Ursula K. Le Guin on Power, Oppression, Freedom, and How Imaginative Storytelling Expands Our Scope of the Possible
“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.”
By Maria Popova
“We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel urged in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And yet part of the human tragedy is that despite our best intentions and our most ardent ideals, we often lull ourselves into neutrality in the face of injustice — be it out of fear for our own stability, or lack of confidence in our ability to make a difference, or that most poisonous foible of the soul, the two-headed snake of cynicism and apathy. How, then, do we unmoor ourselves from a passivity we so masterfully rationalize, remember that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and rise to that awareness with moral courage and imagination?
That’s what Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) examines in one of the many magnificent pieces in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library) — that trove of her clear-headed, bright-hearted wisdom on subjects as eclectic and essential as gender, the sacredness of public libraries, the magic of real human conversation, and what beauty really means.
In an ennobling and pleasurably unnerving essay titled “A War Without End,” which Le Guin describes as “some thoughts, written down at intervals, about oppression, revolution, and imagination,” she writes:
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.
When these dominant narratives become so deeply embedded in a society, Le Guin suggests, even those whom they oppress end up internalizing them. (I think of James Baldwin, who observed in his terrific conversation with Nikki Giovanni: “What the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do.”)
In turning to the subject of resistance to oppression, Le Guin invokes the memorable words of the poet and onetime slave Phillis Wheatley, who wrote in 1774: “In every human Breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.” Le Guin considers the discomfiting paradox at the heart of this abiding truth:
All that is good in the institutions and politics of my country rests on it.
And yet I see that though we love freedom we are mostly patient of oppression, and even refuse deliverance.
I see a danger in insisting that our love of freedom always outweighs whatever force or inertia keeps us from resisting oppression and seeking deliverance.
If I deny that strong, intelligent, capable people will and do accept oppression, I’m identifying the oppressed as weak, stupid, and inept.
If it were true that superior people refuse to be treated as inferiors, it would follow that those low in the social order are truly inferior, since, if they were superior, they’d protest; since they accept an inferior position, they are inferior. This is the comfortably tautological argument of the slave owner, the social reactionary, the racist, and the misogynist.
In a counterpoint to Kierkegaard’s ideas about the power of the minority, Le Guin reality-checks the distribution of power throughout human history:
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.
But beyond the truism that those in power are better equipped to stay in power, Le Guin argues that there is a larger failure of moral imagination keeping oppressive power structures in place. She writes:
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.
Echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that “courage is as contagious as fear,” Le Guin considers the irreversible Rube Goldberg machine of awareness and action through which injustice is confronted and countered:
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.
Reflecting on Audre Lord’s assertion that one can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, which Le Guin considers a “rich and dangerous” metaphor, she writes:
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?
In a sentiment that calls to mind the great cellist Pau Casals’s wonderful notion of making this world worthy of its children, Le Guin adds:
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?
The most powerful such tool, Le Guin argues, is the imagination — the ability and willingness to imagine alternatives to reality as we know it, which is always the first step toward making different and better realities possible. She points to storytelling as the most powerful use of the imagination in expanding our scope of the possible:
Utopia, and Dystopia, are intellectual places. I write from passion and playfulness. My stories are neither dire warnings nor blueprints for what we ought to do. Most of them, I think, are comedies of human manners, reminders of the infinite variety of ways in which we always come back to pretty much the same place, and celebrations of that infinite variety by the invention of still more alternatives and possibilities.
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.
In a sentiment evocative of Susan Sontag’s beautiful thoughts on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, Le Guin considers the task of imaginative storytelling and its ultimate reward:
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.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Wave in the Mind, which is titled after Virginia Woolf’s metaphor for consciousness and which remains one of the most redemptive and rereadable books I’ve ever encountered, with Albert Camus on cultivating strength of character, Rebecca Solnit on the grounds for hope in our moral imagination, and Neil Gaiman on how stories change us, then revisit Le Guin’s advice on writing.
Published May 6, 2016