A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
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