Book Club: Three times a Geek Feminist walked away from Omelas (and two times she didn’t)

1. The most straightforward case

I tried out for a teaching gig at a riding school near where I grew up. The place was rundown and their safety standards were not up to mine: I had to insist on the students wearing helmets, and I had to double-check that everyones’ girths were correctly buckled, and there were complaints when I didn’t let the rank beginners gallop their horses around. Despite my best efforts, the horses flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another. It’s what horses do.

All through our lesson, helicopters hovered over the bush nearby; and the trail ride that had gone out failed and failed and failed to come back.

It transpired that they had taken out a woman who had no English and no helmet, and her horse had bolted with her and she had fallen on her head, and the helicopter was her airlift out.

I thanked them and told them that I was no longer interested in the job. I heard, later, that she had lived, albeit with traumatic brain injury.

2. Ambiguity

Straightforward cases are rhinoceroses. They’re not quite unicorns, in that they do exist. They are just very rare.

The Sydney Anglican Church has a generous helping of Omelas. At its summer camps, bright-towered by the sea, the sunlight sparkles in the rigging of boats. Sandstone churches nestle in moss-grown gardens. At least when I was growing up, there was altogether too much shimmering tambourine. Glebe – an inner-city suburb that belongs to the church, an old word meaning the clergyman’s benefice and income – is nothing if not great parks and houses with red roofs and painted walls.

The parish to which I belonged had more Omelas in it than most. There was a room with a locked door, and in that room was a child. It was not defective and it was not dirty, but it was abused.

It would be satisfying to say that I walked away from the church because of the child. Satisfying, but untrue. I walked away – stumbled away, rather – because I was lied to, and it broke me. It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out about the child, and understood what had happened to it as of a piece with the rest of the lies.

What is true is that I can no longer remember my childhood’s sparkling boats or the old people in their robes or the music without thinking, with fury and anguish, of that child in the locked room.

Intermission: A song for Le Guin

You were the tattered paperback on my sister’s bookshelf; you were my endlessly overdue library books; you did a reading at a bookstore in the Haight the week of the September 11 attacks. Do you remember? I was the young woman in the back quietly weeping. Well, I was one of them. You taught me the true name of the shadow, and what dragons are. You taught me how to revisit my old stories and rewrite them. You showed me what I wanted to be: a mind always reaching out, reaching out to be whole. You are my Great Bear and my Master Doorkeeper. I love you.

3. A disorderly retreat

Not surprisingly, then, one of my abortive PhD proposals was on feminist scifi, and perhaps in one of my alternate-universe lives I hold the Ursula K. Le Guin Chair in Postcolonialist Speculative Fiction (is this a real thing? Because it bloody well ought to be.) In this life I have a master’s degree and am a professor of nothing, because even in 1994 when I graduated, no matter how many times I ran the numbers, I could not find a way to stay in the academy and indulge an expensive passion for equestrian sport.

More frighteningly, very few of the scenarios I ran included the ability to keep much of a roof over my own head. When I looked around at my peers and the cohort ahead of me in graduate school, their lives and prospects could best be described with words like “monastic” and “austere.” Twenty years later, when I look at the academic careers of young people with qualifications like mine, I come up with words like “predicament,” “soul-destroying” and “ongoing scandal.”

Once again, I wish I had left the academy because I was taking a principled stand against the exploitation of grad student labour. In fact, I grabbed whatever I could carry and fled.

Epilogue: Living and working in Omelas

Whether you walk, stumble or flee from Omelas, it turns out the worlds beyond the city have something in common: locked rooms in which children are being held prisoner. I live in San Francisco now, and on our good days my friends and I might qualify as mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives are not wretched. (On our bad days all bets are off.) With one voice, the authorities in our lives insist that the price of our happiness includes torture, drones, and the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. I don’t know whether this is true, but I know that I am complicit in these atrocities.

And then there’s White feminism and its history of racism (and its histories of ableism and classism and transphobia and and and.) I’m a feminist to my bone marrow, but I’ll be damned if I’ll obtain my own liberation at the expense of anyone else.

I used to think the answer to the challenge of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” would be for the walkers to join forces, fly back to the city with helicopter gunships and free the child by any means necessary. Now I think the best we can do is practise vigilance. To watch out for people who might be locking children in rooms. And to refrain from locking children in rooms ourselves.

Have you walked away? What’s it like where you are?

19 thoughts on “Book Club: Three times a Geek Feminist walked away from Omelas (and two times she didn’t)

  1. Deborah

    I taught Omelas to graduate students last fall, and I found myself thinking “I wish this story made the choice harder.” Some colleagues and I have coined the term “killing the baby moments,” referencing the moment in Lois Lowry’s The Giver in which it becomes obvious that this is no longer a thought experiment, because there is a single clear moral choice of action. In “The Ones Who Walk Away,” I realized, the title of the story itself to a certain extent makes it clear which choice is the moral one. This is not a story about the beautiful city Omelas; this is a story about the people who walk away, and why they choose to do so.

    Because in real life these choices are hard. Yatima, in your lovely story, the examples which to me evoke “The Ones Who Walk Away” are all in the epilogue. The riding school and the church camp, for example, did not necessarily require their terrible lacks in order to keep what was beautiful about them. In theory, those two places could have been fixed and still been beautiful. LeGuin’s short story, like so many thought experiments, posits the magical hand-waving of “but none of this would be possible without the child.”

    Whereas in your epilogue you talk about living in San Francisco in relative privilege. I don’t know if the drones or our incarceration rate keep us safe here in the US, but I do know that our food is a lower percentage of our income than pretty much anywhere else in the world because it is, for all practical purposes, produced in either effective slavery or otherwise terrible conditions. I know that our inexpensive consumer goods rely on making ourselves feel good with domestic labor laws while outsourcing our manufacturing to countries that don’t have those protections. I know that our clean corporations, universities, and public spaces rely on providing a good benefits package (and sometimes, if increasingly rarely, union contracts) to our employees, while we outsource custodial contracts to poorer, less educated, and usually browner non-employees who don’t share employee benefits even though they share employee workplaces.

    And I know that I don’t want to walk away from any of that. I passively, in a feel-good way, want to magically offer my cheap food, good benefits, inexpensive consumer goods, good labor laws to the rest of the world. (I can’t even think of what purpose it would serve for me to walk away, but maybe that means I’m not thinking about it hard enough. I remember getting angry when philosopher Peter Singer wrote about how he gives away most of his salary and lives on poverty wages as a matter of course, because I kept thinking “But that means he can’t buy ethically! He can’t choose to buy fair trade, or co-op, or from the company that treats its employees well!” But then why should I get angry about that?)

    Which is another way of saying that night, when I fall asleep, I feel sad about the child in that closet in Omelas.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      And Peter Singer might be able to give away most of his salary, but he can’t give away his white privilege, his male privilege, or his privilege as a person without visible disabilities (the latter in particular is something he’s been criticized about).

      Going back to your starting point about making the choice harder, I’m not so sure Le Guin *meant* to make the choice look easy. This is just my reading of the story, but I, too, read it and think specifically about tech culture, and what other people sacrifice for me to be able to make a lot of money by pressing buttons on a computer all day while seated. But… I’m not leaving, at least right now. We don’t know what the people in the story who *stayed* in Omelas thought. I don’t know how different it was for them (in Le Guin’s imagination) than how it is for me.

      Tangentially, I also think about Omelas whenever a friend of mine has a baby and announces immediately, “it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!” Declining to participate in the system of coercively assigning a sex to infants has a huge social cost; assigning a sex only does concrete harm to a minority of the infants, perhaps 1% at most. The babies in that 1%, especially those who get coercively assigned male at birth but aren’t male, pay the price for the security and comfort that everybody else gets from knowing where they fit into a sexed and gendered social order… And yet, for some reason, I don’t expect any of my friends who know this to walk away, to say, “I have a child, and when they’re old enough, they will tell *me* what their sex is.” Because I see that it’s not an easy choice.

      So because these are the real-life parallels that come to mind for me when I read the story, and I know these aren’t easy choices, I don’t think that Le Guin meant to make it look like an easy choice either. I don’t think Le Guin is likely to see *herself* as one who walked away either, as a resident of a nice neighborhood in a pleasant, highly racially segregated American city.

      1. Deborah

        Yes, I agree, both about probable intent, and really about effect. I don’t think the story makes it as easy as many other similar stories do. The fact that I can look at a thought experiment I’ve probably read a hundred times and thought about many more and say “the framing morally values one set of choices more than another” probably says more about how often I read the story than it does about anything obvious in the text itself.

        And yes, yes, to both of your examples. Hell, I just look at the technology that has made it possible for me to keep working as a person with disabilities, and I know that it partially relies on rare earth mining which is devastating for the health of the miners & the environment, and isn’t all kicks and giggles for international trade relations either. I look at this phone in front of me and think about what little we know about the factory where it was made and ugh, I have to stop thinking about it or I get sick to my stomach.

        And isn’t that a nice choice I have? The choice to stop thinking about it? In the immortal words of our former first lady, “why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

      2. Mary

        It’s interesting to consider the world of The Dispossessed, which she subtitles An Ambiguous Utopia, in light of Omelas. The story of the anarchist Laia Asieo Odo, who led the revolution and pre-figured the anarchist society of The Dispossessed is told in The Day Before the Revolution, which immediately follows Omelas in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and Le Guin makes an authorial note that Odo is her prototypical “walked away from Omelas” character.

        In The Day Before the Revolution and The Dispossessed the difficulty of the bargain is a little bit clearer. There is off-screen infanticide and starvation in The Dispossessed, and an on-screen episode in which it is clear that the anarchists largely treat interpersonal violence (although apparently not rape or murder, which again are mentioned off-screen) as a private matter. It’s also pretty clear that there’s a fairly high level of ongoing interpersonal conflict and occasional physical violence involved in the anarchist world, not to mention the ongoing compromise that they effectively buy the right to live on their moon by giving the vast of its mining output to the archists.

        In The Day Before the Revolution Odo is a widowed torture survivor. Her revolution has come with a lot of pain. Unlike Shevek of The Dispossessed — who like Yatima in the OP hears the siren song of the life of the mind — she also seems to have a personality type that is not much conflicted about being an activist. But then, she has more oppressions she can’t opt out of. (It’s pretty clear to me that gender privilege and technocrat privilege exists among the anarchists of The Dispossessed, and Shevek has both. He and the narrative deal with that… up to a point.)

        I can’t really read them separately from Omelas any more, almost as if Odo wrote Omelas herself and it’s revered as one of the-canon-they’re-not-meant-to-have on Anarres.

      3. Emmers

        Feel free to reply with a link to Coercive Assignment 101 if this is off-topic or old hat (I literally heard that phrase for the first time today or yesterday, and now I am suddenly seeing it all over the place, and wondering if I have missed something), but —

        “assigning a sex only does concrete harm to a minority of the infants, perhaps 1% at most”

        Would assigning sex (gender?) at birth *still* harm those infants if our society weren’t so fundamentally broken with regards to gender roles?

        IOW, it feels like sex assignment wouldn’t be harmful if people weren’t such total dipshits about trans* issues. (Also if we didn’t physically mutilate intersex infants, but that’s a separate issue, IIRC.) Wouldn’t a good outcome be, you make your best guess at birth, that guess is going to be right for 99% of babies (is the number really as high as 1%? though I guess that’s actually irrelevant…), and if it turns out you were wrong, you apologize and correct the situation and life goes on.

        1. Zavire Shiran

          A lot of damage can be done by the world telling you that you are something that you are not. It is very easy to trample over a young child’s opinion of themselves, which is exactly what would happen in many cases under your proposed solution. It would certainly be preferable to what we have today, but we really shouldn’t be telling children what they are when they can just tell us all about it themselves.

        2. Tim Chevalier

          If our society weren’t so fundamentally broken with regards to gender roles, why would we need to assign a sex (sex is just the set of gender labels that progressive cis people get given cognitive authority to use to bully and misgender trans people) to an infant at birth?

          To me, this is a little like asking “would fewer trans people transition in a society that was less broken with regard to gender roles?” I think *more* trans people would transition in such a society. I am suspicious of cis people who claim that in their version of an ideal world, trans people wouldn’t exist. I like existing and if we ever achieve utopia, I want to be there.

        3. Tim Chevalier

          you make your best guess at birth, that guess is going to be right for 99% of babies

          Also, to which I say… remember which story we were discussing?

        4. sparrow

          As a person who a) is gender-complicated and b) still considering parenting, I think this is oversimplifying and not a great idea.

          There’s two categories of entities that get gendered: ones that are unaware of it (fetuses, babies, animals) and ones that are aware of it (non-infant people). Referring to a fetus as “you little monster!” when it kicks its bearer in the ribs, calling it an “it,” etc. are probably not things one would do to a person whose feelings could be hurt or who could possibly object. Referring to a cat as “he” regardless of “his” feelings is likewise not a thing I think anybody minds.

          It is a good idea to ask for pronouns from people old enough to have a preference, and to respect that preference. Refusing or failing to do so *is* doing really substantial harm to a small group of people, and it costs almost nothing to stop doing that harm – including to kids you’re responsible for.

          How one should pronoun/assign gender to newborns is a bit more complicated, and on some level I don’t care because they don’t care, they have a limited capacity for understanding speech. On another level, people who gender their babies in non-binary ways (right now, in the real world) often attract negative attention and/or media attention for it. Assuming no major cultural shifts, I am probably going to refer to any infant I have as “he” or “she” to shield the baby (and myself) from that kind of attention.

          In a Utopian world, absolutely we wouldn’t have to assign gender to kids to keep them off Fox News, and we could pronoun them neutrally until they were old enough to express a preference.

  2. Bruce Byfield

    When I’ve taught “Omelas,” I’ve always emphasized the last few sentences:

    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.

    These lines make clear that the people who walk away have not been successful in renouncng privilege. They have only come to the moral decision their privilege is unacceptable. It’s the making of that decision, not the successful construction of an alternative that distinguishes them.

    I suggest the same is true of Odo in “The Day Before the Revolution.” It is the moral effort she had made, not her success in walking away, that matters to Le Guin, just as in “A Wizard of Earthsea,” it is Ged’s recognition of the gebbeth as a part of himself that allows him to defeat it or in “The Lefthand of Darkness,” the psychological climax is the protagonist’s final acceptance of at least one of the inhabitants of Winter as human.

    In all these cases, the moral choice does mean the end of action or growth. It is simply the right thing to do at the time. An imperfect world remains to be dealt with, and at most things are only relatively better or hopeful because someone has made the right choice.

    You might say that “Omelas” is a fable of the moment of radicalization.

  3. Dorothea

    I can’t reread this story and think that the brutalized child is the only thing wrong — not just accepting-of-wrong, but 100% effed-up beyond-the-pale WRONG — in Omelas.

    I know, I know, it’s a thought experiment and I’m completely reading against the text. I still think Omelas has a lot more dark closets. If it doesn’t, I really want to know how they reduced the impact of evil to one child… and whether the Omelasians who leave take that knowledge with them.

  4. Alan Bell

    I thought it was a really interesting story, it invites you to think of the ones who walk away as doing something heroic. They are basically making the statement “I will be no part of this”, but in fact the only thing they are fixing by walking is their own guilt. It may be that this is the only thing they *can* fix, however they are walking away from the problem and not addressing it. It is comparable to other scenarios where someone is part of a group doing some kind of abusive activity and there is a sense of guilt by association. I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule to decide whether situations are “I am fine with being part of this, it is OK” vs “Carry on but I am having nothing to do with it” vs “This stops NOW!”
    Walking away from Omelas is taking the middle option and I am not sure it is enough.

    1. MrsDragon

      That was my same reaction. Okay, maybe they assuaged their conscious, but that child’s life is still exactly the same and the lives of everyone in Omelas is still exactly the same.

      But then if I apply it to my own life, often I don’t even achieve the middle road. I understand the horrors of our meat production industry, I support the idea of buying local, sustainably raised meat. Yet do I? No. (Not yet). Nor do I eat vegetarian when I eat out. In fact I eat more meat at restaurants than I do at home.

      So I see the point she raises and how much courage and moral imperative it takes even to walk away. But still, I don’t know that it’s enough.

  5. Shauna

    I talked about this story in a blog post a year or so ago. (Feel free to delete this intro to my comment if you’d prefer no self-linking, but there were some great comments there, and a link to the William James essay that inspired the story.)

    I interpret The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas as a “best case scenario” for utilitarianism. In Omelas, the maximum number of people are happy at the expense of the minimum number of people. That so many people view and comprehend and empathize with the suffering of the child and stay in the city may be viewed as selfishness, or apathy, but it may also be commitment to a (fairly popular) ethical system.

    I view walking away from Omelas as a rejection of that ethical system – of the idea that it is ever okay to profit from the suffering of others – and towards a different ethical system. Not a specific different ethical system. Le Guin makes no attempt to describe it: “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.” It’s why I think no one attempts to liberate the child, in story. Le Guin isn’t attempting to articulate a different moral framework, one which necessitates a particular course of action towards the child, so much as asking, “Can you accept this?” To walk away is to say, “I cannot.”

  6. Emmers

    To me, Omelas is living in the First World, knowing full well that your lifestyle is supported by the unsustainable pillage of the resources and labor of people living elsewhere (or even poorer people living in your own country).

    I don’t understand how the horse-school story is Omelas – would appreciate a clarification.

  7. AMM

    I don’t see Omelas as an example of a trade-off: trading off one child’s misery to get maximum happiness for everyone else. (I actually think that the story loses its power if you demand that Omelas have a single interpretation.) What if the evolution of Omelas was an attempt to make _everyone_ happy — sort of a social activists’ utopia — and this child is the irreducible kernel of misery?

    This interpretation fits my own experience of social activism and social progress: that every attempt to bring life on Earth closer to paradise seems to always bring some sort of unexpected misery. The solutions to today’s problems are tomorrow’s new problems. What if the consequence of trying to make the child happier is to return Omelas to the pageant of atrocities and pointless suffering that makes up most of human history, a world in which everyone, including the child, will be even more miserable?

    Or what if misery is essential to being human? If Omelas’s fundamental error is in viewing the sort of happiness they’ve achieved as something to be desired?

    There’s a proverb in one of U.LeG’s works. something like, “when you go away from X, you’re still on the road to X.” So simply going away from Omelas doesn’t change anything. You’re still framing the world in the same way.

    For that matter, U.LeG. doesn’t say (or IMHO imply) that whatever places those who walk away end up are any better (by whatever standard you use) than Omelas. For that matter, do the terms “better” or “worse” have any real meaning if you enlarge your scope large enough?

  8. Rabbi R. Karpov, Ph.D., CPRW

    When I taught the Intro to (World) Literature course at the Navajo tribal college, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” was not among those I selected. In a community geographically elsewhere, however, where I am temporarily, it became for a while of central importance in my life, given what was happening. In fact, at one point, I thought of sending it as an attachment to several of the principals (two community leaders, plus the former community leader who was now the mobbing target), then thought better of it (probably the right choice). Eventually, when I myself got targeted for refusing to not shun the target, I had to bail on the community and it was brutal – both before (putting up with the toxicity in its permutations) and after I bailed (but at least I’m not continuously going over there and getting re-poisoned ongoingly in ways not fully evident until later).

    Complicating all of this has been a rather harsh learning that sometimes when someone is at the bottom of the dogpile, there may be reasons. It may not be as simple as what I’d been trained to see. Maybe until who is at the bottom of the dogpile examines their contribution to what has happened, it won’t get better. What I was trained to do when you see what looks like a bunch of people ganging up on one — rush in and pull out and dust off who’s at the bottom and been terribly badly beaten, together with remaining friends with everybody – did not work.

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time, as I deal with the ensuing isolation, and the figuring out to where I am headed, after reaching a point of the other being intolerable.

    If you think it looks bad from the pews, it looks worse from the pulpit. That’s mine and you can quote me on that: “Rabbi Karpov sez: ‘If you think it looks bad from the pews, it looks worse from the pulpit’.

    Please know that I’m tremendously grateful for this thread. I’m grateful to meet these new minds — these new people.

  9. AMM

    I don’t see Omelas as an example of a trade-off: trading off one child’s misery to get maximum happiness for everyone else. (I actually think that the story loses its power if you demand that Omelas have a single interpretation.) What if the evolution of Omelas was an attempt to make _everyone_ happy — sort of a social activists’ utopia — and this child is the irreducible kernel of misery?

    This interpretation fits my own experience of social activism and social progress: that every attempt to bring life on Earth closer to paradise seems to always bring some sort of unexpected misery. The solutions to today’s problems are tomorrow’s new problems. What if the consequence of trying to make the child happier is to return Omelas to the pageant of atrocities and pointless suffering that makes up most of human history, a world in which everyone, including the child, will be even more miserable?

    Or what if misery is essential to being human? If Omelas’s fundamental error is in viewing the sort of happiness they’ve achieved as something to be desired?

    There’s a proverb in one of U.LeG’s works. something like, “when you go away from X, you’re still on the road to X.” So simply going away from Omelas doesn’t change anything. You’re still framing the world in the same way.

    For that matter, U.LeG. doesn’t say (or IMHO imply) that whatever places those who walk away end up are any better (by whatever standard you use) than Omelas. For that matter, do the terms “better” or “worse” have any real meaning if you enlarge your scope large enough?

  10. Kimberly Chapman

    Okay, maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m insufficiently into literary thought experiments, but within the first few paragraphs of this story I was rolling my eyes and thinking, “Oh, there’s a toxic doughnut in here somewhere, isn’t there?”

    Which I recognize is completely unfair since I think LeGuin’s story predates Bisson’s. but since the Bisson reference is a favourite long-term one in our household, the Omelas thing felt overdone to me. It’s why my husband and I were eye-rolling at “The Beast Below” in Doctor Who.

    As for the theme itself, some days I’d walk away and some I wouldn’t. Mostly I’m the rage against the machine type, but every once in awhile I turn a blind eye because I’m exhausted from all of the raging all the time.

Comments are closed.