Politics and the attempt to see the entire elephant
An old Indian parable about six blind men and an elephant has a theme that speaks directly to today’s political climate.
In all versions of the parable, each blind man touches a different part of an elephant while being unaware that there is more to the beast than they have personally experienced. In each story, the men describe the elephant in utterly different ways, with varying degrees of ensuing conflict as they consider apparently irreconcilable perceptions.
In the Buddhist version, the men come to blows as they dispute the truth about the elephant. The Buddha responds with the verse:
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
I relate this story in this bitter political season because, in everything but the concluding wisdom, we are those blind men of the parable, coming all but to blows through the restrictive confines of a reflexive commitment to the things we are conditioned to believe, by seeing only one side of the thing.
In his book “True Enough,” Farhad Manjoo interviews Phillip Jayhan, a leader of the “9/11 Truth Movement” who is convinced that the World Trade Towers were an inside government job accomplished by firing missiles from the attacking planes. Like the birther and Obama-is-a-Muslim crowds, Jayhan and his acolytes are impervious to evidence that conflicts with their indisputably false contention.
While these are extreme examples, Manjoo suggests there is a natural human tendency to define truth as a function of factors like perceived social norms, ideological obligations, or party affiliations.
For example, he discusses a rigorous scientific study in which devotees of two college football teams are shown film of mayhem on the field during a game between the teams. Predictably, when asked which side was playing dirty, the supporters of each team tend to see the same film as indicting the other side.
Similar considerations apply in randomized medical research where it is axiomatic that the radiologist who interprets the brain scan to decide whether a cancer has reappeared must be unaware of the treatment group assignment of the patient. The reason is simple. Whether you are devoted to a football team or a cancer therapy you have spent years developing, there is a palpable inclination to interpret results as favoring the option you passionately support. It’s not about dishonesty. It’s just being human.
In the world of science, you fight this natural tendency. But in the political arena, honesty and truth are intentionally subservient to the sirens of power as politicians and their handlers manipulate our frailty. They succeed when Pied Piper-like voters take the easy path, discarding the challenge of intellectual skepticism, believing what their own biases encourage, succumbing to the puppeteers we call admen.
The result is a distortion of democratic principles as the very meaning of words like “truth” and “fact” morphs seamlessly into being anything supportive of one’s party, peer group or ideology. Part of the problem is limited basic information as demonstrated by national polls indicating that 42 percent could name the three branches of government (2006), 69 percent could name the vice president and 49 percent the speaker of the House (2007), and more than 80 percent could not find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map (2002).
But the salient issue here is not inadequate knowledge in itself. Rather, it’s our routine capacity to reach firm conclusions that support preconceived biases in the almost complete absence of knowledge; to have despised or supported Nancy Pelosi without actually knowing who she was; to see Obama as socialist without knowing what a socialist is; to demand a balanced budget, untouched entitlements, and no new taxes without ever asking if it is numerically feasible.
Unthinking advocacy can be as deadly to the democratic ideal as a coup or a stolen election. It’s a form of groupthink that invites demagogues and the more routinely ambitious to seek power through duplicity and obfuscation.
And it can only be avoided through education and self awareness as to how best to seek the truth. So here are some concluding suggestions.
- Strong advocates of your existing viewpoint should not be your only source of information.
- Be especially skeptical when you assimilate information that supports your preferred position. Your natural tendency is to cheer the new talking points. Fight against it if you care about truth.
- If you can’t argue cogently against the viewpoint you have adopted, you probably don’t know the issue well enough to justify your confident opinion.
- View the ads of your preferred candidate with as much skepticism as you attach to opposition propaganda. Both are focused on winning, not on truth.
Ken Schechtman is a freelance writer and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine.