After reading Anne Dalke’s, “Slipping into Something More (Un)comfortable,” I have spent a lot of time mulling over the possibilities of what it really means to “slip.” I rationalized that “slipping,” in a broader sense of the word, means unconsciously allowing one’s own actions to negatively impact others. While the definition I have derived can be applied to an extensive variety of situations, a more limited and possibly closer definition to the one Dalke intended for her novel is that to slip is to unintentionally revert to a mentally constraining belief or set of beliefs ingrained by societal norms.
In the examples provided in “Slipping into Something More (Un)comfortable,” racism and cultural differences are used to show circumstances of slippage. Although these topics can make occurrences of slippage exceptionally distinct, more subtle examples of slippage occur commonly as well.
“The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” by Ursula LeGuin, describes a utopia created through the suffering of a single child. This child is isolated and neglected under the surveillance of the residents of Omelas. The people of Omelas are not bad, “they [are] mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives [are] not wretched” (1). Yet they abuse a child who has become “too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy,” but entirely human and able to “remember sunlight and its mother's voice” (4). LeGuin leaves the original motivation behind the child’s treatment up to the reader’s imagination, but she emphasizes the fact that in the present, all the people of Omelas know the child is the sacrifice that must be made in order to maintain their happiness. For, “it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives” (4). And so, the people of Omelas are not bad people— they are good people who do bad things out of what could be seen as necessity. This brings us to LeGuin’s argument. The plot suggests that balance is essential within a community and sacrifices are an inevitable occurrence in the quest for happiness. This is without taking into account “the ones who walk away” (4). The insertion of these few people completely changes the message from ‘you must accept sacrifice as a part of life’ to, ‘it takes bravery to walk away from the safety of community and pursue what you believe is right.’
Where does slippage fit in to this melancholic fantasy? Every single inhabitant of Omelas slips when they learn of the child. The child’s existence is “explained to [the children of Omelas] when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding. […] No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened” (3-4). Slippage occurs when the children of Omelas learn that their peace of mind relies on the suffering of another and choose to ignore and accept it. Until they are introduced to the forsaken child, they live in blissful ignorance of the pain they are inflicting; after seeing the child, most submit to the society’s pressure and acknowledge the child’s existence as a necessary evil. By deciding to overlook the child’s pain and humiliation, the people of Omelas create an opportunity for slippage. They choose to objectify the child to avoid the guilt of consciously harming another living being. They view it merely as a means of happiness. In doing so, the harm they inflict becomes unintentional because in their eyes the child is not human, does not have human emotions, and cannot feel human pain.
The reveal of the neglected child to the children of Omelas becomes a ritual part of coming of age. The child’s existence is exposed at the beginning of adolescence, when the children of Omelas have developed enough understanding of the world to take in the concepts surrounding the child’s significance, but are not quite mature enough to act on their repulsion and oppose the authority asserted by society. This seems completely intentional as a method of compelling the children of Omelas to slip and ignore the consequences that their actions have on the lone child. In doing so, the children enter into the community of Omelas and become adults. The few who learn of the child and refuse to feign ignorance as they are encouraged to, the ones who reject the child as a necessary part of Omelas, are “the ones who walk away.”
The slippage of Omelas is subtle, but important nonetheless because it shows how deeply affected people are by their surrounding community. Unlike the events of slippage examined in Dalke’s work, slippage in Omelas occurs, not between two individuals, but between a community and an individual. Contrasting the two types of conflict isolates their disparities and clearly displays their different sources of influence. In support of LeGuin’s message that strength and resolution are needed to walk away from the conformity imposed by society, community is an oppressive force. Many living creatures, humans especially, have an innate desire to belong. We desire connections with others and the protection of safety in numbers. With that, decisions of the masses have a weight to them that many people are unable to withstand for fear of being ostracized. This greatly influences the rationales of those within a community. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a community is “a unified body of individuals” such as “people with common interests living in a particular area.” In this instance it can be used interchangeably with the term ‘society.’ The term ‘community’ is extremely flexible. A community can be made of a few people sharing a roof, the various people living within a neighborhood, or even every single person in the world sharing a religion or common belief. One can take part in online communities, conceptual communities, and communities within communities. The specific community I refer to in Omelas is comprised of the adults, who share a mutual aspiration for continued peace and happiness.
When the adults of Omelas decide that the child is crucial to the stability of Omelas, a form of indoctrination takes place as the reasons for their self-justification take precedence over the child’s well-being. LeGuin incorporates the people's train of thought into her story to emphasize their methods of persuasion: “They begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom,” “indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in” (4). I find the word “probably,” used in the second quote, particularly striking as it introduces a sense of uncertainty and establishes the citizens’ underlying guilt. Their guilt seems to be a redeeming quality, however despite the portions of the people’s minds that remain unconvinced, their actions remain unswayed. The pressure society implements to accept the child makes it easier for inhabitants to succumb to the cruel decision of acknowledging the child, than to reject that the child is a part of society. The strength that community has to sway the perception of its members is critical to the concept of slippage. Without the perceptions and beliefs planted by the negative aspects of community, there would be no need to create the figurative filters which restrict our actions and keep them from negatively impacting others.
Omelas is significant because it demonstrates the impact society has on slippage. Analyzing “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” through the idea of slippage introduces the concept that not only is slippage produced through the influence of society, it can be directly caused by society. In examples from “Slipping into Something More (Un)comfortable,” people coming from different backgrounds have been influenced by their communities in different ways, and unintentionally confront the beliefs and cultures of others. The story of Omelas reveals that community can act as a catalyst for slippage in less indirect ways, by putting pressure on individuals who yearn to be part of something.
Dalke, Anne. "Slipping into Something More (Un)Comfortable: Untangling Identity, Unsettling Community." DRAFT chapter for Steal This Classroom: Teaching and Learning Unbound, book manuscript by Anne Dalke and Jody Cohen, forthcoming with punctum press, Summer 2016.
LeGuin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”The Wind's Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
"community." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 30 Sept 2015.