Essay

The ear of the elephant

Six blind men went to ride the elephant at the Indianapolis Zoo. Each of them touched the elephant.

The first blind man touched its side and said, “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.”

They really did used to let people ride the elephant at the Indianapolis Zoo.

The second blind man touched its trunk and said, “How round! An elephant is like a snake.”

The third blind man touched its tusk and said, “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.”

The fourth blind man touched its leg and said, “How tall! An elephant is like a tree.”

The fifth blind man touched its ear and said, “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.”

The sixth blind man touched its tail and said, “How thin! An elephant is like a rope.”

They began to argue and each insisted he was right. The zookeeper stepped in and said, “The elephant is a big animal. Each of you touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.”

Earlier this year Indiana became a right-to-work state, meaning that union membership can no longer be a condition of any job. The bill was hotly contested. The Democrats in the legislature knew they didn’t have enough votes to stop the bill, so they walked out of the Statehouse several times trying to delay its passage. A throng of union members protested on the Statehouse lawn the day the Senate passed the bill, and later marched through Downtown showing their solidarity. All of this happened in the days before the Super Bowl, hosted here this year, only heightening the attention they received.

In the face of this I learned that many people I know work union jobs. My Facebook feed absolutely lit up with angry comments about the bill. Many declared that this would be remembered come the next election. Some posted outright propaganda against it, trying to undermine it with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Some resorted to painting the other side as buffoons unqualified to tie their own shoes. Others equated this move with pure evil, pointing to the unraveling of all that’s good and moral in America, portending the end of society as we know it. One comment compared our Republican governor with Hitler, which I suppose was inevitable.

My pro-union friends are concerned over the effect this law may have on wages. And they strongly feel (and I empathize with them) that if a union bargained for a job’s wage, it’s not fair to let anyone take that job without helping pay the costs of the union that won that wage. On the other hand, our governor claims that Indiana is not attracting certain jobs because we’re not a right-to-work state, and that those jobs are key to Indiana’s continued bright future.

I’m not qualified to judge whether right-to-work will lower wages or bring jobs. And I don’t want to debate it in the comments, as that’s not why I’m writing this. I just wanted to show that each side had a position on the matter, and if you take that position at face value, no evil is implied. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some in our state government are corrupt; some may be outright evil for all I know. But just because someone in government adheres to a perspective radical to yours makes them neither evil nor corrupt.

What’s your perspective on the world? How does it skew your view?

My neighborhood was built at a time when the city limits, and therefore city services such as water and sewer, didn’t extend this far north. My neighbors and I all draw water from wells and have septic tanks in our back yards. The city is currently extending sewer lines out this way and has notified us that we will not be given a choice, we must connect – at a cost to each homeowner of about $6,000.

I’ve gone to every informational meeting the city has held about this project. I went to the first one quite angry. You see, there’s nothing wrong with my septic system. It will take me some time to scrape together $6,000 for this. I’d really rather spend my money in other ways or, better, save it for a rainy day, as the industry in which I work is notoriously volatile and I know from wretched experience how suddenly I can find myself unemployed.

Many of my neighbors are angry too, and have expressed it in no uncertain terms at these meetings. But several of my neighbors’s septic systems are very old and failing. One poor woman comes to all the meetings pleading for the work to begin, as her septic system failed two years ago and the monthly pumping fees are bankrupting her family. Moreover, city representatives say that these failing systems are leaching waste into the ground water, which pollutes our waterways. And they say that $6,000 is not even remotely close to the actual per-house cost of this project; local taxes and federal grants pick up most of the cost.

I am still unhappy about having to spend my money this way. But at least I can see why the city is doing this, and why it’s important.

I am growing weary of the political commentary on my Facebook feed. All too often it fails to take into account any sort of bigger picture or show any awareness of other perspectives. Unfailingly, people take a a view much like one of the blind men with the elephant and think their perspective gives them the whole picture. It has an enormous capacity to make otherwise kind and gentle people come across like jerks.

None of us want things we can’t directly control to adversely affect us. Most of us have strong ideas about how we’d like to see our world work. And we all want to feel like justice generally prevails and that real evil is found and punished. But our world’s problems are multilayered and complex, and often have have no clear and simple solutions. Every action that helps one group may end up harming another. Things change, institutions on which we once relied pass away, and we have no choice but to adapt.

So fight for what you think is right. But at the same time, work hard to understand other perspectives, especially those that conflict with yours. Try, anyway, to see the bigger picture, to understand that the whole elephant is more than just the ear you’re holding. Let it temper you.

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24 thoughts on “The ear of the elephant

  1. ryoko861 says:

    One thing I’ve learned from issues like is: You can’t please everyone. There will always be a group that disapproves.

    Great post!

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  2. Michael says:

    It would sure be nice to easily obtain all the facts on the different perspectives so one can make a more informed decision but the S/N ratio is often off the charts and you never know if the truth is really being told.

    DADC is becoming akin to a sweatshop if you read the comments in the recent TribStar article.

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  3. Lone Primate says:

    If the power of having to issue concise, 500-character-limited left jabs on YouTube has taught me anything, it’s that other perspectives are typically flawed and vastly overrated when you’re right pretty much all the time anyway. :D

    Joking aside, that kind of debate actually has sharpened up my ability to find the basis for my perspective, or even to question it on occasion when I find they’ve been based on erroneous information. I’ve gotten more ambivalent about a few things over recent years. Of course, that might be a function of getting older. I suppose you either reach the conclusion you got pretty much everything right, or pretty much nothing right.

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    • I think youth does tend to polarize one, and that as we age we see that the things we used to jihad over may not be worth the effort anymore, perhaps because we see the nature of life on Earth better.

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  4. Jim, you’re right that people can disagree about issues without anyone doing so dishonestly. In college, I opposed unions but now I support them. However, I must add a few points.

    First, the fact that some people support a position honestly and with good intentions does not imply that everyone does so. When I worked for libertarian groups on Capitol Hill, most of the people with whom I worked were honest, but some — perhaps one-fourth — were not. They supported libertarian positions either to advance their personal careers or because of financial interests that they hoped to advance at the expense of other people. At that time — back in the 1980s — I also met the man who would become Indiana’s current governor, then a Senate staffer. He didn’t impress me as an evil man, but as a political operative who would support whatever position advanced his career. Obviously, I don’t know what’s in his heart; that’s just my impression of the man. I think that he’s done pretty well for himself and for his patrons, arguably less well for the majority of people in Indiana.

    Second, as a former opponent of labor unions, I think that there is a certain amount of class bias involved in that viewpoint. People with college degrees who work in nice offices tend to think of labor union members as “those people,” grubby, uncouth, ignorant, and undeserving of the pleasant lives to which we think ourselves entitled. That stereotype has little basis in fact. Even if it did, all people deserve decent treatment, decent lives, and a fair chance in life to the extent that their societies can support those things. Ours can support those things, but the top 0.001 percent have so slanted our legal and institutional framework that it’s more and more difficult for average people to achieve them.

    Third, the argument against requiring union membership as a condition of employment in a union shop is that it infringes on workers’ freedom. Yes, that’s true. However, you will search far and wide without ever finding a “right to work” supporter who says that capitalists cannot combine together for mutual benefit in ways that impose legal obligations on each other very much like those involved in requiring union membership. Whether the group consists of workers or capitalists, allowing everyone to benefit without requiring everyone to contribute leads directly to some people “free riding” on others, and then to the eventual dissolution of the group effort. That’s really what’s behind “right to work” laws. It has nothing to do with defending worker rights: it’s about destroying an institution that, however imperfectly, actually does defend worker rights.

    It’s true that getting rid of unions, crushing worker rights, repealing job safety laws, and eliminating all regulations would create “more jobs,” but it would do so via a race to the bottom in which societies where human life is the cheapest set the standard, and only the richest and most fortunate will benefit. We can make that choice for our society. But do we want to? Is that how we see America?

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    • What’s most interesting to me about your comment is how it reveals a little bit about your perspectives. I think, given your experience, that your perspective may be better informed than the average Hoosier’s on this particular issue. But I also think that it is still clearly a perspective, not inherently wrong or right or good or bad.

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    • Lone Primate says:

      Well said, Scott! I’m very much on the same page with you, except that I’ve pretty much always been a supporter of collective bargaining. I think it comes from identifying with the powerless. My support is a little more muted now and I recognize that unions can go too far, and a lot of it was simply about seeing how far they could take things. That said, I don’t see why a North American executive ought to make hundreds or thousands of times as much as an average worker. There ought to be rewards and perks, but free and unrestrained access to the corporate cookie jar? There ought to be a law. Literally.

      What you said about “race to the bottom” is especially crucial. Jobs, sure… but who wants his great-grandfather’s job, twelve hours a day, working half of Saturday, just because that’s what the market would bear? If we all go down that road to compete, we’ll all wind up the peons of a few million people who own everything… if we aren’t already. Our only strength lies in our numbers. I’ve never understood the southern states in particular… they seem so retrograde about collective anything. Even when you can show them it’s in their interests, they’d rather work three jobs and die young than have it suggested they got something they didn’t deserve in working one job and getting a bigger slice of the pie. And they’re making it harder on everyone else. My mother worked for Nortel and it moved a lot of its facilities to North Carolina because it was union-busting state. Nortel used to be a technological world-beater that made every Canadian heart swell a bit with pride. Well, now look where they are. Bankrupt holding company slowly peddling off what applicable patents it holds, all because the matches went mad with the gasoline and no one did anything to stop them.

      I don’t say people shouldn’t be rich or shouldn’t be rewarded for innovation or acumen in making and closing the deal. But none of that means anything without the folks who make and do and care. And how much gold can you eat?

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  5. dennyg says:

    I hadn’t realized that all those elephant touching blind guys were in Indianapolis. However, knowing that you have elephants relatively close by gives me an idea. Temporarily move a few into your neighborhood and I bet all the residents will be clamoring for a city sewer hookup in no time.

    Seriously, this post was well timed and well written. It seems there is always a lot of unused space between anger and apathy. Nicely done.

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  6. Our refusal to admit to the possibility of validity in another’s perspective leads not only to our own blindness, but also to the impossibility of civil discourse and ultimate positive solutions to common problems.

    Excellent article, Jim. And may you not miss the sewer connection fee even as you enjoy the benefits of a better neighborhood.

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  7. I would think that most people at the basics want similar things out of life. We would like peace and security for our family and friends among other hopes for a decent life. We may see different ways to make that happen, however at the core most of our wants are close in nature. However I think a lot of the problem these days is that when debating issues we lose sight of that and assume some bad or even diabolical intentions by those who have different views on some issues. And I think that unfortunately we are even encouraged to do so by a small number who believe they benefit by the distraction that having a lot of people taking shots at each other causes.

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  8. Well put. This is how so many, if not all of us, are pawns for the demagogues…. It’s sad that so many don’t seem to have anything even resembling perspective… Makes us all basically just clay to be molded by politicians. Ah, and now I’m starting to get political! :) So I’ll just nip that rant in the bud and post!

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