Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Better Them

If you've never read Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" - spoiler alert.

About a week and a half ago, the New York Times published an opinion piece by conservative commentator David Brooks about the Ursula K. Le Guin short story: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." For those of you who haven't read it, the gist is that the impossibly idyllic town of Omelas owes its utopian nature of the suffering of a single child, kept locked in a windowless basement. Le Guin credits the idea as arising from the following quote by William James:

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?
Brooks' contention is that most of us simply live "with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements."
We tolerate exploitation, telling each other that [exploited workers'] misery is necessary for overall affluence, though maybe it’s not.
By the end of the column, though, Brooks seems to hint that it is, saying that people who reject the contract that demands the suffering of some for the affluence of others, like the people who gave Le Guin's story its title, "walk away from prosperity." Perhaps this is what allows him to be a forgiving soul - even though Brooks flat-out accuses those who would make the trade off of violating values that they (claim to) hold which explicitly prohibit such a bargain, he says that such people "aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon." Now, to be sure, I agree with Brooks in that assessment, but that is because I reject the idea of good and bad people outright - in the world I live in, there are only good and bad choices. I don't know that Mr. Brooks shares that view of humanity.

Unlike Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," (which, although mainly described today as a story about conformity, seems to presage the same theme of tragic trade-offs as "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas") in which the person chosen to suffer for the good of the community dies, the child in the basement lives there day after day. Which means that we have a third way; one between accepting the misery of others or walking into an unknown (and presumably unprosperous) darkness - one that neither Le Guin or Brooks seems to have thought of - self sacrifice. Even James' hypothesis doesn't stipulate that the "lost soul on the far off edge of things" who leads "a life of lonely torture" must always be the same person.

While one can make the case that the bad choice in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is to stay in Omelas, rather than brave the darkness of the world beyond, perhaps the problem is really that most of us are unwilling to brave the darkness of the basement - even for a short time. If a person lives to age seventy-five, their life still numbers fewer than 28,000 days. If Omelas were the size of the suburb of Seattle that I now live in, most of us would have to spend one day in the basement - and a few thousand lucky souls would escape it all together. Now, it's likely that the number of people in the real-world "basement" that we rely on for our perceptions of prosperity is significantly greater, perhaps so many that to spread the suffering equally, each of us would have to spend a week, or a month, or a season, or perhaps even a year in the basement.

Of course, most of us don't do it. Part of it is, I suspect, that it's hard to know, when they lock the door behind you, how long it will be before the next person comes along to let you out - and take your place. And, given the size of our communities, it's easy to conclude that you don't trust them to, if left to their own devices, ever come back for you. Maybe we realize that if it were our turn, we'd avoid reporting for duty, instead rationalizing how were not bad people - or making bad choices. Perhaps, we'd tell ourselves, we've suffered enough already for things that everyone else has, but we lack. After all, that's what everyone else would do...

But maybe it's because, in the end, if we lock someone else, some child, in the basement, there is no pressure on us to understand if their scapegoating and misery is required for our affluence, and if it isn't, to have a better understanding of what is. Prosperity, if you would wish to call it that, becomes less a matter of effort than it does of non-effort - all we have to do is keep the door locked, ignore the pleading and pretend that by numbly stumbling through life, we'll somehow make it up to them.

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