Six men and an elephant

Back in the 1990s, there was huge optimism about the internet. It was an exciting idea that we could bring all information and all points of view together; more than that, this would help us to become more tolerant, accepting, and appreciative of one another. What a pipe dream that now seems to be. We have now become more polarized than ever before, because nowadays everyone has an opinion, which they share freely on the different social media platforms. There is little tolerance for opposing opinions. Our reactions to those opinions have become more emotional and outraged, and we are prepared to go very low to defend them.

Having an opinion is great, but we should not confuse opinions with knowledge. As Plato reminds us, an opinion is living between knowledge and ignorance. We are currently clearly confusing opinions with knowledge. This is clear from the vast amount of ‘experts’ on social media. We are inundated with the opinions of people who have no background or expertise in a certain field, but who nonetheless offer us their opinions and strongly defend them. In times like these, we should be reminded of the proverb: It is better to be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt. Someone once said that we are entitled to our opinion, but we are not entitled to be ignorant. Perhaps we should alter this statement a bit by saying that we are entitled to be ignorant but not to display it so publically.

One thing we tend to forget about our opinion is that it is just that – our personal opinion – and therefore should be offered more humbly. The opinions we hold are based on our specific values and beliefs, which may not be shared by everyone. We should also be prepared to learn from each other and to change our opinion, if necessary. Life is a complex system and we are always evolving and growing and, as we gain more insight and knowledge, we should be prepared to change our opinions rather than casting them in stone and offering them as the ultimate truth. As William Blake cautioned: The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water which breeds reptiles of the mind.

Be that as it may, we will always have our own opinions about things, and it is fine to disagree, as long as it is done respectfully. One of the disadvantages of the internet and social media is that we are removed from those who disagree with us. There is no face-to face-communication. People are just characters on a screen. We are unable to see their facial expressions and body language. The nuances of their beliefs and their expressions are lost and because they are merely characters on a screen that we can delete or unfollow, we hold no punches when they disagree with us. We turn them into caricatures or stereotypes, and quietly enjoy feeling a certain moral superiority over them. We justify this by feeling that we are on a meaningful moral crusade of speaking the truth and pointing out what is right and wrong. It will serve us well to keep in mind that truth is relative, and much like beauty, it often lies in the eye of the beholder. Many relationships are ruined by someone with a strong opinion who is not prepared to see things differently.

There is a lovely parable from the Buddhist tradition about blind men and an elephant that illustrates the limits of perception and why we should show some tolerance.

A group of blind men encountered an elephant for the first time. Each of them touched different parts of the elephant. Not knowing what an elephant is like, each of them came to a different conclusion, based on their own experience. One blind man touched the elephant’s side and claimed that the elephant was like a wall. Another blind man touched its leg and exclaimed that the elephant was like a tree. The other blind man touched the tusk and believed it to be a spear. One touched the trunk. calling it a snake. Yet another one touched the elephant’s ear and called it a fan. The last one touched the tail and proclaimed it to be a rope.

Next time when we are tempted to voice our opinion so strongly, let us be less judgemental and remind ourselves that we don’t see the whole elephant. Let us show more tolerance and kindness as we ‘feel’ our way through life.

“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson