[UPDATED below – 1:46 PM]
Back in November, I wrote about Those Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K. LeQuin’s classic story of what people will accept for Utopia, or its facsimile.
In the story, the people of Omelas have to ignore the central horrifying truth of the source of their Utopia. And, in a terrifying recognition of humanity’s need for rationalization and self-delusion, most of the inhabitants can accept the apparent immorality of their choice simply by ignoring it. Only a few chose to leave, perhaps finding another place to live.
In my discussion, I wrote:
As much as we have tried to hide it, we are now all aware of the dark secrets that were the source of our Utopia. As in the story, the act of bringing these secrets into the open destroys our paradise.
It is now all different. The world has shifted. The dreamworld is no more. Omelas has been overthrown.
Too many of our leaders wish to ignore this shift, to pretend the dream is still achievable. CEOs still behave as if we were unaware of the changed circumstances. Politicians speak as if just a little reworking of the message will get everything back to right. Both feel that money, the root of what caused our dreams to shatter, will be able to fix the problems.
They are both acting as greedily and are as inconsiderate of the world around them as they did while we were all dreamers. They are attempting to rebuild Omelas from the burnt ashes of the ruins. This is a choice of failure.
Now, those of us who wish to survive are forced to make new choices, to find a new path, to walk away from Omelas. We really have no choice because Omelas no longer exists.
I may not know where we are going to but I do know from where we are marching. I only hope I can live long enough see the new place we chose to inhabit. I wonder what it will look like.
Yeah, I was full of my prose but the basic point is true. Our Omelas is gone and those of us who see that know we have to walk away, to find ourselves a new place to live. But we continue to hear from those who want to remain in the city, to hold onto Utopia even as it crumbles around them.
They do this by increasingly desperate attempts to ignore reality.
“On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation.” “You can’t say it didn’t work. It worked.” “We were told that waterboarding was not being used.” “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The Great Oz has spoken.”
Okay, the last is really fantasy but it is eerily close to what many are trying to rationalize. ‘Let’s not look.’ We ignore what is right in front of us because to examine it would seriously harm our worldview. It would destroy Omelas.
But Omelas is already gone. We can not recreate its glory by fantasies.
Cultures seldom die in some kind of conflagration with a set time point. The ‘Roman Empire’ survived long after Rome itself was sacked. Someone cut down the last tree on Easter Island. Cultures often die by the slow accumulation of rationalizations that become more and more unable to actually describe reality. The cognitive dissonance required to hold these rationalizations and still function in the real world makes them stupid.
And stupid is very, very dangerous. Stupid people do things that bring them no benefit and actually harm others. Carlo M. Cipolla wrote a nice treatise on The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity published in 1988. He defined a stupid person in his Third Law:
A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
The intelligent (who do things that help themselves and others), the bandits (who do things only to help themselves while hurting others) and the helpless (who hurt themselves while helping others) together are not as powerful as the stupid. This is illustrated by his Fourth Law:
Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
Allowing stupid people into positions of power is always a dangerous game, Intelligent people or bandits often think they can manipulate stupid but the hallmark of the stupid is that they will eventually bite you in the ass. That is the nature of stupid.
This all leads to his last law: “A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.”
They do things that make no sense and actually harm themselves and others because they are stupid. That is the definition. They help destroy a civilization.
Cipolla ends with his description of how civilizations deal with stupid people:
Whether one considers classical, or medieval, or modern, or contemporary times one is impressed by the fact that any country moving uphill has its unavoidable σ fraction of stupid people. However, the country moving uphill also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the σ fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty.
In a country which is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal to σ; however, in the remaining population one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity (sub-area B1 of quadrant B in figure 3) and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals (area H in basic graph, fig.1). Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the σ fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to Hell.
This certainly has been an accurate description of recent times. We used to have ‘an unusually high fraction of intelligent people’ in charge, making America a beacon to the world. Now we are in a period best described as the rise of the stupid.
In addition, bandits have gotten stupider and the helpless have increased. The intelligent are viewed as naive idoits. The stupid have gained in relative power. And the rationalizations that we continue to require in order to believe in Omelas continue to make us stupider.
Cipolla makes the point that the stupid are always there. The failing society choses to place them in relative prominence and ignore the works of the intelligent, those whose acts favor both the individual and society.
So our choices are to remain stupid, to allow stupid people to drive our discourse and continue a downward trend or to ignore the stupid and permit the intelligent to help pull society back onto an uphill climb.
I would prefer that we walk away from Omelas, which can only survive by becoming a haven for stupidity. And that we ignore those who are trying to hard to rebuild a culture of stupid on the ashes of a broken Utopia.
UPDATE – It appears that President Obama also agrees that we need to remake our world, that we need to move in a new direction. The Old Age is in ruins and that we must begin the hard work creating a new one. From his speech at Notre Dame:
You, however, are not getting off that easy. Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and the world – a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It is a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations and a task that you are now called to fulfill.
This is the generation that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before this crisis hit – an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.
We must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. We must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity _ diversity of thought, of culture and of belief.
In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family.
Perhaps enough will walk away from Omelas for this to happen.
Image: Pedro Travassos
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