NOTE: Bit of a ramble here. Basically I had to get my thoughts out following the tragedy. Hopefully they make sense.
Speculative fiction has some strange ways of impacting real life. Sometimes it’s an immediate identification with a character, or a setting invoking wonder beyond anything we as readers have imagined.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy for us to understand what it meant.
In the wake of the Christchurch shootings, there is so much that leaves me numb and bewildered as to how this could happen. As I type, the count is at 49 people. All dead because the peacefully attended to their faith.
Full disclaimer: I’m not a New Zealander, and have never been, though I would very much like to visit. I’m not Muslim either. I shouldn’t have to explain why I still care for these people, but for the benefit of the few, I will explain.
Those who died are people. I don’t like it when people die. Even when terrorists are shot or killed, I’d rather mourn the necessity of the kill than the deaths. Call me delusional if you like, but I’d rather wish the situation leading to the conflict never arose than celebrate a victory that involves killing.
But I digress. The people who died today, their deaths were completely unnecessary. Their deaths came directly from the actions of a terrorist. An Australian terrorist. Which leads me to the second reason I care.
I am Australian. I served, I vote, and I partake in the flux that is society.
I live work and breathe in the same culture that grew and nurtured this terrorist.
That is where Omelas comes in.
For those who haven’t read Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, here’s the condensed version.
- There is no plot or protagonist. It is entirely setting and theme.
- Omelas is a wonderous place of health, happiness and sunshine.
- The cost of this is a child, tied in a cell that no-one speaks to or has anything to do with, bar feeding and watering (it’s much worse than this, but this is the short version)
- The child is innocent. It is not a punishment, it is a sacrifice. They scream, they cry, they hurt.
- Every person in Omelas knows this sacrifice.
- Everyone who stays in Omelas ignores this sacrifice.
- The Narrator walks away.
I thought I knew Omelas when I had a good job that provided for my family and had me lined up for promotion in minimum time. Provided I went along with some things I was not at all comfortable with.
I walked away, head held high, ego intact, washing my hands of all they did.
But after today, I’m not so sure I’ve left Omelas. We have a Senator blaming the victims for their own murder. We have a video and manifesto that people keep sharing. We still live in the same culture, the same world we did yesterday, and tomorrow many people will keep living their lives and slowly forget because it doesn’t directly impact them.
I don’t think Christchurch will be able to do that, and if we ever considered our relationship with New Zealand to mean anything, then we shouldn’t either. There needs to be something. I don’t know what, but something that changes or these types of terrorist will continue to breed their hate.
Anything else is reinforcing our own Omelas – a place we can live and breathe in peace and prosperity, as long as someone else pays the cost, regardless of however innocent they are.
I think, and dare I critique a legend of literature, this is the only thing Le Guin got wrong.
The narrator walked away, and that was enough for them.
But Omelas still existed. It still stood on the suffering of the innocent and exploitation of a the Other.
We can’t walk away and expect our Omelas to disappear.
What we need to do is change. Fight Omelas in a way that might lower our standard of living, or make our lives a little less comfortable. Maybe its confronting a group, or maybe it’s simply reaching out those suffering for it and offering a kindness. I don’t know.
The important bit is that we do what we can to change our culture as a place that allows people like this to grow. That allows them to represent us in the Senate (or anywhere else, for that matter).
In my opinion (and another disclaimer: I nearly failed my History degree, so I apologise in advance if I get some details wrong), there is a great example of how to change this from 4th Century Rome. The Emperor, Julian I, wanted to turn the empire back to Paganism. His biggest frustration was that Christians maintained popular support because gave charitably with no expectation of return.
I know there are plenty of opinions on modern Christianity, and some reading this aren’t in the slightest bit Christian, but the main point is that their weapon was in eliminating the concept of the Other. They served everyone. They helped everyone. They build a community around looking after each other and for a time.
Again, maybe I’m delusional, but I can’t help but think this might be decent way forward. Look after each other. Helping where we can, and making the Other feel safe and cared for. To make them ‘us’ not by changing them, but by expanding our own concept of who we are as a culture.
I doubt it will be that easy, and no matter what we do, nothing will eliminate what has happened today. It’s made even harder by the fact that sometimes, being a decent human being is synonymous with making ourselves a target for terrorists, and honestly I don’t know how to deal with those people from a cultural perspective. Some of them would rather be an Other than be part of a functional society.
But they are individuals. We need to fight our Omelas, and eventually these individuals will become fewer and fewer as their support dwindles to nothing.
It might take years, generations, or ideally overnight. But it won’t start unless we change how we interact in and outside our own cultures.
We can’t just show some sympathy and move on. The victims, their families, and those still at risk deserve better than that.
We need to fight our Omelas for their sake, and for our own.
My deepest sympathies to New Zealand, to Muslims, and anyone else impacted by the tragedy. I promise I will fight our Omelas to make us better, and you safer. I hope I am not alone.