When we analyze the way our economy has been built over the centuries, we often come to a tragic realization. It is the awareness of patterns of exploitation that have been the norm and continue to be our standard procedure when it comes to business. From the making of our cheap clothes to the production of our mobile devices, and including the production of animal products, it is clear that we live in a world where the end justifies the means.
In The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K. Le Guin paints a metaphor for our modern practices that sustain the economy while exploiting those we consider inferior to us.
At the beginning of the piece, festivities are being described and while the citizens of Omelas almost come off as perfect individuals, living in a place with no monarchy, slavery, or stock exchange, the author clarifies that they are not simple and noble individuals and that they are, in fact, ‘not less complex than us.’ As the story develops, Le Guin tries to make the audience almost doubt that such a place could exist, continuously asking if we believe they are truly happy people living in a utopian city. Her desire for the readers to have a clear picture of Omelas, the good and the bad, brings her to tell us just one more thing that might make the city seem more credible.
We learn about the child in the basement, and how his misery makes it possible for Omelas to prosper. We learn about the conditions he lives in, how the people feel about him, and about those who visit him. This is the first instance in which Le Guin describes something that can be applied to our modern world. Many of us live in societies whose prosperity relies on the exploitation of many children and women extremely underpaid and working in inhumane conditions. She is telling us we have our own children in the basement too.
The author writes, ‘they all know it is there, all the people of Omelas (…) but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.’
And just like the people of Omelas, we accept that the damage big corporations have inflicted on innocent lives is what makes us thrive. We also often look the other way, just like them. The way the child is described — as feeble-minded, looking six while being ten, with no calves to its legs, malnourished, with no understanding of time — is a similar picture to the one we could observe if we walked in a factory where Nike shoes or iPhones are being produced. This is the picture that we can also see if we pay a visit to livestock farms, where animals live extremely short lives and are exploited until their dying breath.
For years now we have been aware of how industries like the fast fashion, the advancement of technology, and the production of meat have a tragic impact on the health and lives of those we take advantage of, and while many people have protested and spread awareness, just like those who visit the child in the basement and decide to stay in Omelas, we all still take part of this society and accept the idea that it is what makes it work efficiently. We tell ourselves and others that their misery, just like the child’s, is necessary for the success of our society.
Although we accept the way things are, we would never admit what we are doing is morally wrong. Nowadays, many of us like to believe that we have a good set of values and beliefs. We tell other people are not objects, which is why we don’t enslave people anymore and why we don’t murder some to save others. The truth, however, is that we don’t truly live by that code.
We consider certain situations correct or ‘the right thing to do’ if they benefit the majority in the end. Deciding whether to sacrifice the few to save the many is a tough choice and, more often than not, we do sacrifice those few. While it is not truly anyone’s place to indicate whether that’s correct or not, what Le Guin wants the readers to do is acknowledge that we are just like the people of Omelas. She writes that ‘they feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations.
They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.’ This speaks to many of us because we are not business owners, we don’t hold high social positions, and we have little to none power in the bigger scheme. What we can do is be truthful about the type of society we are, be aware of what we buy or what we consume, knowing that although we can’t do much, we can at least acknowledge that our survival and happiness depends on the misfortune of others.
The story gives us something to think about. It challenges each of us to ask ourselves if we are willing to compromise our values and beliefs and live under the guilt of the decisions we have made so far as a society. Are we making excuses, like the people of Omelas when they think of all the reasons why liberating the child would be putting him in danger after so long in captivity? Le Guin writes that ‘their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and accept it.’
Is this the legacy that we want to leave behind, explaining to our future generations why we have innocent children in the basement or miserable animals in cages? The author describes the people from Omelas as people that are not free because they know compassion. She writes this right before she tells us about those that, sometimes, walk away from Omelas right after visiting the child. They do not know where they are going but they never come back. They simply decide for themselves that they are no longer willing to live under the terms set by the city and that their personal beliefs are what makes them truly free.
Those who stay forever struggle with the compassion they feel for the child in contrast with the feeling of joy knowing they can take advantage of the wonderful things Omelas has to offer because of that single sacrifice. Those who leave, instead, find that freedom longed for. Freedom from the compassion eating them alive, freedom from becoming people they never wanted to become, freedom from that act of evil which they benefited from. However, they do not free the child. Freeing the child would be to put at risk the lives and happiness of those they leave behind.
Those who walk away from Omelas simply take themselves out of the equation, almost holding that in-between position; they are not staying, therefore they are not evil, but they are not freeing the child, therefore they are not good. This challenges us to think of where we stand in the face of injustice. Do we take any type of stance against it or do we simply turn our back to it? Do we defend the innocent or do we walk away?
While Ursula K. Le Guin doesn’t tell us what the correct choice is, this piece is a way for us to reflect on what kind of people we want to be and what kind of legacy we want to leave behind. The picture of the child in the basement is an image that can never be erased from the memories of those who visit him. That same way, those who have truly taken a peek at cheap labor and animal exploitation can never be the same person and are faced with a choice: to do what is socially correct for the majority and accept the way things are or to take a stand for what is morally correct no matter the cost? That is what The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas leaves us with. The choice is up to us and time is kicking.