Reflections on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

I read this short story again recently; it’s by Ursula Le Guin and is one of the most haunting short stories that I’ve ever read.  The only short story that sticks with me more than this one is Parke Godwin’s ‘Stroke of Mercy’, which is stunning.

I’d suggest you go and read ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ before you hit the link below, but, if you can’t, to save the plot summary, here we go:

I guess the question for me is whether I would choose to be one who walked away; I suppose that in our heart of hearts we all like to think that we have in ourselves the courage and self-knowledge to ‘do the right thing’.  For several years after I first read this story – which must have been in the mid 1980s – I guess at one level such thinking was hypothetical and rhetorical; it wasn’t the sort of world we lived in, after all.  But today I’m not so sure that it is rhetorical anymore, and also I’m not sure I’ve got the guts to walk away.

We in the ‘developed world’ live a materialistic and consumer driven lifestyle, which has had an increasing amount of impact on the state of the world.  For us to have many of our goodies, it could be argued that somewhere else in the world someone else’s lifestyle takes a kicking.  We have an oil-driven economy; if you’re cursed enough to live above rich oil fields then start running now.

We want high-technology equipment; if you’re a young, female, circuit board assembler in a sweat shop then be aware that some of the processes that are involved may expose you to fertility affecting chemicals.  In order to provide us with cheap electronics, some of the safeguards that we adopt in the developed world are ignored.

Have a think about it, please.

I guess my hiking boots and rucksack are still in the store cupboard right now, and I sincerely doubt that I’ll be walking away real soon.  But I do wonder whether I should at least dust the rucksack down and polish the boots, figuratively speaking, for the day when I too start looking to the distant hills of a less consumption oriented lifestyle and choose to walk away from Omelas.

The Bus Book – 14th to 28th April – Jung!

For many years I have had a great interest in the work of CG Jung.  This originated in my 20s, when I became inteersted in comparative mythology, and read the book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell.  His references to archetypes in common myth of the hero greatly influenced my thinking, and to this day I regard the day I picked up his book as a great day in my intellectual development.

From here I went to look at archetypes directly, and it wasn’t long before I encountered Jung, and the stage was set for my life-long engagement with Jungian ideas.  And, an interest in Jung helped me get soem of the ‘in jokes’ in TV’s ‘Frasier’. 🙂

“One memorable scene had Niles filling in for Frasier on Frasier’s call-in radio program, in which Niles introduces himself as the temporary substitute saying, “…and while my brother is a Freudian, I am a Jungian, so there’ll be no blaming Mother today.”

Anyway…the books.  How I came to have three books about Jung ‘on the go’ at once, so to say, is a short story in istelf.  My previous Bus Book was about the Knight’s Templar, and I happened to remember that Jung once had a dream about a Templar showing up in a contemporary city.  Digging out the reference to it led me to look through the three books I had about Jung, and I decided that a revision of my knowledge was in order.  So here we are.

At some point I may blog Jung’s own ‘Memories, Dreams and Reflections’ here, but for now it’s books about the man, not by him.

The books are:

Anthony Stevens, ‘Jung A Very Short Introduction’ (JAVSI), Anthony Stevens ‘Jung – Past Masters Series’ (J), and Ruth Snowden’s ‘Teach Yourself Jung’.

These are all good books.  The two by Stevens obviously cover similar ground, and I have a great liking for the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series.  If you ever need a good ‘crash course’ on anything that these books cover, start your education with the relevant book in this series.

Starting with the Teach Yourself Book – this is a nice, snappy, introduction to Jung doen in the usual ‘TY’ style.  Pleasantly and non-intrusively illustrated with relevant cartoons, each Chapter follows the useful ‘Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell’ em, tell ’em you’ve told ’em’ model of educational writing and it works nicely.   It’s a very nice introduction, and can easily be read and assimilated in a a day or so – I would recommend it for anyone ‘fresh on the trail’.  It is a little incomplete; by the nature of the series, TY books are an introduction, but I would ahve expected to see something more on Jung’s alleged anti-semitism, and the accusations of Nazi-sympathies for his Presidency (starting in 1933) of ‘The Medical Society for Psychotherapy’.  These accusations are utter nonsense, but still get bandied around occasionally.  It would have been nice to see an introductory work tackle them head on.  I found the glossary in this book most useful – keeping on top of terminology is critical in a field like this, and this is a good glossary indeed!

I’ll look at the two Stevens books together, as I think that the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ book is best regarded as a later and enhanced edition of the ‘Past Masters’ book.  These are both fine books; the ‘Past Masters’ one was the first book on Jung I bought, a good many years ago, and it’s still a fine read.  However, I prefer the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ one.  Both are solid, academic introductions to Jung’s life and work from an acknowledged expert in the field, and cover the areas that the TY book does, as well as looking in to the anti-semitism and Nazi allegations skipped by that book.  Oddly enough, neither has a glossary- something of an oversight in my opinion – but both are well indexed and, like the TY book, have good lists of further reading.

So…which do I prefer?  My favourite is the ‘A Very Short Introduction’.  If I was pointing someone with a ‘lay’ interest in Jung at a book, I would, however, point them at teh Teach Yourself book first.  If it were soemone with a basic understanding of psychology and psychological terminology, then I would have no problems with telling them to jump straight in to the ‘A Very Short Introduction’.

Salad Bowl or Melting Pot?

The other day I was reading an old favourite of mine ‘The Networking Book’, by Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps

In one chapter an interesting observation was made about the nature of networks; should a network be regarded as a salad bowl or a melting pot?

Before you start wondering whether you’ve encountered the rogue ramblings of a wannabe chef, I should explain; a ‘salad bowl’ network is one where the individual members retain their identity and collaborate together, much like a well designed salad’s ingredients do.  The ‘melting pot’ network, on the other hand, is one in which the individual members no longer retain their individuality but become ‘one’.

This observation was made about a ‘real world’ network, but it is equally applicable to online networks and communities. My own preference is for the salad bowl, but with a few safeguards.  After all, whilst it’s great to have the individual flavours of the ingredients of a salad be distinctly noticeable, if whole cloves of garlic and a few anchovies were to be added to a salad bowl supplying a whole table, those who didn’t want the strong flavours would be rather annoyed. So, it kind of makes sense to not throw all the strong ingredients in to the bowl when only a few may want to have them; why not have a few alternative salad bowls, or even small side dishes with garlic cloves and anchovies in (and a further dish with walnuts for those of us suffering from nut-allergies) that diners can take from at their leisure without inflicting their tastes on others.

Electronically, therefore, the analogy would be create a community that meets the needs of the vast majority of people, whilst either providing sub-sections of the site for specialists, or even pointing those who require something slightly spicier to other sites.

A classic example here is the frequent cry for ‘Adult Sections’ on web sites, or ‘Games’ sections to include Flash or other online games.  These would, to me, be the garlic cloves or anchovies; a ‘Warez’ section or part of a site that suggest locations for illegal copies of media would be ‘Walnuts’, as such a section is likely to get you in to big trouble with the authorities, just as a walnut where it’s not expected can cause serious illness for an allergy sufferer.

My own approach is that there are already many sites offering these options for people; rather than re-invent the wheel, it may well be better to direct people away from your salad bowl to someone else’s.

Online Culture and the Law of Two Feet

Well, after 4 years I recently left an Internet Forum which I’d grown very attached to.  The reason I left was pretty straightforward to me, and in my ‘Bye Bye’ post I simply commented that I was leaving because the culture of the site had changed.  I’d always told users of the site that if they didn’t like the place they should just move on rather than throw hissy fits at how the place was run, so it would have been hypocritical of me to do anything else!

I thought that I’d made my reasons pretty clear, until a user of that Forum posted a comment questioning what I meant by culture.  And it’s a good question, that has set me thinking.  So, for what it’s worth, here’s some thoughts on online culture and when to move along.  So, here’s a few thoughts.

First of all, what is meant by culture in general?  As always, you get a lot of choice with definitions.  I liked these three:

  1. a particular society at a particular time and place; “early Mayan civilization”
  2. the tastes in art and manners that are favored by a social group
  3. patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance. …

I believe they apply equally to an Internet Forum as they do to a ‘real world’ community; what differs is the way in which the culture is expressed.  Online it will be in words and other media, either in real time or time-shifted; offline it will be in words, media, activity and face to face interaction, again either in real time or time-shifted.

I started also considering ‘Ethos’:

“The disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement “

so I guess that the Ethos of an Internet site is the outward manifestation of it’s culture? 

Which led on to ‘Rules of Conduct’, which I’ve always regarded as the stick with which to support the two previously defined carrots.  Within any comunity, there are always rules of conduct backed up by consequences which help maintain the culture.  On an internet site these rules of conduct may range from none existent through to fairly tight. Ignoring for the time being the ‘Laws of the Land’, I think it’s fair to say that in general terms the Rules are rarely required if all users of an Internet site follow the Ethos of the site and respect the underlying culture.  This is, at least, what I’ve always thought to be the case.

Culture isn’t static; it evolves.  The degree of evolution (or even revolution) depends, I believe, on the following:

  1. Rate of turnover of users of the site
  2. Strength of the culture and the degree to which the ‘Site Elders’ (old established members and the controlling authorities of the site) support the existing culture.
  3. The comfort of the vast majority of users with the existing culture.

When the culture changes, there is often going to be a correspoinding change to the ethos of the site, and hence eventually to the Rules.  Should the cultural change be the equivalent of a ‘hostile takeover’ then it is up to the elders to apply the rules of the site to maintain the culture;  should the change be evolution or the acceptance of the need and desire  to change by the population of the site, then the role of the elders is simply to accept the cultural shift and smooth through it’s effects by amending the rules.

My own feeling is that whatever the cause of the change, changes to Ethos and Rules are a given if cultural change takes place or is allowed to happen.  Should those changes not happen, the result is a community which is almost schizophrenic; the culture may have changed but the public ethos and rules may not have altered to go with that change, resulting in inconsistency.

And so to the rule of two feet…

The ‘Rule of Two Feet’ or ‘Law of Two Feet’ was something I encountered many years ago; “If something isn’t working for you, go somewhere else and find something that WILL work for you”.  Another, rendition of this Law is “The people who attend are the right people”.  It is a Law driven by culture and ethos; if follwoed by people it does tend to prevent cultural change and development in a community except in very specific ways.

  1. If enough people walk away, the culture may collapse or be changed to stop the loss.
  2. The people who walk away may, if sufficient in number, gather together to form a new culture with which they are happy.

What usually happens to people who follow the Law is that they find communities with cultures and ethos’ that suit them.

Which brings me to my final observation…why, if an online community has a culture and ethos that someone finds unbearable, do they spend large amounts of time and energy fighting to change it?  Why not go and establish oneself elsewhere?

The Bus Book – w/c 7th April – The Templars, Piers Paul Reid

The things I knew about the Knights Templars – OK, the things that I’d picked up along the way and thought they were true to varying degrees – were as follows:

  1. They wore white smocks with a red cross on and were a martial order who were created to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land in the Middle Ages.
  2. They were violently supressed by the French King who wanted their land and money, and the story goes that one reason that Friday 13th is considered unlucky is that this purge took place on Friday 13th.
  3. Finally…they’re supposed to hold the secret of the Holy Grail and also are supposed to be related to the secretive ‘Priory of Sion’ who, according to various conspiracy theorists and Dan Brown, have protected the secret of the Merovingian Heresy.

Well, of these, this great little book gives me the facts on (1) – the knights did indeed wear white smocks with red crosses.  As for (2), well, the purge did happen on Friday 13th….as for (3) – nothing said.

This book is a good introduction to the historical facts behind an institution which has passed over from fact in to myth and legend.  I have to say that the main reason I bought it was that I’d always been interested in the myths and legends surrounding the Holy Grail, which led to an interest in the various Crusades.  It’s not a thick book but I would say that it sometimes gets a little heavy in terms of the relentless facts – who was who between what times, so to say.  In parts it reminded me a little of those books of the Old Testament of The Bible which detail who begat who – vitally important for those interested in Biblical bloodlines but something of a shock to the system for the rest of us. 

It is well researched and thorough – I would have liked a little more detail about the day to day running of the order, it’s military tactics, etc.  – but it was a little ‘dense’ in places, and I found a few sections hard to get through because of the occasional sections in the book where you’d follow one arc of the story for a few years, so to say, then suddenly find yousrelf back in time and starting another arc of the story that overlapped in time with the first.  I appreciate that this sort of thing is incredibly difficult to write (hey, I wouldn’t even try!!) but it might benefit from a few timeline diagrams showing who’s reign overlapped with who, etc.

Overall I enjoyed it – it taught me a lot, and I’d certainly recommend the book to anyone who wants to get the historical background to this group of men at this point in history.  I was actually surprised at how relatively small the Order was for the first decade of its life – something that the conspiracy theorists love to go on about – and how wealthy and influential they quickly became.  And it was the latter that eventually led to their downfall.

Not an easy read for the reasons I mention, but a satisfying one.