and revolutionary.
Le Guin closes her preface by focusing on what William James is saying, “Ideals as ‘the probable causes of future Experience’—that is a subtle and an exhilarating remark!” Indeed.
For more on what you can do, click here.