Today I’ve been thinking about the classic Ursula K. Le Guin parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” If you haven’t read it, it essentially posits a moral dilemma: there are people who live in a utopia–a real one. Imagine, the narrator tells you, your own idea of utopia, whatever that may be: this is your Omelas, a place where all people genuinely live in a state of bliss.
Except. When they become teenagers, they learn the truth about Omelas. Somewhere hidden away in the city, a child lives an existence of filth, misery, darkness, and torture. This is the way it must be: for Omelas to exist, a single child must always suffer dreadfully.
Most people in Omelas accept this. But a few do not. Those few walk away. It is a very short and deceptively simple little story, and it presents what is on the face of it a rather simplistic moral dilemma. Would we allow the child to suffer, or would we walk? Of course, most of us would like to imagine we would walk away. Of course I would not live in paradise at the cost of such suffering! we might think. But of course we do; in the modern Western world, we live in what is far less than paradise, at the cost of far more suffering. Short of going away to live in a cabin in the woods like the Unabomber, I think we would be hard-pressed to give up everything that involves the exploitation of another human being. Hey, in some places, like the United States and Australia, unless we’re also descended from the indigenous people, even going off to live in the woods means we’re technically living on stolen lands. There’s no escape. We’re all compromised. You could go mad thinking about it. The best we can hope to do is try to do the least harm possible, and put some good out into the world along the way.
And, I mean, Omelas is paradise. Think about what a sad and hard place the world is. Imagine if you could wave all of that away for a large group of people. The only price would be the suffering of one child. One. It would be easy enough to justify simply by pointing out that without Omelas, far more children would be suffering. The needs of the many and all that.
The story is also a bit of a cheat. It sets up a choice that is so stark, and so unrealistic. The game is rigged; the dice are loaded. There’s no such thing as the paradisaical Omelas, and there never could be. It’s a thought experiment, but of course the world is far more complex than that. Yet it’s interesting: if you think about it, the story doesn’t so much ask should Omelas exist as what would you do? The ones who walk away aren’t raising an army to come back and smash the state and rescue the child, and the story doesn’t suggest that they should. They are simply unable to reconcile their existence with this suffering. Walking away is a singular act of conscience.
Maybe it’s harder to accept the child’s torture, though, when you live in Omelas than it would be for us already morally compromised folks. It must come as a shock to the system if suffering is alien to you, and you then learn that for one human being, you are causing unimaginable suffering. I suppose that in that way, the people of Omelas are different from us. I don’t mean this as any particular indictment of us; this is the imperfect world that we inhabit.
But we do at least try to minimize harm, most of us, not consistently, but sometimes, and where we can.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about Omelas because of the enormous sacrifice we are asking of children, all children, in America right now. Not one of you go away to be tortured for all eternity but all of you put your lives on the line, every day, so some of us can preserve this one right. It’s–it’s not even a good right, it’s not, say, the right to vote–fought for so long and hard by women and black people and people who didn’t own land and essentially people who weren’t rich white men–and still denied to felons. No, it’s the right to possess a small arsenal. Why? I don’t know. I’ve yet to hear an adequate defense for it. And yet now those children have had enough. They’re rising up, they’re walking out of classrooms, they’re marching, and they don’t care if people 20 or 30 or 40 years older than them make fun of them, call them pawns, call them stupid, call them liars, call them crisis actors and worse. They have that conviction that they are going to change the world that you can only have that fervently when you are that young, and more power to them, because people do the change the world. A gunman changed their world, after all, just a week ago. They’re coming out en masse to tell the adults, who are failing to protect them every single day, that enough is enough, that they are walking away from their frankly pretty crappy version of Omelas.
I’d like to think they will succeed. I’d like to believe in a world where that could happen, even though slaughtered first graders couldn’t change it, and 58 dead and more than 800 injured in 10 minutes couldn’t change it. Surely this, we’ve said over and over in America throughout the years, surely this, and a week after the massacre in Florida the state legislature decided not to ban assault weapons, despite the presence of the very kids they had failed to protect. We need more discussion, said one lawmaker on an issue we’ve been discussing for decades, to excuse his inaction in the face of teenagers who just a few days earlier had to run past the slaughtered corpses of their classmates and teachers as they fled to safety. More discussion, while a 15-year-old with more courage than every Republican lawmaker in Florida has put together lies in a hospital bed after saving the lives of 20 of his classmates by putting himself between them and the shooter and taking five bullets.
It isn’t guns, people say. It’s moral decay. It’s the decline of religion. It’s the lack of corporal punishment. To self-plagiarize from a Facebook post I made yesterday, So tell me, friends in the rest of the world. How on earth have your countries managed to avoid the bad parenting, video games, Hollywood movies, lack of personal responsibility, divorce, violent youths, abortion, inability to reach out to the sad and alienated, back-talking youngsters with no sense of right and wrong, and general moral decay that have led to mass shootings in the US becoming commonplace? Because from what I am reading, those are all the uniquely American problems that are resulting in mass shootings having become a commonplace event, and not the easy availability of guns designed to end many many lives in a matter of minutes. And one after the other, my friends in other countries said the same thing over and over again: We have those things too. What we don’t have is the guns.
Should we strive to build a better world, one where guns or no guns, things like this would never take place? Of course we should. But to further plagiarize myself from Twitter: Arguing that we have to dig down into society and figure out why mass shootings are happening before banning guns is like saying we have to solve the Problem of Evil before we can send anyone else to prison.
What an absolute disgrace it is that right now, no one is talking more sense in America at this moment than teenagers. Their strength and moral clarity and composure should be an inspiration to us all. Republican politicians–and I feel comfortable making this sweeping remark, because it is largely Republicans who are bankrolled by the NRA–would gladly see children and adults murdered for the sake of bankrolling their own reelection campaign. Here’s the thing: It isn’t even a moral dilemma for them. It’s just business as usual.
Walk away from this extremely shitty Omelas, kids, and keep walking, and the principals and the school districts and the school superintendents better damn support you as you walk out of your classrooms and walk into the government buildings all around the country that have failed you again and again. You go. As Le Guin wrote in the final lines of her story “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 it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”