Let’s begin with a story. This one is Ursula K. Le Guin’s. It’s called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), and it was inspired by The Brothers Karamazov–specifically, Ivan’s discourse on the immorality of heaven.
The “plot” of Le Guin’s story is simple: we’re introduced to one utopia, Omelas, where all is as splendid as splendid can be. Then we’re introduced to the secret to this community’s prosperity: a social contract that compels one child to suffer horrifically, that everyone else might live in abundance and joy and peace.
Some can live with this contract. Indeed, as Ivan noted in his version, which recounts for his brother wrenching stories of human depravity, that’s what many Christians assert when they invoke the idea that all tears will one day be wiped away. They are suggesting–though surely not all of them mean to be–that there exists some domain of peace that could ever make conscionable the present suffering of even a single child.
But then there are, as Le Guin’s title notes, “The Ones Who Walk Away.” The folks who, upon realizing what the contract entails, refuse to rationalize its injustice further.
That’s us. That’s humanism.
And that… leaves us with the one question Le Guin’s story refuses to answer:
What in blazes lies outside Omelas, for us even to consider walking toward?
The Annoying Humanist
As I near a year with Patheos, I’ve been processing the significant differences between writing fiction, which should not need to be explained, and writing argumentative essay-posts, which intrinsically invite conversation, debate, and dissent. And then there’s that third pesky realm–the real world–as a site of enacting humanist beliefs. It, of course, has challenges all its own, as I’m discovering during my time in Comuna 8 of Medellín.
One complaint I’ve routinely received here, though, is that I ask too much of humanists–that I charge them with the responsibility to walk away from more than is realistic. I’ve been especially fascinated by those who regard these posts as lectures from some higher-than-thou mount of moral authority. (I agree, that sounds super annoying.)
The trouble is, basic atheism doesn’t intrinsically stand for anything–it can’t. It’s a null position, remarking only upon what one does not believe. And so while I have been an atheist my entire life, I have never been satisfied with the label. An atheist can be a critical thinker; they can value empiricism and careful pragmatic applications of reason to others’ claims; they can be ever-on-the-lookout for their own slips into fuzzy thinking in other discursive realms. Or… they can be the opposite. They can be eminently satisfied with themselves for being in the right “tribe”; they can contend that it’s only other people who ever need to change; they can set up new “sacred cows” in the old ones’ wake.
I aspire to the former group–with the strong addition of humanist empathy to my “careful pragmatic applications of reason to others’ claims”–and I do so with myself first and foremost. I am not a “good” person. I carry within me thousands upon thousands of foolish and selfish and reckless mistakes that have done harm. I have emotional allegiances to complicated people, too, which makes it more difficult to act with full moral consistency. And I belong to information silos that breed in me, as a first reaction, sheer incredulity that anyone could ever hold an opinion opposite my own.
These are significant hurdles. Worse still, they attest to one element of humanism that even fellow atheists sometimes find suspiciously like religion. They involve fixation on the idea of transformation, of working to be better than we are.
When someone comes from a background and cultural context in which street and church preachers alike, as well as their own parents and close community, are emphatic in their belief that humanity is scum, that human beings are the antagonists in their own stories, that we are all depraved and fallen creatures in need of salvation… of course that is going to inform how that same person interprets even a secular person pushing for fellow humanists to rally to improve the world.
How exhausting. How annoying.
After perhaps a lifetime enduring religious bullying, isn’t there anywhere in the secular world a body can simply be?
Existential Buddhism vs. Secular Humanism
It’s no surprise to me, then, that secular folk find a great deal to enjoy in Buddhist philosophy. After dealing with so much awful rhetoric from the big three (Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser extent Judaism), who wouldn’t resonate with the idea that “suffering is other people”? (Or rather, that suffering is a consequence of the bonds we form with other people: our connections are investments in this world, and those investments are the sites of all our agony in striving and grief in failure as in loss.)
And yet even Buddhism, as adopted by Westerners, is political. It’s a flight from a particular context, a choice to Walk Away that requires relentless upkeep in a culture of immense commodity and entitlement buy-ins. (Plus, it’s easy for many folks who admire Buddhism in principle to end up “consuming” it as a new series of status objects, with strong classist components that many Western practitioners also fail to address.)
No position is easy, in other words. Life is exhausting, for those of us who live it with any sense of wonder left at all.
North American Political Discourse, and Humanism
To this reality, too, is added a further complicating factor for many of my fellow atheists in North America. I’m talking, of course, about the current frustration–and I will say this and stand by it!–of being a white masculinized person, and as such often seeing no place for oneself in much of our discourse about how to make a better world. Of seeing oneself positioned, instead, as a literal embodiment of the world that needs to be left behind. For those atheists familiar with similar rhetoric from the evangelicals spouting off about intrinsic damnation, how is this any different?
Now, in actuality, it’s not that dire–but I 100% agree, we’re at a point in the discursive process where a lot of glib social-media/infotainment shorthand makes it sound as though individual white masculinized persons are flawed-Omelas writ large.
Within communities advocating for change, I promise you that’s not actually the stump speech–but the challenge being set at all our feet is going to appear much higher for some, because on the surface it means choosing to give up far more.
There is a strong sense, for instance, that those of us who benefit from being seen as white have to choose to walk away from those benefits. What benefits? Well, they’re obvious enough in police encounters, when the white mass shooter of black church members gets Burger King from the police taking him in alive. However, they’re more mercurial for individuals who do not see those racial benefits economically. (How can that be, others wonder, when household assets for our demographic are staggeringly higher than those of, say, black estadounidenses? Well, just remember that class-based income disparity among white persons is staggering, too–so many white folk cannot see all the ways we still better navigate the economic world on whole.)
We have to walk away, too, from entitlement. We have to choose to put ourselves in harm’s way more often–and not in condescending displays of “white knighting”, but in ways that help reduce the violence endured by marginalized communities striving to have their voices heard in the systems that we share. We also have to remember the unjust economic playing field whenever we triumph within it, and avoid perpetuating the myth that our success could ever be due solely to hard work in a realm where many won’t even get call-backs due to the “colour” of their name.
And that’s an incredibly tall order–on par with walking away from Omelas, because again, what manner of life lies beyond these benefits is unclear.
How exhausting, yet again.
How annoying, to be encouraged to regard a lifetime of uncertainty as the destination.
To be asked to start walking, and keep walking, for the whole of our fleeting time alive.
But most importantly… how bloody hypocritical, no?
Because here’s the thing: none of us ever walks away from Omelas.
Omelas vs. Reality
Le Guin’s thought experiment is brilliant, but it breaks down as a direct correlate for the real world, because in the real world… people can’t just walk away from the system. In a more realistic Omelas, you’d instead get people writing to their local representatives and journalists, or using public broadcasting networks to rail about the injustice of the system on whole. You’d get people marching on the streets. You’d have people trying to charge the horrific dungeon where that one, suffering child is kept.
You’d have people, in other words, trying to improve their utopia from within. People who do not accept the terms of the contract but who are also not going to walk away from their only home.
And that’s where the whole exercise would gain the sort of insincere pushback we see in the real world, too. Omelas would get its own industries of punditry, fake-news spinmasters, as well as heightened security for the dungeon. Those pundits would point to any violence or disruption on the part of the protestors to illustrate that they, and not the original social contract, are the real problem. Omelas would thrive on the tension created by social discord, and turn that tension into a part of its success as an institution.
That’s where we in the secular humanist community are, too: not free from religious discourse and its implications for public policy, but at least with our own stumps and stomping grounds, our own media networks and positions in the farce.
For individual atheists, too, I’d wager that’s a large part of the reason compassionate and global humanist rhetoric is so frustrating. We got out, didn’t we? We stepped out of a way of talking about world that relies on stories we regard as pure mythology. So why does it always still feel like we’re stuck in the muck of bad social storytelling? Why isn’t it ever enough that we’re striving to live the best individual lives that we can?
…Oh, Hi Colombia!
I’m a perfect poster child in this regard, too, because in one very literal way, I did “get out” of a piece of this larger social contract. I no longer live in the country of my birth, a country with many successes and comforts built through ongoing histories of suffering (whether among the indigenous peoples of Canada, for centuries, or regarding the more recent genocide in Yemen that Canadian arms trades have propped up).
But even here in Colombia, my work within Omelas hasn’t changed. The project of trying to live in a way that improves the world goes on, and on, and on.
What has changed, granted, is that here in Colombia I get to look at another slice of the broader social contract with fresh eyes. In the last couple weeks, for instance, the Colombian government has both asserted its desire to naturalize all the children of Venezuelan refugees born after August 18, 2015: an Herculean process, when the waves of displaced number over a million, but also the most humanitarian–a way of reducing poverty’s brutal social consequences in the future. Moreover, Colombia recommitted, firmly, to keeping its doors open to immigrants, and doing its best to ensure the access of basic health and social services to those arriving with such immense need.
This, of course, is happening at the same time that I’m reading horrific news not just with regards to how the U.S. government is continuing its brutal deportations, maintaining its border camps, and even reducing social supports for legal immigrants (with an obvious mind to encouraging self-deportation and a limit to new applicants), but also how white-nationalism is on the rise in the U.S. and Canada alike. And so it’s incredibly easy for me to have zero patience for those who entertain the idea that North America is “at capacity” or “doing the best it can”. Clearly, that panicked saturation rhetoric and xenophobia is not well contextualized against other strategies and beliefs in practice globally.
You’re asking too much of humanists is the refrain I have heard a great deal this past year, a tremendously enlightening time for me at Patheos. But let’s be clear here: Colombia is by no means perfect. It still has five active conflict zones in its borders. Indigenous social leaders are assassinated on a heartbreakingly common basis for trying to protect their communities from predations that, in part, signal that past-president Santos’s peace plan did not sufficiently protect against dissident FARC members taking the lull and proffered government resources as an opportunity to regroup. Cocaine growth and export is up. And a child dies violently every 3.3 days here–with 55 sexually assaulted every day, too.
Colombia is not Omelas–not even when it does exceptional things to try to extend dignity to people fleeing Venezuela. But… the difference seems to be that it knows it’s not Omelas. It’s not under any illusions that it has ever been, ever is, or ever will be a utopia. And that reality… gives it space to focus less on idealism and more on the immediate, day-to-day need to improve.
Meanwhile, we in North America and other parts of the Western world have always been leaving Omelas… because we keep trying to pretend that’s where we ever lived in the first place.
How much easier it becomes–how much less frustrating and annoying humanist rhetoric becomes–when we secular folk especially are ready to embrace that never was there any such thing as a heaven, not even here on Earth.
There is only the world we have, rotten as so much of it is, and the possibility that, with enough due diligence, we can aspire to greater decency for all others trapped alongside us in it… ‘ere into that great stardust oblivion we all so imperfectly go.
NB: General update. I had a bit of a posting gap there while my work schedule underwent another massive upheaval. Such is the nature of teaching in scattered waves of classes! I now have a run of workdays where I spend 6 hours in transit between three or four worksites (out the door at 5, back at 9 to 10), followed by two whole glorious days off (something called a “week… end?”). So when I first landed that glut of second-novel-writing time, I used it to excess. Now, though, hoping to return to my original twice-weekly posting schedule (with two posts queued every weekend, fingers crossed!).
I also have a new story published, at The Future Fire, if anyone’s interested. I talk a bit about the history of “And You Will Know Us by Our Monsters” in this Patreon post–but wouldn’t you know? A fellow Patheos writer, Jeana Jorgensen (Foxy Folklorist), is also in the issue, with a poem called “Walking on Knives.” Total fluke, but a fun one!
Happy creating, all who do–and thanks for sticking around.
I’m looking forward to a smoother ride at least until year’s end.