Stay and Fight
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
There has been a conflict within the scientific community that is obscured to outsiders: do we present our findings and say nothing, letting others decide how to respond, or do we actively advocate a path forward? This philosophical disagreement runs parallel to the discussion between two fantasy short stories: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin (1) and The Ones Who Stay and Fight by N.K. Jemisin (2). Their discussion centers around the question: can a utopia exist?
Le Guin asserts that the reader cannot imagine a utopia without it coming at a cost, which reflects our inability to confront the cost our current society incurs. Through her piece, Le Guin paints a detailed picture of utopian society in the throes of celebration as “the Festival of Summer came to the city of Omelas” and how the citizens hold a wonderous life in this city on the coast. However, Le Guin goes on to describe how there is one person suffering in Omelas, a child starved and trapped beneath the ground, never to leave. The reader is told point blank, “they all understand that their happiness…depend[s] wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” This is the cost of Omelas. A cost that every man, woman, and child is made aware of. And as the title states some of them leave the city, the guilt weighing too much on them to remain.
So, where do scientists come into this? Strictly speaking, they never do. Scientists do not seem to exist in Le Guin’s utopia in accordance with the literal text, but the significance of that choice is best left for another piece. However, the manner in which citizens of Omelas handle the cost of their existence, its monstrous tradeoff, is eerily similar to how scientists traditionally handle large-scale issues. Scientists simply present the discovery and all pertinent information to those involved, then step back and let them make their own informed decision on the matter. This mindset stems from the thought that any proclivity towards a particular outcome is indicative of bias and makes previous work questionable. Therefore, the response by the citizens of Omelas to the revelation about their livelihood is the ideal outcome since they are informed of the matter and are not swayed by anything but the facts.
However, something is lacking. Either choice the citizens make still results in a suffering child. Nothing has been done to alleviate its pain. For a long time, this is also how many scientists dealt with massive issues, such as climate change, trusting in facts to convince and compel the public in what is called the deficit model (3). The effectiveness of this strategy is questionable (4) and it often results in the folks feeling as if they have to tackle the issue on their own (5). This line of communication renders people believing that either they must upend their whole lifestyle or live with the guilt. Sound familiar?
Where do we go from here? How do we actually solve the problem at hand? A response has arisen in the scientific community to the traditional mindset, which parallels the literary response to Le Guin’s story, by N.K. Jemisin called Those Who Stay and Fight. In this short story, Jemisin presents a utopian city also in the midst of celebration, “the Day of Good Birds” similar to Omelas. Like Le Guin, the narrator addresses the reader’s skepticism directly and challenges them on it. However, the core conceit of this piece is in its rebuke of what Omelas stands for, going as far as to state “This is not Omelas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.” This story takes great pains to emphasize that the happiness it portrays is not born from another person’s suffering or from ignorance, naivety, or even tolerance, nothing as base as those. Instead, it is born from actively accepted diversity and equality, Um-Helat is a place “where every soul matters, and even the idea that some might not is anathema.” We come to understand that for this city there is still a cost, but it is not paid in a child’s suffering. Rather, the cost is the labor required to fight against the idea of inequality.
Now, the end result of their combat against inequality is not ideal, but how they intervene, personally and directly, is analogous to how I believe scientists should be handling large scale environmental issues. We cannot simply deliver findings to others for them to act on. We can’t assume that they understand the information being presented, as amongst the 535 members of the U.S. governing body there are only 14 scientists (6). While this might be solved with clearer communication, no increase in quality or amount of communication can resolve the other issue with policymakers. That those in power cannot be guaranteed to have our best interests at heart or even to listen to our expertise as is evident by everything going on in the COVID-19 pandemic (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14). As Jemisin so profoundly puts it, “We hesitate to admit that some people are just fucking evil and need to be stopped.”
Therefore, we scientists must proactively take part in efforts to address these systemic issues that are intrinsically connected with our research. After all, we know most intimately what we are losing and the impact of that loss (15, 16). One concern that scientists often express is that outreach and advocacy might erode the public trust in scientists. While that is a valid concern, current data disagrees with that outlook as survey data from PEW research center indicates that Americans’ confidence in scientists has grown since 2016 (17). Thus, I believe that we have a moral obligation to take part and encourage solutions that truly help alleviate the issues that we know so well. If we, some of those closest to these issues, do not act to help, that is akin to walking away. Of course, how you go about advocacy and when is your choice. There are numerous resources and organizations to help you start from a place of comfort and at any level of engagement (18). While what you do is important, it is more essential that you start, that you fight the inertia of doing nothing, because the world right now is overwhelming in its need for help and solutions. So please, don’t walk away. We need you here. There are many children suffering and they need you to stay and fight.