illustration of a young boy in a cage in the center with lines connecting the boys cage to images of happy people and flowers

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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What societal elements does "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" caution us about?

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Le Guin published "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" in 1973, and it holds up quite well as a cautionary tale today.  Le Guin has exaggerated for effect, of course, but in some ways it does feel as though we could be on our way to a dystopian society, at least in the United States, Western Europe, and perhaps a few other places in the world.  This is a personal perspective, and other people will no doubt have different views.  There are two elements to Le Guin's tale to consider, first, the hiding of unpleasantness and second, the neglect or mistreatment of those we do not want to see.  Let's look at some examples of this "first world" problem. 

Consider the treatment of the homeless in society.  People do not want to see the homeless in their communities.  Merchants complain that consumers will not shop in areas where there are homeless people on the streets.  The police complain that they make more work for them.  Middle-class people cringe when they see them.  The solution -  to hide them, of course!  Shelters are one way, and simply driving them away so they can go somewhere else is another.  There are remarkably few programs designed to attack the problems that make people homeless in the first place.  But if we can't see them, as we cannot see that child hidden away, we can be perfectly happy. The homeless are just one sacrifice to our happiness.

Today, in the United States, in addition to being racially segregated, communities are more socioeconomically segregated than ever before.  This is our way of keeping the child hidden from our view.  Who wants to see unpleasant poor people all the time, people who look tired and hungry, people who don't wear the latest styles, people who do not speak as we speak?  In my own city, public housing was originally built as far away as possible from nice neighborhoods.  If we can surround ourselves with people like us, we don't have to look at all those people and be reminded that they exist. We sacrifice the poor on the altar of prosperity.  

Prisons in the United States are overwhelming filled with African-American and Latino poor people. This is another good way to hide these people we don't want to see. It is not a coincidence that the consequences of using a cheaper form of cocaine has led to severe sentences, while the use of the more expensive version has not.  It is not a coincidence that many of the people incarcerated are mentally ill.  These are the child in the story.  These are the people we don't want to see. If we hide them away in cages, our lives will be all sunshine and blue skies.  If we can just sacrifice enough of these people, all will be well. 

Immigrants are another group people feel somehow ruin their nice lives. And in fact, one presidential candidate has risen to his present heights on the platform of deporting them and keeping others from coming in.  We need not just put them in the basement; we can get rid of them altogether.  If we do that, America will somehow be great again, great because we won't have to deal with these needy people who want to pursue the American dream, too. 

The only light on the horizon I have seen has been the mainstreaming of the disabled, in schools and in employment.  When I was in elementary school, the learning disabled were confined to one classroom in the basement of the school, tucked away just like the child in Omelas.   Learning disabled students are to a large degree part of regular classrooms, and I often see disabled people working in my own neighborhood.  And yet, I hear grumbling about this, too, from people who do not want to see this.  It somehow ruins people's pretty pictures of the world. 

I would say that the story has a great deal of resonance in today's world, or at least in many parts of it.  We do not want to even see imperfections, much less ameliorate them.  Our happiness, we believe, depends upon hiding these imperfections away, our own form of sacrifice to the gods.   

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