The Ones Who Walk Away

Let’s face it – when we screw up it is so much easier to blame someone or something else. If it’s not our fault then we don’t have to feel guilty about it. It’s undeniable that when we scapegoat, even on the most minuscule scale, there is a sense of revilement that would not exist if we were to take blame upon ourselves. When we do this, we often forget that what or who we’re shifting our blame on is going to suffer the consequences that we so effectively avoided. Is it really okay to blame your brother for eating the last Hob Nob when you damn well know that it was you? I think not.

So what’s the science behind scapegoating? Why do we do it? Well, René Girard concludes that due to human nature, envy is bound to accumulate over time within a society. For Girard, the problem is that we can’t handle that much envy. When we reach a point where we can’t handle it any more, we lose our s**t (at least I would, a 4’8 ball of fury). So we need to take it out on a scapegoat, naturally.

Scapegoating is nasty business and we do it more often than we think. One day, I stumbled across Ursula Le Guin’s short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’. I say stumbled, but really BTS referenced this short story in their music video for ‘Spring Day‘ and on a whim, I decided to take a further look into it. Turns out that it is a stunning piece of work that explores how violence has become an integral part of society.

In ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ Le Guin brings to light that we have become accustomed to a need of violence. Without some form of violence, it seems that we cannot be happy. You can’t eat a sweet juicy gummy bear without ruthlessly tearing its head off first. Makes sense, Le Guin.

In this story, Le Guin attempts to craft a city, called Omelas, where the people are happy and joyous. The narrative begins with a vivid imagery of the city’s people celebrating a summer festival. It is a truly beautiful scene which conveys how happy the people of Omelas truly are, ‘In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells’. There’s a sight I’ll never see living in North West London.

But of course, because we do enjoy violence, this happiness isn’t going to last forever. So after this description of the city, Le Guin struggles to craft Omelas as a place of happiness because the society around her, the society we all come from, values ‘pain and evil’. Every time she tries to craft Omelas as a city of happiness, beauty, and hope, she either questions if the reader believes Omelas, ‘Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?’ or doubts that she is convincing the reader of its happiness at all, ‘but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you’. Le Guin interrupts the narrative to express this conflict, ‘The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy’.

We’ve only just gone and made ‘pain and evil’ banal and Le Guin’s calling us out for it.

She proceeds to consciously (clever woman) fall into this ‘bad habit’ because she ‘can no longer’, in such a society, ‘describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy’. So Le Guin destroys Omelas with ‘pain and evil’ to accentuate what this perpetuation does to happiness. After all, ‘If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it.’

So to make Omelas a more believable place in our eyes, Le Guin describes a ‘pain and evil’ that we have all become accustomed to; scapegoating. Going back to Girard’s theory, we need to take out our violence on something or someone, a scapegoat. Only then can this violence subside and a society become happy again. A gender-less child lives under the city of Omelas in a cellar only ‘about three paces long and two wide. This child is the reason for the people of Omelas’ happiness. It suffers, it is the symbol of a scapegoat. In this room, the child is locked in with mops which it is afraid of, ‘It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come’. It is afraid because like a scapegoat, the child is within yet isolated from the society which has exiled it to suffering. We are the mops of the world (dirty and haggard is what Le Guin is trying to say), ‘still standing there’ and watching as it suffers.

The child is also described as perhaps ‘born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect’. We all know it is the latter, because the scapegoat is forced into suffering by blame, not born to suffer or deserving of suffering. The child lives on little amounts of food, naked, with sores,sits in its own excrement and not to mention, the cellar is in the most filthiest condition. You get the gist.

People visit the child, to see it ever so often. It screams for help but no ever does. They all walk away. The child does not understand why. However we learn that the people of Omelas learn – learnception – of this child at some point, come to visit it and understand what it does for their happiness. Some kick it, some just watch, feel guilty and then in the spirit of utilitarianism convince themselves the child’s suffering is perfectly fine because it helps the larger majority. The imagery of a young child, a figure of innocence and naivety, suffering like this is extremely grueling. It opens the readers eyes to the violence of scapegoating, the violence of perpetuating violence. Us as readers become guilty of perpetrating the child’s suffering. Because Le Guin has to bestow this violence upon the child to make us believe in Omelas and its happiness. We’re the reason for our own violence and unhappiness, not, as we often turn to and blame, scapegoats.

What is even worse is that we are fully aware of what we do. Like the people who choose to leave Omelas. They leave the child to continue suffering. Le Guin does not let us forget that the people who walk away from Omelas are not doing anything to stop the child from suffering. Likewise we do nothing by, in the equivalent of our society, ignoring the violence we shift onto scapegoats. The short story’s title isn’t ‘The Ones Who Save the Child From Omelas and Have a Celebratory Party’, it’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’.

Arendt’s banality of evil helps us understand the impact of these actions. Rosenthal infers that she helps us to understand ‘the weight of collective responsibility: if evil is banal, then we all have a responsibility to eradicate it in our everyday lives’. The ones that walk away from Omelas have no sense of collective responsibility and neither do we, the readers, when we walk away from the story itself. ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ teaches us of our responsibility to undo the banality of evil and to allow ourselves and others to be happy.

Scapegoating is the most hidden yet destructive kind of violence. Scapegoats are forced to be in and against the world. Paradoxically, they live within a society but are also isolated from it. This is the worst kind of violence to bestow upon someone.

So essentially, Le Guin teaches us that maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t blame your brother for eating the last Hob Nob. Sounds about right.

If you’d like a short but extremely guilt trippy read, you can do so here.

Sources consulted:

The Psychology of Scapegoating

Why Hannah Arendt’s Ideas About Evil and the Holocaust Still Matter


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