Reach Into the Fire

In every society, there is a “child in a closet”. That child often represents the downtrodden – the classes of society that are oppressed, beaten, killed or forced to suffer in any number of ways. The child sometimes represents non-human or non-tangible things – the environment, equality or justice. More often than not, the child represents all of these – children who have no food to eat, women who can’t achieve equal footing with men, people who are attacked for their gender identity, race, religion, sexuality, appearance or disability; it represents the inefficiency of capitalism, the inequality of socio-economic structures, the destruction of our planet’s natural resources – all these people, ideas and things, all at the same time. Often a story explores the notion that there is a linchpin upon which rests all the troubles of its characters or the society in which its characters live. Those stories might challenge the reader to consider the moral choices offered to those characters. In two stories, Ursula K. La Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and Ralph Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square”, the authors offer two moral choices to the character: to participate in the torture of an individual, or to not participate at all – rejecting the society that supports such torture. What is not offered to the character is a choice that she or he, and the reader as well, must arrive at on their own – a choice that requires strength and courage and insight: to save the child, to stop the torture.

Guin illustrates a very metaphorical image of the child – hungry, dirty and alone in the closet, and the scapegoat and trash bin for everything that’s wrong in Omelas. Meanwhile, Ellison presents a much subtler child – the subjugation of a race of people and the brutal murder of them in a much more literal setting. In each story, the author offers the characters of the story the choice of participation. Should the citizens of Omelas leave, or accept that which they couldn’t possibly change? Should the protagonist join the mob and murder a black man, or leave the mob in distaste? What is never stated in either work is that there is a third choice: choose to change the circumstances. Le Guin doesn’t suggest that it’s possible to save the child of Omelas – to pull her from the closet and alter, fundamentally, how Omelas works (indeed, destroy it in the process); Ellison doesn’t suggest that the protagonist could charge through the crowd, shame the lot and rescue the black man from a gruesome death. This is because the authors of these stories have presented a challenge to us. First, can you discover the underlying message – the outrage that drove the author to write such a story? And second, can you find the courage to change the world, or will you simply either participate or walk away?

Le Guin’s “child” is illustrated as either a boy or a girl, that appears to be six, but is nearly ten; feeble-minded, possibly born “defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” (Le Guin 245). It sits in a locked room in the basement of a public building in Omelas, crowded by rusted and rotting tools, unvisited, except for those of Omelas whose time has come to be educated about how Utopia is maintained in Omelas. The child screams for help, cries, begs, but sits back in defeat upon its buttocks, “a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.” (Le Guin 246).

Le Guin offers the reader an abstract idea of a perfect society – in all ways but one. The society was able to achieve happiness for all its citizens, equality, cheer and love for all but one of its own. The citizens of Omelas willingly sacrifice a child of Omelas, who becomes the focal point and mascot of all Omelas’ suffering, neglect, hatred and apathy. By some magical transference, all those negative emotions and actions and their constituent effects are transferred to the child, so that the rest may exist in pure ecstasy. It is made perfectly clear that were the child not to absorb all that is wrong in Omelas, the very foundations of Omelas would crumble: “… their happiness, the beauty of their city, … the wisdom of their scholars, … even the abundance of their harvest … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (Le Guin 246). The citizens are all made aware of the child at some point in their life, and all who live in Omelas make a conscious choice to ignore the suffering of the child so they might maintain their own livelihoods. Some citizens choose, instead, to leave Omelas – unable to cope with the idea that their happiness is derived from the suffering of another. These two choices, alone, are given: stay or leave; ignore the child, or stop hurting the child.

Ellison offers the reader a more concrete representation of Omelas – a society where any white, heterosexual, Christian man can achieve all the happiness in the world (20th Century America), and often has the path to happiness laid out before him, but he must be willing to build it on the backs of “Others”. Others are the less privileged. In Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square”, the Others are specifically black people – a man being burned to death for the color of his skin. However, the society being represented in this story is one of 20th Century America – the land of the free and home of the bigot. Indeed, this society is not a fictional component of the story, but a true setting, in an actual time where these exact events took place en masse across the United States. The Others in this country, our metaphorical children in the closet, continue to be exploited and attacked – just for being different from the powerful privileged majority.

Offering only the two choices to the character is a challenge for the readers presented by the authors to read between the lines. To come right out and state the challenge would cheapen the value. These stories are a call to action, a request for change, a challenge to courageousness. Can you find it within yourself to fight the establishment of Omelas? To fight the racism and oppression and marginalization of minorities in the United States? The authors are making a subtle call for readers to respond with an outcry of dissatisfaction, outrage and conviction to change the society in which they live. Don’t leave, don’t participate in it. Change it. Rush downstairs and pull the child from the closet, feed it, educate it, give it a name and stop referring to it with gender-neutral pronouns that only serve to marginalize and degrade the child! Push through the crowd, knock over the bigoted sheriff, pull the man from the flames and shame the mob – call them out by name, disgrace them and show them a better way of living. Show the people of Omelas, show the prejudicial: how to live with compassion, with love, with equality, with understanding, with respect! Tear down the barriers, destroy the frameworks of discrimination and oppression and find peace and harmony.

Even after the years of social evolution and civil liberty revolutions of the late 20th Century, the United States is still embroiled in the controversies of miscegenation and marginalization of minorities. Racism still exists, but the hot-button issues of the late 20th and early 21st Century America are the treatment of the poor (as ever), the continuing inequality of women and now the discrimination against sexuality and gender identity. In Culture of intolerance: chauvinism, class, and racism in the United States, Mark Cohen states:

After decades of slowly bringing minorities toward full partnership and gradually starting to protect the poor from the worst ravages of poverty, there has been an upsurge of indifference, fear, or outright hatred of others on the part of the American public and cynical manipulation of our fears by elected leaders, political candidates, media, and political commentators. […] It is also fashionable to assume that their failures must be rooted in the immutable nature of things – in their own inherent biology – and not in the American political system or the circumstances of their birth and life. (Cohen 1)

Cohen points out that despite the struggles of those who would fight the oppression of Omelas or the Square, and in spite of decades of work and huge leaps in progress, there remains an undercurrent of actively supported inequality in the United States that must be addressed. American leaders continue to sow fear of differences for political gain, wealth and power. American culture even encourages a “polite” ignorance of difference, in which one might suggest they “see no color” or don’t mind another person’s sexuality, but when confronted by those differences and their own privilege – when the veil of feigned tolerance is disturbed –the same ignorance that underlies classism, racism, sexism and homophobia is discovered. Clearly not enough has been done. As Cohen advocates for bringing to light the institutionalized prejudice in the United States, so might one do in Omelas or in the Deep South on Ellison’s story.

In Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr suggests that all forms of oppression share common elements and to seek an end to any oppression must necessarily seek to end all forms of oppression:

It is virtually impossible to view one oppression, such as sexism or homophobia, in isolation because they are all connected: sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, anti-Semitism, ageism. They are linked by a common origin— economic power and control— and by common methods of limiting, controlling and destroying lives. There is no hierarchy of oppressions. Each is terrible and destructive. To eliminate one oppression successfully, a movement has to include work to eliminate them all or else success will always be limited and incomplete. (Pharr 53)

Pharr states that in order for equality for any minority or oppressed class to be achieved, sensitivity and understanding must first be proliferated so that all oppression can be ended simultaneously – by virtue of the heightened awareness and empathy gained from social education. She goes on to state that oppression must be fought on several fronts – economic, social and institutional. She states that institutional oppression is one of the most pervasive, but also the easiest to change and sends ripples throughout society, “In the 25 states that still have sodomy laws, there is an increase in tolerance for violence against lesbians and gay men, whether it is police harassment or the lack of police protection when gay and lesbian people are assaulted.” (Pharr 56). To focus on changing the institutional oppression of minorities would be an effective way to channel the energies of outrage and conviction that result from the readings of those short stories.

If one were to design a plan, following Pharr’s assertions, to rescue the child of Omelas, or the black people of the Deep South in Ellison’s story, one would begin with a broad program of education of the people of those societies and relate the suffering of the under-privileged to the intrinsic humanity of each individual. One might compare the divides between people of those societies based on other differences, differences that incite less fear and hatred than to those of the underprivileged, and demonstrate how those differences are of the same degree – demonstrate that no difference is worth torture or murder.

In Ellison’s story, one might compare, because the story is set in a historical context, the inequality of men and women or rich and poor – relate the differences in terms that are known and understood. Work for the equality of all classes of people and thereby stop the senseless murder of a man because of the color of his skin. In Omelas, one might seek to educate the citizens of Omelas of alternative lifestyles where people can achieve happiness without the necessary suffering of one person. Humanize the child. Make the child’s suffering ever-present in the daily lives of the citizens of Omelas. If a utopia would be broken by the salvation of one child, then let it be broken by the constant reminder of the citizens’ active destruction of the child’s life. Seek to end that oppression and seek to support the equality of all others in society.

The conjoining of oppressions to identify their underlying oppressive mechanisms is possibly the most effective method of breaking down the frameworks of oppression – institutional or otherwise. To turn the tables a bit, Marjorie Quinn, writing as a minority white woman in Zambia, demonstrates how relying on terms like “race”, “white”, “black” and so forth, which are meant to emphasize difference, diversity and power relations can quickly lose their power: “These categories quickly and easily become reified as fixed, separate and monolithic categories of experience and identity, rather than being seen as socially constructed, blurred and changing. The reality is much more complex than these dualistic terms apply.” (Quinn 78). It is not a large leap to join her statement to terms like “gay”, “lesbian”, “straight”, “transgender” or “feminist” as well, as we can see how quickly stereotypes have reified around those words in our contemporary culture.

Using Quinn’s example, it is clear that a powerful first step of ending the suffering of the African Americans of the deep south or the child of Omelas – even before education of the masses, is to cease the use of words that carry with them stereotypes. In Omelas, the use of the term “the child” and referring to that child with gender neutral pronouns, create a non-human entity to which horrific characteristics can be attributed and all relatability is hidden. The people of Omelas give the child monstrous qualities and reject any shred of humanity the child may have. Similarly, the people of the Deep South in Ellison’s story attach all sorts of stereotypes to the term “nigger”, and belittle any humanity of the man about to burn by hurling that epithet. The “protagonist” of Ellison’s story shows just how the term “nigger” can be used to present a near meaningless sentence (short of the actual context), made meaningful by the term and all the stereotypes it brings with it, meanwhile dehumanizing the man who burned before his eyes:  “I was right there watching it all. It was my first party and my last. God, but that nigger was tough. That Bacote nigger was some nigger!” (Ellison 193). Even use of that term among the community of African Americans in that historical context reinforces the stereotypes of their community. Instead, all societies should be encouraged to embrace sensitive terminology for all people. They should refer to individuals by name, relate to them by common experience and elevate their under-privileged brothers and sisters to a state of equality.

If we can accept the advice of luminaries like Quinn, Pharr and Cohen, and accept the challenge presented to us by Ellison and Le Guin, we can find the inequalities in our own lives and societies – root them out and end them. We can stop the oppression of under-privileged people, seek to end poverty, destroy glass ceilings, protect those unable to protect themselves and allow lifestyles to co-exist. First, the reader must read and understand these ideas and have sufficient insight to see the meaning; readers must have the courage to stand with one another against the forces of prejudice, recognize their own privilege and seek to end it. Readers must reach into the closet and rescue the child; reach into the flames and pull out the man. The child will be dirty, so we’ll get dirty too – the fire will be hot, so we may be burnt; but to suffer together is better than to leave one person to suffer for all of us.

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Fiction: A Pocket Anthology. 7th ed.  Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2012.  242-247.  Print.

Ellison, Ralph. “A Party Down at the Square.” Fiction: A Pocket Anthology. 7th ed.  Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2012.  188-193.  Print.

Cohen, Mark Nathan. Culture of intolerance : chauvinism, class, and racism in the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.

Pharr, Suzanne. Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. Berkeley: Chardon Press, 1997. Print.

Quinn, Marjorie.”Immigrants and refugees: towards anti-racist culturally affirming practices.” Critical Social Work: An Introduction to Theories and Practices. Ed. J. Allan, B. Pease, L. Briskman. CrowsNest NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2003. Print.