The gleeful troll, the smug right wing extremist who casts “political correctness” as the enemy of fun — this is not a new formation. Racists, sexists and homophobes like to claim satire for themselves — the genre allows them to disguise a genocidal lust. That they enjoy their hate makes them more frightening, not less. A reminder: for those holding the rope, for those gathering to watch, a lynching is not a somber affair.
It’s not that he lies but that he loosens the collective grip on a sense of truth. With the psychotic pleasure of an evil baby, he picks apart the threads that hold us together. He appears before us — stories seem to spore and float off his body. But these things — headlines – click holes – are poisonous agents nested inside a paper-thin, mottled story-skin. An ugly balloon holding pure sensation. A quick, dirty little high.
Stories bind us together, often in opposition. Stories give us access to a sense of shared truth and send desire in its direction. In the troll’s mouth, meaning itself becomes an enemy as we move into a zone of pure war-of-words: doxing, death threats, rape threats. A shitstorm of racist asburdities.
Ursula Le Guin once imagined a city of pure peace — a world of unending contentment. “The One Who Walk Away from Omelas” describes a place without conflict. The narrator invites the reader to supply this perfect world’s details. Does your perfect world have music? Washing machines? Farmer’s markets? Orgies? The place she describes accommodates whatever “comfort, luxury, exuberance” one can imagine, as long as it is “undestructive.” It is all so nice, really, that it is unbelievable. “Let me describe one more thing,” the narrator says — offering something that might feel real and true.
The happiness of this place is entirely dependent on the captivity of a small child who is locked away in a basement room in a situation of infinite solitary confinement and grinding misery. Everyone in the city knows this; their knowledge of this bargain is part of the deal.
The enjoyment of this personal and civic form of peace is extracted from a collective commitment to the steady state of another’s suffering. A few — very few — walk away. They walk right out of the story: Le Guin does not tell us where they go. “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.”
Who are we in this story? Who do we scapegoat in the name of collective security?
The society Le Guin describes is bound to this sense of the true: the world needs this child which has no other future than the misery of its present condition. That future has been sacrificed to “the greater good.” In its shared commitment to that story, a society finds its coherence.
This thought experiment — what if the violence of a world were concentrated onto a single, knowable body? — is borrowed from William James. In this deal, each person gets to have peace; each person — except this child — is freed of want, misery, injury and grief. The problem, the story’s crisis, is this notion of perfection — the idea that a society is only a defense against harm, that in a perfectly working world there is no grief, no loss, no pain.
That child slaps the reader: is the problem that I suffer? That you know that I suffer? That you agree that I should suffer? Or, is the problem that you insist on not suffering yourself?
Might a perfect society be one in which we hurt?
“The Ones Who Walk Away” describes the problem with thinking society as — only — a defense against injury. For, within the story we are being given, what is a family, a group, an institution or a nation but a bounded structure organized against the idea of what it is not. It needs its enemies and its victims. It needs a sense of its own skin.
Peel away another layer, however, and “The Ones Who Walk Away” reveals the sense of injury which organizes a society, a public: each society, each public imagines itself through this child — as this embodiment of pure pain. A society romances a sense of injury and loss. At what point does the sentimental culture organized around pain turn into a horror show? At what point does one get out?
That child is a warning. The public — which can never truly know itself, which can never know where it begins and ends — is at risk of tearing itself apart over this very question. The sense of a public’s boundaries articulates itself in the face of its internal terror — projected outward, that internal terror becomes a terrorist. Our relationships to the institutions, the organizations, the ideas that organize us are hijacked by pure panic.
Le Guin’s story describes the psychic treaties we strike with each other and ourselves as we avoid confronting these fears. The nightmare of “The Ones Who Walk Away,” in which everyone knows exactly the harm they inflict shadows the reality of a world in which one does not. The purity of its victim makes that child a monster — a ghost — an image — a closeted horror — a singularity which condenses the spectacularized forms of suffering that parade through our media. The pain that seems to be everywhere substitutes for a grasp of actually existing suffering.
It is not that the man is crazy, but that he forces to the surface the psychotic tendencies of the public — its terrifying proximity to madness, its bottomless appetite, its endless capacity to harm in the name of its own sense of injury.