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John Scalzi is exactly who he is. Disappointment happens when expectations aren’t met.

Scalzi’s discussion of the Penn State child-rape case cites Ursula K. Leguin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a parallel. It’s a false analogy. Though I mostly don’t like Ms. Leguin’s work, in this case she had a specific didactic purpose and executed it quite well –but to cite that story as analogous to any real-world case, especially as encountered by an American, is an abdication of responsibility.

One of the most-discussed science fiction stories is “The Cold Equations”, by Tom Godwin. In that story, the characters are faced with a situation where they have no good choices. The best they can do is to minimize their losses, and Godwin set the story up so that the minimum loss is a large one indeed. People often argue about the story by opining that the setup isn’t realistic — that the ship would have extra fuel, or that some other condition would be changed, allowing the minimum loss to be less, or avoided altogether. That isn’t the point. The way the situation is framed, staying within the parameters Godwin carefully set, the choices are as stated — and are horrific at best.

“Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” is Leguin’s (successful) attempt to build a “Cold Equations” scenario in the moral sphere, rather than in physics. The people involved can accept or reject the situation as Leguin constructed it, but there are no other choices, the author having carefully precluded them. If you stay within the premises and structure Leguin set up, accepting evil (and thus becoming party to it) or accepting poverty and deprivation are the only possibilities.

Any story is a world to itself, and must be discussed and thought of while staying consistent with its premises and structure. The real world isn’t a story, and there are things available to real-world actors that don’t exists for story-protagonists, especially protagonists in carefully-constructed didactic plays like “The Cold Equations” and “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”. But look at Scalzi’s first iteration of a response:

1. When, as an adult, you come come across another adult raping a small child, you should a) do everything in your power to rescue that child from the rapist, b) call the police the moment it is practicable.

Note that choice (a) is one that is not available to the protagonists of “Those Who Walk…”. It is, in fact, the Moe Lane solution: “The answer is to SMITE THE EVIL.” The events (yeah, I’m trying to keep the emotional level down a bit) occurred in a sports facility. Sports, to a close first approximation, are a way to sublimate violent impulses into constructive, or at least non-destructive, activity. As such, sports employ all kinds of tools that are approximations of what are normally “weapons”. In particular, a sports facility will have lots of different types of bludgeons lying about. Call them “baseball bats” or “hockey sticks” or whatever, they are modifications of things warriors used to carry around and use to bash their opponents. If you, as an adult, come across another adult raping a small child in a sports facility, there are all kinds of tools available to you for use in abating the nuisance — and a man raping a small child is likely to be both in a position to receive such abatement in an effective manner, and sufficiently preoccupied to give you an opportunity to administer abatement.

Scalzi goes on to add:

2. If your adult son calls you to tell you that he just saw another adult raping a small child, but then left that small child with the rapist, and then asks you what he should do, you should a) tell him to get off the phone with you and call the police immediately, b) call the police yourself and make a report, c) at the appropriate time in the future ask your adult son why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.

Note choice (c). Scalzi’s instincts are at least partly correct: he sees that it is the obligation of the witness to attempt to abate the nuisance. Why, then, does he cite the Leguin story, in which none of the protagonists has the power to abate the nuisance, as a parallel?

Omelas the City is a paradise for those who have accepted evil and are complaisant. It would seem that this is the parallel Scalzi sees — that the witnesses of the rapes had a good thing going for themselves and didn’t want to upset the applecart, so accepted the evil. But in his later discussions he talks about cowardice, and plainly is thinking in terms of grabbing the perp and shoving him away from his victim, which might not be practical for the average no-muscles dweeb faced with a practicing sports figure. But that’s not the only choice — a potential intervener is not faced with uncounterable danger to himself. There are weapons available, and the whole point of a “weapon” is to maximize damage to the opponent while minimizing damage to the wielder. That’s what a weapon is for.

But that third choice, unavailable in Omelas, isn’t available in Scalzi’s world, either. Scalzi’s a liberal, not as much of a leftoid as many are but right there in with the softie wing of the philosophy. “People”, in Scalzi’s world, don’t use weapons; individuals who do are eeeevil or at minimum misguided. The option of smiting a rapist with a Louisville Slugger simply doesn’t occur, and since it doesn’t, the potential intervener is faced with the Omelas choice: accept evil and become a party to it, or walk away.

That’s the other way Leguin’s story isn’t parallel. In the story, those who walk away are refusing to accept evil but must pay the price of being impoverished. In the real world, walking away is the same as accepting the evil. Every person has the responsibility to at least attempt to defeat evil when it is encountered. Refusing to confront the evil is another way of accepting it, and failing to use the tools at hand when confronting evil, thus placing yourself in danger of not only personal damage but of failure to effectively confront the evil, is simply a variant of “refusal to confront”.

The greatest failure of modern “liberalism”, to which Scalzi fully subscribes, is the deliberate choice of ineffective means of confronting evil. Choosing marches and “civil disobedience” and attempts to reason with the perpetrator, while not only rejecting the choice of a quick blow to the spine-skull joint of the perp but actively preventing others from taking such measures, is not confronting evil. It is complaisance to it.

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When I Posted

November 2011