Walking away from Omelas

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s classic short story, The ones who walk away from Omelas?

If you haven’t, go and read it now. This can wait.

Omelas is a privileged city, almost a utopia, apart from the one thing that enables its citizens to lead full, happy, and carefree lives – and that one thing is what makes many people walk away from Omelas.

Would you walk away from Omelas? Or would you consider that the bargain is justified?

Light Walk in October by Hartwig HKD

The ones who walk away… (photo by Hartwig HKD)

The thing is, in a way, we all live in Omelas. If you live in the West and use products made by underpaid workers, or even slaves, in the Far East, shipped across the ocean at a high cost to marine wildlife, then you live in Omelas.

But our society is not Omelas for everyone. Some people cannot even walk down the street without fearing for their lives. Some people get arrested or even killed for the colour of their skin, the way they walk, the way they dress. If you are Black, or transgender, or gay, you are especially in danger.

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, or assault is not a privilege, it is a right. Those of us who pass for cisgender and/or straight and/or white take this right for granted, and are often unaware that it is a right that is denied to many of our fellow-citizens.

Education is not a privilege, it is a right (at least until the age of 16).

If you are right-handed, you take it for granted that the world fits you like a glove. You are unaware of the structural disadvantage faced by left-handers, and call us “awkward” and “cack-handed”.  (I use left-handedness as an example because whilst the structural disadvantages are fairly minor, it seems they are invisible to everyone except left-handers.)

A privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. A right is defined as “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something”. By definition, rights are, or should be, available to everyone, whereas privileges are, or should be, only granted under exceptional circumstances. 

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, assault, or being murdered by police, is something to which every citizen has a moral and legal entitlement.  Being afraid every time your son or brother or father leaves the house, that he will get killed just for being Black – that should be a right, not a privilege.

There are many privileges that are granted only to white, straight, (cis) male, and cisgender people, that ought to be rights for everyone.

There are many privileges granted to people in the West that ought to be rights for everyone in the world – access to healthcare, not being in danger of famine, epidemics, enslavement, maiming or death by bombing, displacement by war and persecution, and other horrors. The relative peace and security and wealth of the West is built on the deprivation of the rest of the world – our cheap goods result from the economic disparity between East and West, and the fact that people in Bangladesh, China and other places, are prepared to work for very low wages.

Our Omelas is very big and very pervasive – and we seem to be trapped in it.

Perhaps it is not enough to walk away from Omelas – we need to dismantle it from within.