Class 8: Walking Away…?

March 26, 2020

The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas generated a fascinating discussion.

John sent an email to all students during the week with a survey about your ability to connect to Brightspace and Second Life. All but three replied that you have access although it might be less reliable or slower than usual. Of the three that didn’t reply two turned up in class. So, it seems that we can continue with our meetings as normal, although I will keep an eye on things to ensure everyone remains able to engage.

Glenn Loughran (aka feilimy) joined us this week to lead the discussion on the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin. It soon transpired that Glenn’s voice connection was not working well so we reverted to text chat for the class. Although somewhat slower than voice it was possible to have a lively and engaging debate. At least everyone had read the story in preparation for the class!

Glenn started by talking about the ways in which a text can be read and suggested that a methodology he is trying with difficult texts at present is to read first for the overall sense and then read again with this knowledge in place for a deeper understanding and to make more sense of the content. He then asked for some reaction to the set text on the surface level. What is your impression of the text? It was written in 1974. What kinds of event or images does that era raise for you? After getting through the inevitable Austin Powers replies (!) and the fact that the 1970s was ancient history, for everyone except Sitearm and me, some connections emerged: the Vietnam war; peace protests; aftermath of the bombs; hippies; the freedom movement; draftees; and Watergate.

Dr Glenn Loughran (aka feilimy) adjusted to the lack of voice with admirable agility.

Glenn noted that this is a science-fiction story but it is important to know when it was written to be able to draw out the associations between the story and the reality of the time, including the politics and ideas around utopia. He then asked: What kind of society is described in the first half of the story? Responses included: happy society; something too perfect, a picturesque holiday city; a very happy community; city by the sea, like San Francisco; kids playing and people dancing; hippies. Glenn suggested there is another name for this in Greek literature and wondered did anyone know what it is? You replied, the sense of community; the Garden of Eden. And Spooky said Utopia.

Glenn explained that in 1516 Thomas More wrote the first Utopia. He coined the word utopia from the Greek ou-topos meaning no place or nowhere. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek work eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised? Sitearm referenced Erewhon by Samuel Butler, a nineteenth century English novel that also addresses the question of Utopia.

Glenn asked if the short-story presented a utopian ideal? You replied that it didn’t to which Glenn asked why not? The answers you gave included: humans aren’t perfect; everyone’s ideas of perfection are different; because of the child; the kid in the basement; just because only one person is suffering doesn’t make it better. Then Glenn asked if everyone else in Omelas was happy? and when you all said no he asked why not? People who see the child leave the city because they are so horrified; they are horrified by the illusion of a perfect world; the other kids feel bad for the kid; they don’t know about the kid until they are older.

Glenn wondered who the child is and why it is there? You suggested he is suffering for all their happiness; he or she is someone who did not have a chance. At that Glenn asked if the child is a he? You ansered: no; it is not clear; we don’t know; rachel said it’s not known; and when glenn asked why you think that is? the response was that the child is symbolic. Of what? The society; the child is a reminder to society that even a supposed utopia isn’t perfect, it’s not what it seems; third world countries; they suffer for first world countries.

Glenn suggested that it is an allegorical story – a story that stands in for the geo-politics of the world, at a time when the Vietnam war and the hippy movement dominated popular culture. It also represents a set of moral dilemmas, can you describe some? What is the dilemma here? You suggested that even if people tried to help the child it won’t make much of a difference, similar to the way we give aid to third world countries which does not amount to much at the end of the day due to corruption.

Glenn asked if it might be possible that like Omelas our freedoms and technologies are dependent on the oppressed nations and peoples? Are we facing a similar dilemma to the people of Omelas if we buy and use technologies made under oppressive conditions? If we know they are made under such conditions what do we do, how do we react? You replied that we wait; we don’t buy; we try to support groups that are against oppression; we are conscious of what big brands are doing behind the scenes.

Again Glenn asks… Should we accept it like the citizens of Omelas do? Did the ones who walked away do the right thing? Where do you think they went?

zach said they did the right thing in leaving because it’s wrong for one person to suffer for other people’s happiness. Auaki suggested that if the story is continuing maybe we are the citizens of Omelas. Crimson argued that it is not right to stand for oppression.

Glenn: But what does walking away do to help the situation?

You are not supporting the people who are doing this. It removes you from the situation, all it takes is one person to walk away for others to follow. Auaki suggested that it makes it worse and Glenn asked how does it make it worse? and what did the author say? Crimson replied that she said they go to a darker place. And Glenn added:

‘The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.’ And taking a risk is always about jumping into the unknown. It is scary but… it’s necessary.

How does this relate to our situation? he asked.

And with that final question Glenn informed us that his battery was dying and he would leave us with that to ponder!

John thanked you all for bearing with the class tonight. I appreciate everyone’s patience. Broadband speeds have been slowing because of the heavy usage as most of the population watches Netflix! but, when this module began there was no voice in SL and we conducted all classes in chat text. This does make things a little slower but, we can still have a good discussion – as evidenced by our class this evening. Well done for adapting so readily! Particular thanks to Glenn for adapting to the shortcomings of technology with style!
John also apologised for not having posted the summary of last week’s class yet but, explained that it has been overwhelming trying to deal with the closing of the University. The summary is almost ready and will be posted tomorrow.

Next week is the last class before the two week Easter break. We will look the Team Project so make sure to come along in good time.

Addendum (added on 2nd April 2020)

As we gathered for Class 9 the following week John asked for your takeaway from the discussion about The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas. After some consideration it was proposed that the theme of the discussion was responsibility. As we become full citizens of our society we need to think about our personal responsibility, our responsibility to our community and our professional responsibility. There are no absolutes here. We each have to give consideration to this aspect of life and, much like the citizens of Omelas who are aware of the suffering of the child, we are aware of the realities of our world, whether we like to acknowledge it or not. The question is, do we choose to ignore these realities or accept our role in creating and sustaining them. Becoming aware of our personal and professional responsibilities, and the importance of contributing to the betterment of society is an essential requirement of each and every citizen.

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