Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blind Men and the Elephant of Power

Do you know the story about the blind men and the elephant?

It's an old Buddhist folktale about men who have never encountered an elephant before, but only heard stories about this nearly mythic beast.  One day, someone brings an elephant to the village where they live.  The blind men are all anxious to meet the animal.  Using their hands as eyes, they feel the elephant.  But, they feel different parts of the elephant.

The one feeling the trunk says, "Oh, an elephant is like a snake!"
The one feeling the leg says, "Oh, an elephant is like a great tree!"
The one feeling the ear says, "Oh, an elephant is like a huge fan!"
The one feeling the flank says, "Oh, an elephant is like a wall!"
The one feeling the tail says, "Oh, an elephant is like a rope!"

Of course, the moral is that all the men are right, and all are wrong.  They understand a sliver of the truth.  None has the full picture.  Their error is in assuming that their partial perspective is the reality.  By communicating their experiences to one another, they can come to a more accurate sense of the reality that is the elephant.

I love this story.  I've used it for everything from teaching a Sunday school class for 5-year-olds to an academic conference presentation. It nicely encapsulates my personal epistemology.  It's the anecdote that keeps on giving. 

I've thought of this story yet again when looking at the growing Occupy Wall Street (hereafter "OWS") movement.  As of this writing, the OWS movement has grown to hundreds of sites across the country and is spreading around the globe.

As of this writing, there is also a lot of the typical media coverage of the OWS, usually relying on a dualistic and simplistic narrative. One common framing device is to compare the OWS movement and the "Tea Party" movement, seeing them as superficially similar, but ultimately on two sides of an impermeable divide.

There is some truth to this.  While the OWS movement focuses on the growing inequalities of wealth and lays the blame primarily on the influence of huge corporate interests that exploit rather than serve the public good, the Tea Party argument is that the fault is "big government" taking too much money in taxes and using it inappropriately.

One can also make some meaningful judgments on the veracity of these positions.  For example, one might note that federal tax rates are at historic lows while corporate profits and income inequality are at historic highs.  We could come to the conclusion that the underlying premise of the OWS movement is more valid than that of the Tea Party, and that their argument has more merit.

But I think we might miss a larger truth if we continue to think in such a dualistic fashion.  While many in both the OWS movement and the Tea Party movement would scream bloody murder at the suggestion, I think there is an underlying commonality that promises a possible avenue for what Johan Galtung, father of peace studies, would call a transcendent solution.

The OWS and Tea Party movements are like our blind men feeling the elephant.  Both clearly sense realities of the current situation, namely that the intersection of corporate influence and government policy leads to the use of power for the benefit of the few rather than the many, rewarding unproductive behavior and punishing productive actions.

As I say, this isn't to say that both groups' sense of this reality is equally partial, equally distorted.  That would be to draw a false equivalence.  But both are admittedly partial.

And, despite these limits, both also grasp something fundamental about the nature of this particular elephant, the elephant of power.

Power, like an elephant, is a living and dynamic thing.  And like any living thing, it wishes to survive in its current form.  As such, it profits by having those who challenge it fight one another rather than unite.  No wonder, then, that if we turn on the TV, we see those who celebrated the Tea Party castigate OWS, and vice versa, both sides using interchangeable commonplaces and language.  The only thing that changes are the specific epithets used for the other ("entitled hippies!" "greedy, hateful racists!").

An important step to resolve this would be to see that the actual conflict is quite different than the one presented.  This is a common problem.  In my nascent exploration of peace studies, I have come to at least one conclusion: most conflicts are not between the actors usually cast in the roles of antagonists by the dominant narrative of the conflict.

To give one example, is the conflict in the Middle East truly between Israelis and Palestinians? I'd suggest not.  The conflict is between those who sincerely want a peaceful and equitable solution to the conflict (the majority) and those who profit in one way or another (politically, financially, psychologically, etc.) from pitting Israelis and Palestinians against one another. The latter are in the minority, but have a disproportionate amount of power.

When we see a conflict, we should immediately question if the two sides commonly seen as implacable foes are at the center of the conflict, or if the underlying tension lies deeper, camouflaged (often intentionally) by a "cover story."

In the case of OWS and the Tea Party, I think we see something similar.  Not to dismiss the real differences in philosophy between the groups, but the facile pitting of these two groups against one another misses the underlying point.  It's arguing whether the elephant is like a snake or a tree, ignoring the larger reality.

As I said in a previous post, I think the "99%" moniker used by the OWS movement is a misnomer.  In truth, it is the 100% movement.  Solving the issue of the misuse of unproductive use of power in our society will help everyone.  In the long run, it will even help those who are profiting in the short run from this state of affairs, because it will make the society itself richer, healthier, and long lasting.  There are not any enemies in this conflict--only allies who have not recognized each other yet.

Make no mistake, the elephant of power is quite real.  That it exists as in ingrained part of our social system rather than as an actual cabal of evildoers plotting in a back room makes it no less painful when it crushes us beneath its weight.  That weight will often take the form of a dominating narrative, a seductive one, that pits people against one another.  Conflict makes for drama, and drama makes for good stories.   Our media, which thrive on stories (at least simplistic ones) will happily spin these tales because that is what they do.  The issue will continue to be presented as a tug-of-war along a line running along a single political/philosophical spectrum.

Transcendence will involve moving off that line--off of that spectrum in creative ways.  Not merely compromise (stopping the tugging but staying on the same lines and divided by the same borders) but transcendence will demand thinking not only outside the box, but perhaps chucking the box altogether.

The way to begin this is to do what the blind men in village should have done.  Rather than feeling one bit of the elephant and insisting that we have the complete truth in our hands, we need to move about, inhabit other spaces, and above all else, talk with one another.



  1. Very well written, you obviously are as well educated as your info page on Facebook shows and an excellent communicator. I am a member of the Tea Party. One of the biggest differences that you did not address are that a large number of OWS are being paid to do what they are doing. There have been large ads in papers such as CraigsList. The TeaParty members, other then a few of the very top coordinators, make no money from being a member and standing for what they believe in, in fact we use our own money for signs, trips etc. What I find equally interesting is the people behind the paychecks. I would be interested in your findings and welcome your opinions. Thank you for your time.

  2. I'm sorry, but you have not provided any proof of your allegations about OWS members being paid. Perhaps you can provide a link to a CraigsList ad that specifically offers payment for participation in demonstrations. Given the rapidity with which these demonstrations have grown and spread, I am frankly skeptical that there are many "professional protestors" among the OWS. In fact, I have yet to see a sign at an OWS rally that doesn't look like a hastily scrawled d.y.i. placard. So, unless you can A) provide proof that that OWS members are being paid, and B) provide evidence that, if any are, it constitutes a "large number," I'm inclined not to trust your assertions, since they run counter to what I know of those involved. Of course, I could be wrong and you may be right, but you must provide warrants for your assertion to be persuasive.

    Moreover, while I have no idea what percent of Tea Party members have checks cut in their name for their participation, we know that, collectively, the movement has received huge amounts of funds from a handful of wildly-rich donors (

    Such differences are, in fact, relevant to the discussion. However, as I took pains to point out in my piece, to focus on them in some sort of contest about which movement is ideologically purer than the other is to play into the hands of those who profit most from the status quo. I suggest we not play that game.