Eric Schliesser on Omelas and Ideology

by John Holbo on June 1, 2018


… the representation of Omelas shows how an ideology that is grounded in the truth, in a society in which philosophy and knowledge exist, is possible … Even so, I insist that their self-understanding is a form of ideology. By ‘ideology’ I mean (without pretending to have offered an analysis or to be at all precise) a discourse that (i) justifies a status quo – in which some are subjugated (made miserable, exploited, etc.) – and (ii) which prevents from conceiving alternatives to the status quo. Only (i) is necessary for something to be an ideology, but (ii) is an important function. This (i-ii) is precisely what happens when the children begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom.” What they say is (let’s stipulate) all true, but it ends up justifying continued misery for the child.

I’m interested because I wrote about this a while back. I’m not sure I like this semi-definition of ‘ideology’. I confess, I’ve really never thought about how ‘ideology’ can be usefully teased apart from error-implying notions like rationalization, bias, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, more neutral, but socially thicker terms like belief-system, value-system. (I am aware a great deal of ink has been spilled over ‘ideology’, over the years, yes. Just not by me.) One of the things that’s disturbing about Omelas is our strong suspicion that, even if the citizens are justified, they would keep on doing it even if they weren’t. Because they are human. But this is cross-cut by the fact that the Omelans do something that humans never would: namely, confront the facts squarely and honestly. Is ideology always psychic self-preservation from inconvenient facts? The Omelans, oddly, have no such mechanisms. Which makes the story surreal, which is satisfying. But perhaps inhumanly unhelpful as political parables go?