Thursday, April 25, 2013

There's no walking away from Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. As a story I didn't find it that gripping; as an essay about a hypothetical, a thought experiment, it was interesting. The spoiler is this: the people of Omelas are very happy, peaceful, and prosperous. They are this way because the agreement is they keep one child in filth and rags in a closet, away from others. Sometimes, people cannot take the idea that one person should suffer so everyone else may be happy, so they leave Omelas.  They walk and they keep walking.

Most people would like to think they would leave Omelas. I'd like to think I would, if for no other reason that I couldn't be happy knowing that one kid must be isolated and brutalized and miserable as the price to pay.  Then again, nothing would change for that kid, who was suffering and brutalized. And if you rescued the kid, everyone in Omelas would be miserable.

So people rationalized. They would really enjoy their happiness to not make the child's suffering in vain. Rescuing the child at this point wouldn't do much good anyway--misery would come to the land and the child didn't know any better and wouldn't adapt well.  Or they opted out. They walked away. And things stayed the same.

As some of you may have heard, a Bangladeshi factory collapsed, killing at least 87 workers. Maybe more. Far more injured. They were making clothing for companies as diverse as Benetton and Wal-Mart. Everything from inexpensive clothing to high-priced clothing.

The thing is, it's not just clothing. The computers we write posts on and the smartphones we use, are made in EPZ's from minerals that are the focus of wars in Africa (they're called conflict minerals for a reason).  Our small appliances, our camera parts, our auto parts, our printers, our toys, our housewares. . .it's not just clothing, many of the things we use are made in export processing zones in terrible conditions. Buying used clothing or sewing everything we wear will not solve the problem, I am sorry to say.

This is not me saying that there's nothing you can do. I don't believe in throwing up my hands and giving up, and if this makes you as angry as it makes me--and this issue has made me livid for years--then I think it's a good and laudable thing to do something about it. And if you want to thrift, or make your own, or buy used, I'm all for that. Anyone who reads this blog knows I do a lot of it (or make entertaining attempts).  But I'm also for contacting your representatives, pushing for an effort to reexamine our trade agreements that end up putting desperate workers at risk (just because a law or trade agreement exists doesn't mean you can't try to have it changed), and contacting companies and asking them why they're insisting on impossible deadlines at an abysmally low cost and then getting so surprised when things like this happen.  Unfortunately, there's no opting out. You can weave your own cloth, sew your own clothes, never buy anything new, or only buy locally sourced and ethically made goods, but there will be others who still have to participate. And then we get into the politics of personal purity rather than efforts to make things right.

We cannot walk away from Omelas. Go on, turn your back! Walk! Breeze through the city gates! Go down that long road. Your next destination will be. . .Omelas. Wherever you go, you will be in Omelas. Because if someone's working two jobs they may not have the time or energy to sew their own clothes.  Because if someone's got kids to feed and housing to pay for and a job that's insecure or a medical condition that's squeezing them dry, they're not going to be able to buy expensive locally-produced things, no matter how long they last. Because if someone lives in certain regions, the only game in town might just be the Wal-Mart or the Meijer. So do you walk away or make an effort to make change?

Welcome to Omelas. There is no walking away.


  1. Well put, well said, well written.

  2. I too, love Le Guin's ideas a little bit more than her writing. I will never look at human gender the same again after reading her "The Left Hand of Darkness." I haven't read this one, but it seems she is borrowing from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." That's fine, the theme of "scapegoat" is a big part of the stories we tell.

    Making people informed, needling them to just think, goddammit, *think* about what you do and the repercussions it causes is probably the most important thing a writer can do. Le Guin *and* Ms. Feral.

    Good article. Thanks for (once more) keeping us on our toes and up to speed!

  3. This was a well written and thought provoking post. Thank you. As a HS English teacher, I am constantly trying to get my students to think beyond the book and to think about how their lives effect others. When we read Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" we talk about the terrible history of the Congo including the problems with coltan today. Right now we're reading "Brave New World" and talking about consumerism (amongst other things) and even "fast fashion". I liked the way you stated you can't walk away from Omelas.

    I guess my problem is always that I know but don't know how to fix it/ change it/ help at all. Thanks for sharing some ideas.

  4. A very interesting post. You know if we all gave up buying from the cheap stores and only bought locally and ethically the we would be creating more jobs locally, Fine. But on the flip side we would also be contributing to further poverty in places like Bangladesh. We can't win whatever we do.