The Blind Men And The Elephant — a fable for our time?

There is a well known Indian fable which supposedly dates back to the mid 1st millennium BC called The Blind Men And The Elephant. The fable tells the story of six blind sojourners who encounter different parts of an elephant on their life journeys. As the fable progresses, each blind man, in turn, conceptualises what the elephant is like by touching a different part of its body.

The first man touches the side of the elephant and proclaims the animal to be like a wall. The second man feels the smooth and sharp tusk and determines the elephant more comparable to a spear. The third man holds the trunk and declares the elephant more akin to a snake. And so on we go — each man creating his own version of reality from his personal experience and perspective.

The moral of the story is that we all tend to claim absolute truth based on our limited, subjective experience as we ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences. In contrast, each experience is in part correct, while at the same time also being incorrect.

Given the vast number of narratives in the mainstream and alternative media at the moment, one cannot help but think how the fable is analogous to the competing interpretations of the Covid-19 crisis.

Much like how the blind men in the fable who are each only able to interpret parts of the elephant’s characteristics based on their own subjective experiences, so it seems in this crisis we either reject and ignore or consume and agree with the information which denies or supports our own presuppositions.

Mainstream and Conspiracy Thinking

In this new media age, where everyone is both a consumer and publisher, it seems we are increasingly moving toward opposing extremes and bedding down into our own respective interpretive camps as we respond as individuals to this crisis. We are willing to defend our opinions to the death, or at least to the point of tiring our opponents into submission in wars fought on social media.

There are many interpretive camps, each with its own particular take on the current situation, but I think we can say that each can be categorised into one of two broader camps.

In the first camp, there are those more inclined to support the dominant narratives shared by the mainstream media as they largely trust the facts and science and the authoritative voices of those that administer civilisation, who might refer to as the ‘establishment’.

In the second, there are others who automatically reject the narratives of the mainstream and the so-called establishment, preferring instead to listen to dissenting voices. Much insightful sense-making is formed here, but so too where one is most likely to encounter conspiracy theories.

For those with the tendency to veer towards conspiracy thinking, the logic it seems goes something like this: the establishment use the press and ‘facts and science’ to conduct their oppression. The press should not be believed, neither must their ‘facts and science’ be true. Therefore the counternarratives of the conspiracy theorists are preferable and more enlightened.

The reason conspiracy theories thrive is due in part to the failures of the establishment and the narratives of the mainstream themselves. We sense we are being lied to, so we fill in the gaps. Sometimes a conspiracy theory that fills the gap turns out to be factual or partly true; other times, they veer much closer to the ridiculous and dangerous.

We certainly need narratives to counter those of the establishment, because the powerful do lie and need to be held to account. The old gatekeepers of what information is shared, when and by whom have lost a lot of their power. Much of which has shifted to us as individuals. With that shift comes enormous responsibility, especially at times of crisis, to ourselves and each other.

Power corrupts, information is withheld, and bad actors manipulate data to disseminate ideology or spread disinformation. But context matters. We must be mindful not to reject mainstream ideas outright because the ‘enlightened’ among us tell us that what is posited by the establishment are always lies, and we need to wake up to ‘what’s really going on’.

Dissenting voices aren’t necessarily always the most meaningful nor make the most sense. We certainly should not embrace and share any theory that crops up, simply because it contradicts what the establishment tells us.

In the new media age, we are rightly burdened with the responsibility of heightened discernment about the information we consume and share. However, at times of crisis and stress, our ability to discern effectively significantly reduces. As such, self-awareness and an understanding of ethics become paramount.

We, as the fable goes, are likely only interpreting a part of any given situation. Maybe there’s some truth to a claim; perhaps there’s not. We may believe a particular interpretation of an event because it supports our presuppositions. Perhaps we share it out of a desire to be regarded as correct. But we can’t just assume we are the good guys, exposing the ‘evil ones’ and the ‘nefarious motives’ of the opposing side.

Who among us can claim absolute truth? Are we not ourselves blind describing an elephant we cannot see? Personally, I am starting to believe this crisis might be much bigger than we know, that there’s a lot more to it than we’re currently being told and it will last longer than we can predict. And it is near certain powerful bad actors will use the crisis as an opportunity to further their own questionable aims.

Systems Thinking

There are those among us with the ability to see and conceptualise more of this particular elephant than most. Some identified the growing systemic fragilities of our culture and predicted the outbreak of something like Covid-19 years ago. Their only surprise is a crisis of this magnitude took so long to arrive.

They are the systems thinkers. If we’d listened to them long ago, we’d have undoubtedly been aware of the fragilities in the system most likely to lead to a crisis, anticipated its outbreak and mitigated the worst effects. Not only that but also we’d identify the weak points in our culture now, spot where another crisis is most likely to develop and understand the steps we should take before it arises.

Maybe this article itself amounts to nothing more than the musings of a blind man about an elephant. Perhaps I have written it because it supports my own beliefs. It’s possible I just want to be proven right. Still, I believe we must talk about systems theory. It is not currently a mainstream approach to problem-solving and it certainly is not conspiratorial thinking, but a means of viewing the world one might consider an alternative to that currently favoured by the establishment, and one we’d do well to take seriously.

To me, the systems thinkers are the men of the fable with their blindfolds removed. Systems thinking goes beyond individual actions or motivations (good or bad) to connections, causes and consequences. Systems approaches incorporate tools and frameworks to help us do that and to act in a way that reflects the complex and interconnected characteristics of our world.

I wager, there is no better means at our disposal at this time than systems theory or systems themselves as a level of generality upon which to address the complexity of this particular global challenge and the ones that shall inevitably follow.

The question is, will the politicians, the corporations, the powerful, or indeed any of us listen because in doing so it will call into question how we live our day-to-day lives and the very foundations upon which modern civilisation is built?

Below is a short list of media platforms, systems thinkers and sense-making resources who are doing great work adding to our collective intelligence during this time of crisis.

By no means is it as an exhaustive list but certainly some of the best resources I’m personally aware of at the moment and follow closely.

Rebel Wisdom

Rebel Wisdom is a media platform founded by BBC & Channel 4 filmmaker David Fuller, on the conviction that we are seeing a civilisational-level crisis of ideas, as the old operating system breaks down.

Rebel Wisdom looks to move beyond ideology. Rebel Wisdom creates content with the intention of engaging with the whole person — intellect, body, and intuition — to create honest discussions.

The Rebel Wisdom website is here:

Future Thinkers

Future Thinkers is a media platform, community, and education portal dedicated to the evolution of society, technology, and consciousness. Helping you become better adapted to our uncertain future. Future Thinkers has featured on the BBC, Forbes, World Economic Forum, and iTunes Top 40. Created by Mike Gilliland and Euvie Ivanova.

The Future Thinkers website is here:

Jordan Greenhall

Jordan Greenhall is an entrepreneur and existential philosopher who writes extensively on cognitive sovereignty, collective intelligence and systemic fragility.

Jordan’s blogs can be found here:

Nora Bateson

Nora Bateson is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator, as well as President of the International Bateson Institute, based in Sweden. Her work asks the question “How we can improve our perception of the complexity we live within, so we may improve our interaction with the world?”.

Nora’s website can be found here:

Daniel Schmachtenberger

Daniel Schmachtenberger’s central interest is civilisation design: evolving our processes for sense-making and choice-making, individually and collectively, to create healthier social systems, cultures, technologies, and infrastructure to help bring about a world commensurate with our higher potentials.

Daniel blogs on these topics here:

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