The Blind Men and the Elephant – A portrait of America

blind men and elephant; Indian folktale

An ancient parable from the Indian subcontinent has been on my mind a lot lately. Modern political discourse is often defined by our differences, so discussing politics is mostly a point of division between people.

Everyone is blinded by their subjective experience of reality. The identity-based movements dominating political discourse often force us to focus on the parts of ourselves that create the blindness, and even encourage us to be proud of our blindness.

A story called, “The Blind Men and the Elephant” helps us look at what our personal blindness does to our understanding of the world, and teaches us what to do with our blindness.

I’m going to tell you the story, then delve into my interpretation of how it applies to our current situation. This is my adaptation of the story, and it deviates slightly from the original telling.

If you’d like to read one of the original versions, follow this link.

Alright, here we go:

One day, many years ago,

four Blind Men were walking down the road from Mumbai to Hyderabad. It was a beautiful day, but they only knew that by the birds singing.

An elephant had wandered into the road and stood there watching the Blind Men as they approached.

The Blind Men, using their canes to see, discovered the elephant and set about looking at it in the only way they could — with their hands.

The first man reached out and touched the elephant’s trunk. He gasped and leapt back from the great animal.

“Move away friends!,” he shouted. “There’s a snake hanging from a tree. Be careful or you’ll be bitten and die!”

The second man reached out and touched the elephant’s leg. He laughed at the first man.

“Don’t be foolish, this is a tall and mighty tree, too tall for a snake to be hanging here,” he said. “Let’s stop and rest in its shade.”

The third man stepped closer and reached his hand out to discover what was going on. His fingertips landed on the elephant’s tusk.

“Run, friends!” he cried fearfully. “This is a man with a spear. He must be here to kill us and rob our corpses!”

The fourth Blind Man happened to wander behind the elephant, so when he reached out he got a handful of the bristles on its tail.

“Calm down, my brothers,” he said with a laugh. “This is a humble landscape painter practicing his trade. If only we could see his works of art.”

They stood there for some time, discussing what it was they’d encountered. After disagreeing for a while they realized that they couldn’t reconcile their own interpretations of this obstacle in the path.

So the Blind Men gathered their things, walked around the elephant, and continued on to Hyderabad.

What does it mean?

Each one of us is blind, trying to get to our destination, and unable to fully understand the complex obstacles in our path.

Don’t overthink the elephant aspect of this story. It’s not explicitly meant to represent the Republican party, although that organization does create significant obstacles for us coming together.

The elephant represents the complex systems of oppression, exploitation, and divisiveness that define our politics. This includes systemic white supremacy, Wall Street economic manipulations, Deep State conspiracies, bureaucratic obstruction, and everything else that stands in our way.

Any given individual only experiences a small portion of the full picture. Our subjective truth is only a small part of the greater collective truth.

Black people historically oppressed neighborhoods experience America as a fundamentally white supremacist state.

White folks in upper class new England see a world of Ivy League opportunity and financial freedom.

Libertarian Infowars readers see this country primarily as a depraved satanic conspiracy machine.

None of these perspectives are completely right or completely wrong. There is a truthful aspect of everyone’s experience, and massive gaps in our understanding of the world.

It might not even be fully possible to reconcile the differences in our understanding.

And yet, so many people seek to impose their version of reality on other people as though it’s possible to force everyone into one cohesive picture of this infinitely complex existence.

It would be better to follow the example of the Blind Men and continue on together despite our disagreement. We still have a long road to travel and if we can preserve space for everyone to experience the world in a way that makes sense to them, while still being bound by our common goal we will create a much happier society.

At the core of everyone’s heart, there is a deep desire to create a more just and equitable society for everyone. We won’t get there if we stay in one place arguing about what the elephant is.

We need to keep our goal in mind and do our best to walk towards it together despite our disagreements.


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