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Mediators, Can We Shift Perspectives on the “Blind Men and the Elephant” Story?

Susan M. Yates, August 11th, 2017

I have a problem with a story that we in the conflict resolution field use and I’m hoping we can find a replacement for it. It’s the story about people who are blind encountering an elephant. It’s a metaphor and it’s used to make a point about differing perspectives, but from my perspective it sends a negative message about people who are blind.

If you don’t know the story, the idea is that several people who are blind encounter an elephant and because they each touch a different part of the elephant, they perceive it differently. Someone touches the tail and says an elephant is a rope, someone else touches the trunk and says it is a snake, etc. You get the idea. Only a sighted person – who can see the whole – understands that it is an elephant.

My problem with this story is that it defines people who are visually impaired as inherently limited and lacking in capability.They can only perceive part of the elephant. It presents the sighted person as capable, able to see the whole elephant and superior to the people who are blind. Would we use any other group as a stand-in for lack of ability? I can’t imagine what group that would be.

Some may say I am taking this metaphor too seriously or that I am asking for a world that is too politically correct. But as mediators, we are acutely aware of the meaning behind the words and metaphors we use. If I were sitting next to someone who was visually impaired when this story was used, I would be really uncomfortable, whether or not the story happened to bother that individual.

In our field, this story has become a well-worn trope used to make a point. It may even be considered part of our field’s lore; maybe not as well-known as the orange story, but familiar to many. In fact it was hearing an experienced mediator use this story recently that prompted me to write this post. Well-worn or not, I suggest that we as a mediation community stop using this story. Let’s apply our creativity and experiences to find another way to share this important point about differing perspectives.

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5 Responses to “Mediators, Can We Shift Perspectives on the “Blind Men and the Elephant” Story?”

  1. Judy Gignac says:

    Although I understand where the author of this piece is coming from I would like to say that, as an arbitrator/mediator I have never found a reason to use this story, or even the ‘orange’ story. I listen to the parties, ask my questions, decide if mediation is potentially possible and offer that alternative. I then let the parties design their agreement with, perhaps, some language clarification advice. Why would I need to use either an elephant or an orange in the discussion?

  2. Ah, different approaches by different mediators! That is part of what makes this field so wonderful.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that we ALL use this story.

  3. Kent Lawrence says:

    Ah…rare disagreement Susan. Give me a break UNLESS it is being said in front of a blind person, what is the problem. Too many important things to worry about.

  4. Sarah Flores says:

    Not necessarily a story but, you could use the metaphor that everyone has a piece of the puzzle and you cant really see the picture unless you work together.

    “It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.”

    A young Prince managed to slip away from his mother’s protection and found himself for the first time out of doors at night-time. Though he had been told all sorts of terrifying things about the night to keep him from straying – how different and dangerous it was – his curiosity had eventually won over his fear and he suddenly found himself lost and frightened in the dark.
    All the worst stories came vividly to his mind, how the sun had abandoned the earth and how another magical thing appeared to wreak its witchcraft on anyone foolish enough to be out after dusk.
    He remembered the dreadful name of this awful thing and, when he found himself beside an old man in the half-light around him, he asked in trepidation which was the ‘Moon’.
    The old man was long inured to the stupidity of people’s questions and, taking a liking to the boy, silently stretched out his arm and pointed towards the source of weak light in the sky.
    The Prince looked carefully as the outstretched arm right to the end of the pointing finger, thanked the old man respectfully and realised that he had been told stories all along.
    Why, the moon was but the bony gesture of an old man’s finger!

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