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

Just Court ADR by Susan M. Yates, Jennifer Shack, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, and Jessica Glowinski.

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.

                        author

Susan Yates

Susan Yates has been Executive Director of Resolution Systems Institute (RSI) since 1997. In this role, she is responsible for implementing the organizational mission of improving the effectiveness of court-related alternative dispute resolution methods and for overall management of a national on-line Court ADR Resource Center, technical assistance to courts… MORE >

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