Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users

Ursula K. Le Guin: On Power, Oppression and Freedom

My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another.

The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.

Many of those who made the first revolution practiced the most extreme form of economic exploitation and social oppression: they were slave owners.

The second American revolution, the Civil War, was an attempt to preserve slavery. It was partially successful. The institution was abolished, but the mind of the master and the mind of the slave still think a good many of the thoughts of America.

The ruling class is always small, the lower orders large, even in a caste society. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are fewer than those they hold power over. Adult men hold superior status in almost all societies, though they are always outnumbered by women and children. Governments and religions sanction and uphold inequality, social rank, gender rank, and privilege, wholly or selectively.

Most people, in most places, in most times, are of inferior status.

And most people, even now, even in “the free world,” even in “the home of the free,” consider this state of affairs, or certain elements of it, as natural, necessary, and unchangeable. They hold it to be the way it has always been and therefore the way it must be. This may be conviction or it may be ignorance; often it is both. Over the centuries, most people of inferior status have had no way of knowing that any other way of ordering society has existed or could exist — that change is possible. Only those of superior status have ever known enough to know that; and it is their power and privilege that would be at stake if the order of things were changed.

We have good reason to be cautious, to be quiet, not to rock the boat. A lot of peace and comfort is at stake. The mental and moral shift from denial of injustice to consciousness of injustice is often made at very high cost.

The last words of the Mahabharata are, “By no means can I attain a goal beyond my reach.” It is likely that justice, a human idea, is a goal beyond human reach. We’re good at inventing things that can’t exist.

Maybe freedom cannot be attained through human institutions but must remain a quality of the mind or spirit not dependent on circumstances, a gift of grace… My problem with it is that its devaluation of work and circumstance encourages institutional injustices which make the gift of grace inaccessible. A two-year-old child who dies of starvation or a beating or a firebombing has not been granted access to freedom, nor any gift of grace, in any sense in which I can understand the words. We can attain by our own efforts only an imperfect justice, a limited freedom. Better than none. Let us hold fast to that principle, the love of Freedom, of which the freed slave, the poet, spoke.

The shift from denial of injustice to recognition of injustice can’t be unmade. What your eyes have seen they have seen. Once you see the injustice, you can never again in good faith deny the oppression and defend the oppressor. What was loyalty is now betrayal. From now on, if you don’t resist, you collude. But there is a middle ground between defense and attack, a ground of flexible resistance, a space opened for change. It is not an easy place to find or live in.

Power not only corrupts, it addicts. Work becomes destruction. Nothing is built. Societies change with and without violence. Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws — education, learning to think, learning skills?

Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful?

To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

Fantasy and science fiction in their very conception offer alternatives to the reader’s present, actual world. Young people in general welcome this kind of story because in their vigor and eagerness for experience they welcome alternatives, possibilities, change. Having come to fear even the imagination of true change, many adults refuse all imaginative literature, priding themselves on seeing nothing beyond what they already know, or think they know.

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.

Copyright 2004 Ursula K. Le Guin. From The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Quoted in BrainPickings.



Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

11 comments on “Ursula K. Le Guin: On Power, Oppression and Freedom

  1. Don Krieger
    October 30, 2020

    I have enjoyed this author and have great respect for her.
    I must point out however, that in her introductory remarks, she makes the common error of parroting propaganda with which we have all been indoctrinated:

    “The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.”

    The American Revolution was about the money. It was successful only in gaining independence for America’s elite from the British government.

    The hope and promise of America’s Revolution died with America’s Constitutional Convention in 1789. Native people, slaves, and women were excluded from the freedoms and even acknowledgement of their existence promised in The Declaration of Independence. Both slave holders and the sainted signers who abhorred slavery wrote and signed The Constitution to preserve their personal economic privilege and power, and that of those like them, white men.

    250 years later, America remains a bastion of institutionalized white male supremacy, a constant perpetrator of brutal barbarism, and is recognized by everyone but its own citizens as the archetype of nuclear terrorism.

    Nothing short of a Constitutional Convention which makes no compromises is needed. We compromised in 1789 and look at where were are and where we have been. We must do much much better. Else we remain the heirs of the Third Reich and every other tyrant we defeated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kendi Borona
    September 18, 2017

    Reblogged this on gloriakendiborona.


  3. Autumn Cote
    September 14, 2017

    Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I liked what you wrote. I’ll be sure to give you complet5e credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Robert Matthew Goldstein
    September 8, 2017

    Reblogged this on Art by Rob Goldstein and commented:
    from Vox Populi

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robert Matthew Goldstein
    September 8, 2017

    This is an inspired post! Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  6. David Wilson
    August 27, 2017

    I am at a loss for words, as I am mired in the second short paragraph. She speaks of her country coming together in the first revolution. Perhaps I am missing the point, but did not that country commit genocide and not “… relatively mild social and economic exploitation.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      August 27, 2017

      Good point, David.


    • linkcatblog
      August 28, 2017

      I think she was writing about the British taxes that prompted the Revolutionary War, rather than the exploitation of the colonists of slaves and native people.


  7. Charis91
    November 3, 2016

    I see your page is in the same niche like my blog. Do you allow guest posting?
    I can write high quality & unique posts for you. Let me
    know if you are interested.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      November 3, 2016

      Hi! Send me some of your work, and I’ll take a look at it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow Vox Populi and receive new posts by email.

Join 12,141 other followers

Blog Stats

  • 4,314,774 hits


%d bloggers like this: