Ryan’s email was unsurprising. He was only ten minutes late for dinner but his email read “I left my office over an hour ago. Trains are closed and rerouted. I’m now in an uber pool heading towards angel.”
It was the night before the UK voted to leave the EU and my wife and I were about to start our first ‘Jeffersonian Dinner’, an event that was to gather together eleven cities to ponder an important topic. On this occasion, the topic chosen was one connected to issues of ethics and equality in society. We had to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s piece ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.’
At the start of the evening, we were swapping commuter stories and Ryan’s was not unusual. The UK had seen torrential rain, chaos and disruption to the transport system. Little did we know, it was a sign of times to come the next day as markets collapsed following the Brexit news. The topic we had been asked to discuss was, in hindsight, strangely apocryphal to the Brexit news the following morning.
Le Guin’s short piece revolves around a city called Omelas. There, the people live in utopia. They have little need for the temptations of the modern world, they are always happy, free, and without prejudice. They are unaffected by the external world, and they have no need for hierarchy. However, their happiness is only possible because of one understood condition. There is a child who lives in a cellar without light and only the barest of food, sitting in its own excrement. Only if this child remains in total suffering will the utopia persist. People visit the child, but only the very young and the very old. Most return back to their lives and try to forget about it, some live aware of the paradox, that they as unfree as the child. And some walk away from Omelas. They leave and never return.
The piece raises important questions about the delicate balance our world hangs in. Would it be better to stay in Omelas, and try to live with the terrible compromise? Would you really be happy? Or could you push it to the back of your mind, bury it in the daily celebrations and festivities of Omelas, in order to be happy? Or would you leave? Yet by leaving, the child still suffers, and the inequality persists.
Reflecting on Friday 24th June’s incredible outcome, the UK and the world is left pondering some important questions. Why did it happen? Was it because the so called working class were fed up with their share of the pie, because they were fed up with immigrants getting the lion’s share of government handouts and jobs? Or was because there’s a collective belief that the idea of the EU isn’t working and that by leaving, we can actually improve it? My biggest fear is that most people voted, in what was a complex decision, using their emotional brain, and not rationally.
We live in a world of compromises, just like the people of Omelas. Sadly, just like Omelas, by trying to change the system, we have affected the long term prosperity of this country for a very long time. The New Statesman put it well:
“This was a working-class revolt, but it is not a working-class victory. That’s the tragedy here.”
The decision is made, unless there really is a revote (almost 3 million signed the re-vote petition so far). My hope is that, whatever happens next, the British people take a good hard look at themselves, read the world’s reactions to their actions, and ask ‘do we really want the world to see us as racist, bigotist and unwelcoming?’ Let’s not return to the 19th Century British foreign policy of ‘Splendid Isolation’.
We don’t live in a utopia, we live in the real world. That means give and take. Sure I want a better Europe, and it needs reform, but giving the people a choice to leave it was the solution?
Forming new relations with Europe and the rest of the world needs real leadership. It means we all have to step up and stop blaming others. Show the world we aren’t xenophobes, demonstrate we have compassion towards each other, and forge new relationships that show we mean it.