The elephant in the room?

There is an Asiatic folk tale about six wise men, living in a village where an elephant had been brought for the very first time. They heard the cacophony of the villagers shouting about the animal, and having no idea what an elephant was, they decided that it was up to them to study and define this apparently phenomenal thing. They were, however all blind, so they could not base their assessment on seeing it, but thought “Even though we cannot see it, let us go and feel it anyway.”, and then form an opinion. They all touched it, or rather, a part of it.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

No! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

No! it is like a thick tree branch,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

No! It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

No! It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

No! It is like a solid pipe,” said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

A heated debate ensued as to who was right, each one of them insisting on the absolute truth of his version, with the argument getting louder, hysterical and aggressive. A young girl was passing by, and she saw and heard these goings on, and realised that they could not agree to what the elephant was like for a very simple reason. Being blind, each one of them was relying on their feeling of just one particular part of the whole elephant. The girl calmly explained to them that in reality they were all right, as since she could see the whole animal, she could tell that the elephant had all the features which they had individually identified.

This story I have just re-told, with a liberal dose of plagiarism, illustrates perfectly the nature of the debate currently raging in Malta, and beyond, regarding the issue of immigration into the EU. We are hearing so many ideas and opinions, all of which seem to make sense when seen in isolation, just as the elephant’s body parts do. And yet, the matter is composed of its many different facets, making up one picture which is a blend of all its various components, just as eggs, flour, sugar and water mixed and baked properly together, make cakes.

Exponents of the various viewpoints are only concerned about one point of view – theirs – and are totally blind to the viewpoint of others. I shall not delve into the merits or demerits of any particular stand, as just like the little girl in the elephant story, not being an expert in any way, I can see that the issue is multi-faceted, and hence I can understand the individual positions being taken, even if I do not agree with any one of them 100%.

Human rights champions are naturally concerned about the aspect of the value of human life, and rightly so too, but are the xenophobia-based concerns of so much of the Maltese population to be ignored or just outright condemned? After all, the definition of xenophobia includes fear, a feeling or emotion that is not always under conscious control. To what extent are racial and religious protectionism playing a part in the formation of public perceptions? The concerns of politicians on the other hand depend very much on how their reactions and statements are perceived by the general population, and sometimes these positions tend to go with the flow and pamper to, and hence strengthen singular viewpoints at the expense of others.

What then, one might ask, is the solution? Is there a comprehensive solution to the whole matter, considering all the various conflicting views on the subject? The first step, I would think, is the identification of the problem as holistically as possible. No opinion, however divergent form ours it may be, is to be outright discarded. Exponents of even the most radical and extreme (possibly repulsive to some) opinions cannot be ignored, ridiculed or insulted as this would only lead to them digging in deeper and forming a fortress mentality around their opinions.

Rational and comprehensive discussion, where ALL viewpoints and concerns are shared and respected would be a good first step, and would hopefully serve as a platform where we could start learning how to respect opinions with which we do not agree, in the same way we would expect our opinions to be respected by those who do not agree with them. Here I need to explain my choice of words. We should, all of us, start to consciously use the phrase ‘ I do not agree with your opinion’ as opposed to ‘I do not agree with you’. That would also be a significant contribution to a more civilised and rational debate, as the depersonalisation of issues, can only make our interaction more objective. Very often in these discussions, we find that in reality, the biggest elephants in the room are swollen egos and arguments inflated with too much hot air.

p.s. The elephant story was first introduced to Western culture through a witty poem by John Godfrey Saxe, an American poet of the mid-19th century. 

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