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    Before we get to the inference of the excerpt from this book, I felt it was important to set the context in which this excerpt has been placed. It was important to mark the contours of the intellectual thought behind this marvellous piece of literature by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book is based in an imaginary utopian world which she has very casually named Omelas. I say casually because the idea just struck her passing through a road sign on the highway leading to Salem, Oregon. She just reversed the letters and engineered an entire city out of it, a city of dreams, a city at the zenith of human imagination.

    If you understand Utopia from its Platonic roots, you'll realise that it is that one optimum that human beings can never be capable of reaching. When the great philosopher Plato laid the foundations of his 'ideal state', he served it with a disclaimer. The disclaimer simply reiterated that while every state should persevere towards being the ideal state, no state could actually reach that summit of perfection. Then why was there a need to idolise something that could never be attained? The answer lies in human advances throughout history if you are willing to look at the bread crumbs for the clues that they are.

    The perpetuity of striving for the best gives people two things that turn out to be incredible driving forces for the human will. One of them is a purpose. Human beings breathe and live to serve a higher purpose and this could mean anything from upholding their beliefs to providing for their family or rooting out for their own ambitions. Unless their lives get a meaning through a purpose, they feel lost and perplexed and are constantly depressed. In this regards, we humans become entrapped into our own mind and it is then next to impossible for us to attain freedom.

    The other driving force, which perhaps is the single largest reason for human survivability is hope. This could mean anything from the hope of a better life to the hope of a better afterlife. What's factually interesting about this particular phenomenon is that while purpose is more atomised, in the sense that it could mean anything for anyone, hope is a more collective state of mind. Hope can be similar both in its very nature and its ultimate outcome. When Genevan thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the famous term 'General Will', perhaps he had this very understanding in mind because he did define the purpose of general will, which was the common good or common interest of humankind. According to him, individuals exhibit two kinds of wills, a real will and an actual will. An actual will is his/her desires and stem from his lesser self, while as a real will emanates from reason and rationality and therefore is much more noble.

    While the general will is a sum total of all the real wills of individuals, we can put this in a more contemporary connotation by calling it 'collective conscience' of the people. This enables people to decide upon what propagates a good life or a bad life, just like how it does for the inhabitants of Omelas. But, what is good life? In a purely Benthamite sense, it would simply mean "the greatest happiness to the greatest number" or otherwise known as 'utilitarianism'. Throughout history, we have actually witnessed civilisations after civilisations only ever aspiring for that. A great king or a great emperor was one who provided the best for his subjects, even if it meant obliterating the subjects of another king or emperor. You can ask this to every rock and every crevice of Jerusalem, a city which has seen the most brutal massacres and if one were to point in any direction, there would be a remnant of this bloodshed.

    It is this very philosophy that is highlighted in this particular book because while everything is perfect in Omelas, the city of dreams, there is just one imperfection that is capable of undoing everything. I find this very fascinating, because in order to keep this story grounded in human reality and not just some clear fiction, the author introduced an element of chaos. If unleashed, it could mean the destruction of the city that people have come to epitomise as unblemished. People are ready and willing to sacrifice their conscience and their morality just to see this piece of "eden" survive and provide for not just their future but the future of their children. Even if it means to stand by and watch a child, an innocent child being mercilessly tortured as part of a sacred ritual.

    Coming to the inference from this excerpt, I believe it speaks of two things that are definitive outcomes of a thought process like this. One is 'banality of pain' and the other is 'glorifying evil'. Both are extremely vested in the utilitarian chain of thought. The former simply means that this "ritual", no matter how grotesque and no matter how inhumane, has been justified in such a way that watching someone in pain has absolutely no effect on the people who have become mute spectators to it. It reminds me of another Platonic idea called 'cave allegory'. If you make people believe in a lie for a long long time, they will forget that it ever was a lie just like how cavemen living inside of a cave believed that their own shadows cast from the sunlight that they had never seen was some form of magic that kept them alive. Similarly, these pendants and these totems and rituals start to seem spiritual and magical because those in power want you to believe that they are necessary evil.

    The latter becomes the vassal for seeing this through without anyone questioning. The ritual here becomes so sanctified for the people performing and participating in them that they start to glorify it and defend it. So, when a child is being tortured in front of their eyes, they are jeering, they are wolf whistling, and they are clapping their hands. If you have read George Orwell's "1984", you can relate this to the 'two minutes hate' ceremony against the "traitor of the state". I would be lying if I said that this is just something you read in a novel and human beings cannot celebrate torture or hate. Salem witch trials so many centuries ago, where women of all ages were burnt alive on large pyres, had this exact plot being materialised. Why did Joan of Arc meet a similar fate when ironically she was the hero that won French soldiers an impossible war? This is because the clergy could not handle a woman challenging their authority, an authority which was built upon a certain cave allegory or myth.

    So, you see, it's more than about physical freedom for humanity in toto. That is the irony being pointed out in this novel if you ask me. While the Omelas offer you everything that your heart could desire, it takes away that one thing which should matter the most, and that is freedom of conscience. The freedom to choose the right thing when everyone else has sided with the wrong. It takes tremendous courage to do something like that, to go against the flow of the tides and be steadfast in what you believe is right. This is where Rousseau fails for me, when he propagates the message that the general will is absolute and that should anyone go against the general will, "he/she will be forced to be free".

    P.S - If you want to watch something that very cleverly puts this into perspective, I recommend you watch the series "The 100" on Netflix.

    #wod #inference

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    A Dystopian Utopia

    "Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing more or less than that he will be forced to be free."

    - Jean-Jacques Rousseau; The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (1762)