The Guilty Pleasure of Privilege

David Uptin

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, the titular city is presented as a utopia, where residents are treated to good food, festivals, and a state of constant, unending happiness. However, the story has a dark twist; this unending happiness is dependent on the constant suffering of a single child. According to the narrator, most citizens are initially shocked at this fact, but come to accept it due to the fact that it brings joy and security to their lives.

Of course, readers are likely to be horrified at this concept – we humans love to think of ourselves, both individually and as a collective, as morally evolved, better than that. But the more one thinks about the story’s themes, the more questions it raises.

To what extent does the situation in Omelas resemble real life? Are our emotions and experiences part of some great cosmic exchange, where every moment of our happiness is bought with someone else’s suffering? What would, in all truth, be our reaction if we found out that our joy had been bought through exploitation? Would we walk away from Omelas, or would we guiltily stay?

How are we supposed to feel when the happiest moments of our lives are reframed as things to feel guilty about?

My family and I have gone on three international holidays together in the eighteen years since I was born, including two cruises (one to New Zealand, one to the Pacific Islands) and a longer trip where we spent time in Hawaii, California, Nevada, and Fiji. In case you can’t tell, my parents’ favourite sorts of holidays are tropical; they love the experience, and the thought, of lying on a beach under palm trees, dipping one’s toes in crystal clear water, being completely, totally at peace. Both my parents (and myself, for that matter) are people who get stressed quite easily, so we do prefer peaceful sorts of holidays to visiting bustling locations and having full schedules, and what could be more peaceful than a cruise? What could be more tranquil than a period of time when one does not have to worry about making the bed, or preparing food, or doing laundry, and can just sit by the pool or the beach, worrying and thinking about absolutely nothing?

The holidays I’m describing have, quite honestly, been some of the best experiences of my life. I think I’ve inherited my mother’s deep, deep love for the natural beauty and atmosphere of the Pacific Islands; I used to put on a YouTube mix of ‘relaxing Hawaiian music’ when I was studying in high school. We’ve visited some absolutely gorgeous places in our travels. Mystery Island, Vanuatu (known to locals as Inyeug) Waikiki Beach, from our very own New South Wales South Coast to the beaches of Denarau Island in Fiji. They are times in my life when I have been unambiguously happy and content, and I look back on them with fondness and a hint of nostalgia, given that that same happiness and contentment is not something I have generally been able to maintain in my everyday life.

And yet there were always costs.

Omelas can never reach the levels of happiness it does without the suffering child.

While we were relaxing on the pool deck, feeling the breeze on our faces, listening to Vance Joy, who was making our beds? Who was cooking the food we would eat later that night?

Who was holding the system that was producing our peace on their shoulders, and was the pressure of maintaining our joy draining their own?

Below management level, staff on cruise ships are overwhelmingly non-white. Many cruise companies actually market themselves on this fact, portraying themselves as ‘diverse’ and ‘international’, as though diversity is only about numbers, not which tier of the company these ‘diverse’ people are on or how they are treated. Much has been written about the exploitation of these people by cruise industry giants, as they are made to work long hours on long contracts (some work twelve hours a day, seven days a week) while also being kept away from family and friends for months on end. On the last night of my family’s 2016 Pacific Islands cruise, all the waiting and kitchen staff came together, stood around the staircases, and sang ‘I Still Call Australia Home’. I look back on that moment, and all I can feel is what the internet would probably deem ‘cringe’, an awkward awareness of how absurd it was for such a thing to happen. What was the purpose? To entertain? These exploited people were made, like puppets, to sing a song they likely had no connection to just to entertain white Australian baby boomers sipping at wine, who would go home and tell their friends what a funny thing the waiters did on the last night of the cruise?

The Pacific Islands are naturally gorgeous, and it seems that almost everyone on the planet agrees with that. However, Hawaiian activists have been working in recent years to tear down prominent narratives and stereotypes about their home which actually obscure the truth. Hawaii did not join the United States of its own free will; prior to the 1890’s, Hawaii was an independent Kingdom, and then briefly a Republic, before being annexed by the United States in 1898. In theory, the annexation was borne from an agreement between the US and Hawaii, but in practice, the US had created a system of economic dependence in the islands for years beforehand, making it incredibly easy for them to get their way. Native Hawaiians were disproportionately hurt by the annexation, with much of their culture and way of life being eroded, and this is a process that continues to this day. Hawaii became a Covid hotspot in 2021 when travel first opened back up, as tourists were bringing it to locals, and Native Hawaiians were disproportionately affected by this as well, to the point where many activists started calling for a temporary tourism ban for the islands.

Looking back at the three or four days I spent in Hawaii, Native Hawaiian culture formed a minuscule part of my travel experience. My most prominent memories are visiting Pearl Harbour, swimming at Waikiki Beach, and breakfasts and lunches in the famous Wailana Coffee House. When Native Hawaiian culture was presented to us, it was commodified, made into a form Westerners would be comfortable with; a luau at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, our bus driver wearing a Hawaiian shirt and singing a song for us as he drove around. Authentic, non-commodified Indigenous culture does not play a part in the Western perception of Hawaii, because if it did, people who have previously been complacent might start asking dangerous questions.

However, exploitation and discrepancy were perhaps most evident when we spent four or five days in Fiji, at the end of our trip to the United States. We stayed at the Sheraton on Denarau Island, on the western side of Fiji, only twenty minutes’ drive from the nation’s busiest airport in Nadi. Denarau Island is a locale that houses perhaps six or seven international hotel chains, including Sheraton, Hilton, Wyndham, and Sofitel, but of course, the Fijian editions of these hotels are full, lavish resorts, boasting spacious rooms, comprehensive, complimentary breakfast buffets, multiple beachside pools with deck chairs, and services which allow you to hire kayaks or small sailboats for the day. These places were so opulent and expansive that they even surprised us Westerners, but my parents and I quickly adjusted to the lifestyle, sitting in our room watching TV, walking down to the dock to order ridiculously large pizzas and watch people walk over hot coals, swimming in the pool. It felt, to us, like a bubble, a place where we could temporarily hide away and forget that the world had any problems at all, just living life the way it was always supposed to be lived.

Throughout our stay in Fiji, we never left Denarau Island.

The only other parts of Fiji we saw were the international airport (I recall my parents being surprised at how ‘primitive’ this airport was) and the road that leads from the airport to the resort.

Driving along that road was, for my entire family, quite a surreal experience after our five days at the Sheraton. We left kayaks and beachside pools and breakfast buffets in the rear-view mirror and found ourselves passing huts, villages, and small schools with decaying roofs. We were not exactly travelling past slums, but it was still quite a far cry from the Sheraton Fiji, and I remember my parents marvelling at the contrast. For my part, even as an eleven-year-old, I do recall vaguely wondering why exactly we had been allowed to live in absolute luxury while these people lived in huts that seemed to be falling apart, and why we had had absolutely no contact with said people over the last couple of days, even though we had been staying in close proximity to them. I even recall similarly vague thoughts that we had not actually experienced the real Fiji, that this was the real Fiji and we had been treated to some utopianised version of it, but such thoughts were quickly swept away in the drama of airport security lines and suitcases and layovers and annoyingly repetitive terminal announcements.

And more than anything, recalling all I witnessed in these places, all the suffering that was allowed to go on while we lived in paradise, I realise that exploitation is held up a hundred times more by complacency than it is by hatred. Neither my parents nor I had any malicious feelings towards any of the people we met in these places. On both cruises we went on, my parents developed quite a friendship with the waiters assigned to our table for the voyage, and even took photos with said waiters to remember them. My dad, who was an Anglican minister at the time, talked deeply to one of our Catholic Filipino waiters about religion, and comforted the man in the wake of his wife’s death, having to experience his first Christmas without his wife (this cruise took place in early December). As I have said, my parents also noticed, in Fiji, the discrepancy between the opulence we had been served and the squalor we passed on the road, but interestingly, they didn’t seem to give more than a passing thought to it.

But I should be better than that, shouldn’t I? I should give more than a passing thought to these things, right? After all, I’m ‘educated’, ‘woke’, am I not? I’m doing a liberal arts course at university, I’ve studied cultural theory, I consider myself progressive, I’ve reposted anti-racist, anti-misogynistic, and anti-homophobic content on my social media so many times. I know I’m a cisgender white man, but I’m not one of the bad ones, am I?

White privilege exists, but surely I can be one of the good white people, can’t I?

Yet if I look at the reality of my anti-oppression activism, all I feel is guilt. I have not gone much farther than reposting slogans or content to my Instagram story, and a few debates with my moderately conservative parents. I haven’t been to any protests, I haven’t participated in any strikes, I have not, if I am honest with myself, gone out of my way or done anything legitimately difficult for the purposes of advancing all these social causes I supposedly care about.

And I do care about them, to a certain extent. Last week a female acquaintance of mine posted a paragraph on her Instagram story detailing her anger at how she was sexually harassed in her workplace, and I was horrified that this abhorrent behaviour is so prevalent women I personally know are dealing with it. When I hear stories of exploitation like the ones I detailed above, I am shocked, and I do sincerely believe that those exploited people deserve a way out of their situation.

It is so easy to feel anger or sadness when you’re watching someone being bullied.

It’s much harder to actually stand up to the bully.

Especially when part of that bully is hiding within yourself.

I feel that the way social media views issues like racism, misogyny, and homophobia is extremely unproductive; placing people into two camps, the racists, and the non-racists. Exiling the racists through methods like ‘cancelling’ obscures the truth that every single Caucasian person in Western society has privilege (including me) and has benefited from that privilege. None of us are free of sin, so there’s no point in thinking of ourselves like we are. Much has been written about how Caucasian people online are so desperate to prove ourselves as one of the good ones that we perpetuate this narrative of the two camps, instead of acknowledging how even those of us on the progressive side of the spectrum have benefited from white privilege.

The deep, difficult truth is that the realisation of your own privilege is like waking up from a dream, like a bubble being burst. I look back on my idyllic childhood, on our road trips, our dinner parties with family friends, and our holidays to tropical islands, and I am simultaneously filled with deep, deep love and nostalgia for those experiences, as well as extreme guilt, that I was able to experience such joy and beauty while others had childhoods full of suffering. I did grow up in a dream, and I’m trying to work towards reality, but reality hurts sometimes. Reality is disappointing, and sobering, and I do sometimes wish I could just stay in the dream.

Maybe that’s why those people stayed in Omelas; because they knew that however guilty they may have felt, the world outside the city would be a hundred times more frightening.

Author: David is a first-year Creative Writing student who mostly loves writing novels, but is starting to dabble in creative non-fiction. He would describe his fiction as ‘Jonathan Franzen tone with Taylor Jenkins Reid content’, and his non-fiction as ‘self-psychoanalytical rambling’. He hopes to go on submissions for his first novel by the end of 2022.

Artist: Steph Blinco is a third-year Bachelor of Fine Arts student. As a local Brisbane emerging artist, her practice makes statements about everyday life through collaged imagery. Intertwining psychedelic patterns to create collisions of colour and era, Steph draws influences from autobiographical contexts, ranging from her childhood to her experiences now as a young adult. You can find her on Instagram @stephblincoart.