Back during the early Bush era, American imperialism was rearing its ugly head. I was in a group at the time where I met a guy who would become a close friend. The group read a story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a story written a in 1973 which was a couple of years before I was born. Those were the waning days of Nixon’s reign, another dark time right before his fall from power. I had forgotten about Le Guin’s story, until my friend mentioned it the other day. We are once more at a moment of societal angst. And the story remains relevant.
As told by the narrator, there is a utopian world, a supposedly wonderful and perfect society in all ways but one. A single innocent child must suffer alone as the price to be paid for the greater good. “The central idea of this psychomyth,” Le Guin explains in a preface, is “the scapegoat.” In giving the story further thought, my friend suggested: “I considered the central idea could be empire–that some would live very well off the misery of others (only 1 other in the story, but could be any number). Is one basis of empire, scapegoating?” I suspect Le Guin would accept that as a background influence to the central idea, if not the central idea itself. She says the inspiration came from William James (“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life“):
“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?”
This story is about the belief in substitutionary sacrifice, a narrative frame that gives meaning and purpose. It has ancient roots and took its present form by way of Judeo-Christian theology. The scapegoat is at the heart of our civilizational project. Ultimately, it’s a form of dark magic. And its power comes from telling a compelling story. But the exact details of the story are a distraction, pointing away from whatever is the real issue.
The real issue, one way or another, is always the social order. To anchor a social order, a story has to be viscerally embodied within collective experience. It’s not enough that someone is sacrificed for it must be known and accepted, must be felt as real and necessary by those within the social order. It makes them complicit and so binds them to the social order. It is a social contract written in blood. Dark magic is blood magic.
Le Guin is using counter-magic by telling her own story. It appears as mere fiction to allow it to slide below our psychological defenses. By doing so, she slips in a seed of potential awareness. The story isn’t about some other place. It is about our own society. The belief in substitutionary sacrifice as having magical power is what makes this kind of society possible, the shining city on a hill of corpses. Imperialism or any such authoritarian regime comes at great costs and those must be rationalized as necessary for the greater good. Le Guin describes that the young people of Omelas, upon learning of the suffering child, are moved by compassion as any good person would be in a good society:
“Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.”
Let me bring this into present realities of our own society. This ritualized suffering of the condemned is why even rich, powerful white men can occasionally be sacrificed in order to maintain the status quo. Anyone can be sacrificed, as long as the system itself is protected and unquestioned. The one thing that can’t be sacrificed is the social order itself.
That is what makes spectacles of publicly shaming individuals a safe outlet, whereas the greater and more pervasive realities of collective victimization must remain unspoken. This is why the overwhelming problems of lead toxicity and pollution, primarily harming poor dark-skinned people, has never led to the same level of moral outrage and media judgment as has the sexual scandals. And this is why those sexual scandals mostly focus on well off white victimizers and well off white victims. Millions of the poor and powerless being harmed far worse would never get the same amount of attention and concern.
Such media spectacle maintains the focus on those in power and privilege, their suffering and their wrongdoing. And so this keeps the public mind locked within the ideological structure of power and privilege. The rest of us are supposed to be spectators sitting silently in the dark as the actors entertain us on the stage. A few people will be sacrificed and then, as a society, we can fall back into unconsciousness. With substitutionary sacrifice, our collective sins once again are atoned for.
The only thing most of us have to do is passively submit to the public ritual. So we watch in silence. And the story being told is burned into our psyche, our soul. To tell a different story, as does Le Guin, is a danger to the world as we know it. And to read such a story threatens to break the magic spell, invoking a state of anxiety and discontent by reminding us that our way of life (and way of death) is and always has been a choice.
We are reminded that there are those who choose to walk away. What they walk away from isn’t only that society but, more importantly, the story of that society. They can only do that by walking toward a different story, even if another society hasn’t yet fully taken form. First, a story has to be told about the walking away:
“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. 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.”