Some Observations Regarding a Missing Elephant


by Donald N. Michael


[A version of this article appeared in Journal of Humanistic Psychology, January, 2000. Copyright 2000 Sage Publications, Inc. Don Michael is the author of Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn, the formative book on organizational behavior, which he wrote in 1973 before there was a field of Organizational Behavior.]


I'd like to share some of my current thinking about the predicament of being human -- the dark side, as well as the bright. This is my thinking in process; I have not reached any conclusions. Your willingness to consider these ideas, and your critical response to them, will help me with further mulling.


I'll begin with a Sufi story we're all familiar with. It's the story of the blind persons and the elephant. Recall that persons who were blind were each coming up with a different definition of what was 'out there' depending on what part of the elephant they were touching. Notice that the story depends on a storyteller, someone who can see that there is an elephant. What I'm going to propose today is that the storyteller is blind. There is no elephant.  The storyteller doesn't know what he or she is talking about.


Less metaphorically, I'll put it this way: What is happening to the human race, in the large, is too complex, too interconnected and too dynamic to comprehend. There is no agreed upon interpretation that provides an enduring basis for coherent action based on an understanding of the enfolding context.


Consider. Take any subject that preoccupies us. Attend to all the factors that might substantially affect its current condition, where it might go, what might be done about it, and how to go about doing so.


I'll take, as an example, poverty. Think of the variety of factors that connect with poverty that we must comprehend if we are attempting to understand everything that seriously impacts poverty. One would have to attend to at least: technology, environment, greed, crime, drugs, family, media manipulation, correction, education, governments, market economy, information flows, ethics, ideology, personalities and events. All of these infuse any topic that we pay attention to and try to do something about. But, clearly we can't attend to all of these (and others) because each has its own multifaceted realm to be comprehended.


Poverty is just one of endless examples. What we're faced with, essentially, is the micro/macro question: How circumstances in the small affect circumstances in the large and how circumstances in the large affect circumstances in the small. And we don't know -- 'butterfly effects' and chaos theory, notwithstanding -- how the micro/macro interchange operates in specific human situations. And for reasons I shall come to, I don't think we can know. In effect, we don't comprehend the kind of beast that holds the parts together and how they're held together for the human condition we call poverty. There isn't any elephant there.


Having said this, let me emphasize before we go any farther, that I'm in no sense belittling our daily efforts to engage issues like poverty, or other aspects of the human condition. I wouldn't be taking your time if I felt that what many of us are about was futile. Instead I hope to add a deeper appreciation of the existential challenge we face, the poignancy of our efforts, and the admiration they merit as we try to deal with our circumstances.


If we could acknowledge that we don't know what we're talking about when we try to deal with any of the larger human issues we face, this acknowledgement would have very significant implications. These implications would cover how we perceive ourselves as persons and how we act to help the human condition, including ourselves. I'll come to them later.


But first, I want to offer some observations in support of my proposal that we don't know what we're talking about in the large, by describing six contributors to our ignorance -- six characteristics that seem to be to be the source of the storyteller's blindness. I call them 'ignorance generators.'


One more prefatory remark: I intend my observations to be as non-judgmental as I can make them. I believe I am describing characteristics of the human world that simply *are*, analogous to the laws of nature. I am trying to be an observer, not an evaluator. However, the very nature of my language and what I choose to emphasize conveys values, hence judgments, often unknown to me.


The first of the six is that we have too much and too little information to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation within the available time for action. More information in the social realm generally leads to more uncertainty, not less. (Consider, for example, the status of the world economy. We need more information to understand the information we have.) So the time it takes to reach agreement on the interpretation increases. During that time the information increases as well. We need more information to interpret the information we have and on and on


Among the information we have is that which increases our doubt about the integrity and sufficiency of the information we do have. There's enough information, nevertheless, (or too little in many cases) to generate multiple interpretations of that information, which then adds another layer of information and interpretation that's required to use that information.


Related and central, information feedback and feed forward very seldom is available at the time appropriate to use it.  It arrives either too soon or too late, if at all. So there is too much or too little information at the wrong time.  So, the first ignorance generator is too much or too little information to reach knowledgeable decisions in a finite amount of time available for taking action.


Second, there is no shared set of value priorities. We make much of the fact that we share values - it is a truism that humans want the same basic things. Perhaps, at a survival level, they do. Perhaps, but certainly beyond that there is no shared set of priorities with regard to values. Priorities change with circumstance, time, and group.


Here are some examples where value priorities differ depending on the group and circumstance: Short term expedience versus long term prudent behavior and vice versa. Group identity versus individual identity.  Individual responsibility versus societal responsibility.  Freedom versus equality. Local claims versus larger claims for commitment. Universal rights versus local rights that can repudiate universal rights (fundamentalism, for example). Human rights versus national interest (e.g., economic competition or nationalist terrorism). Public interest versus privacy (encryption versus crime-fighting).  First amendment limits (pornography, etc.). Potential gain versus potential social costs. Who sets the rules of the game and who decides who decides? These are all issues in which the priorities of values are in contention.  There's no reliable set of priorities in place that can be used to interpret the larger issues.


A third contribution to this lack of comprehension is what has been called the dilemma of context. How much do you need to know in order to feel responsible for actions and interpretations? How many layers of understanding are necessary to have enough background to deal with the foreground? There are no agreed-on criteria or methodology for how deeply to probe.


(I should have said at the beginning that these 6 factors are interconnected, interactive, so that the question of how much context is necessary in a situation to decide what to do about that situation very much depends on what values are held by participants in that decision making. And that raises another intractable context question: who are the legitimate participants in the decision making with regard to what constitutes the context? And who says so?)


The obvious example we're all living with at this time has to do with what domains of context are applicable to the Clinton impeachment inquiry. Just to remind you of a few:


The dramatis personae, their motives, the world of the media, cultural differences in public responses, political styles and susceptibility to rhetoric, the legitimacy of public opinion as a basis for evaluating the situation, the intentions of the Constitutional founders, and so on.


You can choose any issue that's important to you and ask yourself, 'How much do I/we need to know about x to have adequate context for thought and action?' And then, for x, you can use that list of topics I enumerated in the poverty example. This is an unresolved realm. And it is unsolved for me as well in the very act of giving this talk.


A fourth item. Our spoken language, the language we hear, cannot adequately map the complexity that I'm talking about. Our language, because we hear it or we read it, is linear. So, one thought follows another. Our language can not adequately engage multiple factors simultaneously.  (Perhaps poetry can, but we haven't yet figured out how to use poetry to make policy, or to resolve issues of context, or to value priorities, or the like. And perhaps some forms of visual language can, because they can be presented simultaneously in three dimensions.) Our noun/verb structure emphasizes, items, events, static-ness, [i.e., is-ness] -- e.g., we say, 'this is a microphone', rather than engaging it as a multitude of processes in time and space.


Nor can our language adequately map in our minds the ongoing circularity of cause and effect -- producing causes, producing effects. Nor can it map the sustaining of a system as a system, by virtue of the in-built circular feedback that holds its boundaries together. In other words, our spoken, written language doesn't allow us to talk about these complexities in ways that are inherently informative about the complexities. In fact, it compounds these complexities because in its linearity, language unavoidably distorts a world of simultaneous multiple circular processes.


The fifth contribution to our inability to know what we are talking about is that there is an increasing, and given the other factors, an unavoidable absence of reliable boundaries. By boundaries, I mean boundaries that circumscribe turf, relationships, concepts, identity, property, gender, time, and more. Without boundaries, we can't make sense of anything. William James, wrote of a boundary-less world as one of 'booming, buzzing confusion.' Boundaries are about how we discriminate, how we partition experience in order to create meaning in all those non- material realms, not just turf. But what is happening in this world, for reasons I've been describing (and others as well), is that these boundaries and their reliability are increasingly eroded and disintegrated.  They are becoming more and more ambiguous. All systems, including social systems, require boundaries in order to be coherent systems. The feedback that is determined by the boundaries of a system allows that system to be self-sustaining. If there are no boundaries, there is no feedback, no self-sustaining quality and no system. In other words, no 'elephant'.


Everything I've been saying so far reduces the agreed upon criteria for boundary-defining feedback. Here are some examples of blurred boundaries: political correctness, identity, public versus private, intellectual property, biological ethics. These are increasingly ambiguous areas, taken very seriously, that, nevertheless, don't allow the kind of linguistically and behaviorally discriminating boundary defining I think necessary to begin to comprehend the incomprehensible complexity that we humans live in.


The sixth contributor to our inability to know what we are talking about is the self-amplifying, unpredictable acting out of the shadow residing in each human; our instincts, our extra-rational responses. These could be considered a consequence of the other contributors to our ignorance -- though each of them is also a consequence of all the others. (Or so I think.) To be sure, these allow for more creativity, but often in this complex world, they also serve up violence, oppression, selfishness, extreme positions of all stripes. They are the source of an upwelling of the non-rational, the non-reasonable that is so increasingly characteristic of all the world, not just the United States.


There was a time -- a long time -- when this sort of shadow-driven acting out was more restrained. The elephant depends on constraints, on boundaries, to be an elephant.  In the past, ritual, repression, and suppression served to constrain such acting out or to quash it entirely. One's social and economic survival depended on playing by many explicit and implicit rules. Boundaries were stronger.  (Think of the up welling of violence after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.) These circumstances make human governance uniquely problematic. By governance, I mean those shared practices by which a society's members act reliably toward each other. Government is one such way such practices are established via laws etc. Shared child socialization practices and formal religions are others.  For the reasons I am proposing here the processes of governance can only become less and less effective. This in turn increases unreliably and adds its own contributions to the incomprehensibility of it all.


So much for the six 'ignorance generators'. Perhaps they are variations on one theme and surely others could be added. But I hope these are enough to make a presumptive case that our daily activities are ineluctably embedded in a larger context of ignorance -- that we don't know what we're talking about.


So, what to do, how to go on being engaged in a human world we don't understand -- and, if I'm on to something, we won't understand?


Here are eight ways I find helpful that respond to the fact of our ignorance. Perhaps they may be helpful for you. I hope so! (In spite of speaking assertively, I hope it's clear that I include myself among those who don't know what they're talking about!) These aren't in any particular order, though I think the sequence they are in adds a certain coherence.


The first is to recognize that, given our neurology, our shaping through evolutionary processes, we are, unavoidably, seekers of meaning. Recognizing that we are seekers of meaning, we also need to recognize that, unavoidably, we live in illusions, socially and biologically created constructed worlds, nevertheless personally necessary. I'm not implying that we can live outside of these constraints, but we need to be self conscious about the fact that we do live in illusions and there is no way for humans, to avoid this. So, each of us needs to be self-conscious about our deep need for there to be an elephant and for someone to tell us there really is an elephant. (Lots of authors and publisher thrive on that need)


Second, it seems essential to acknowledge, our vulnerability, our finiteness. This starts with our selves and extends to our projects. Thus we will be unavoidably ignorant, uninformed about the outcomes -- the consequences of the consequences of what we do.


Third, as all the great religious traditions emphasize, we should seek to live in poverty. Not material poverty but rather to be poor in pride and arrogance and in the conviction that I/we know what is right and wrong, what must be done, and how to do it. Nevertheless we must act -- not acting is also to act -- regardless of our vulnerability and finiteness.


Thus, my fourth suggestion: that one or a group acts in the spirit of hope. Hope, not optimism. Here I draw on the insight of Rollo May. As he put it, optimism and pessimism are conditions of the stomach, of the gut. Their purpose is to make us feel good or bad. Whereas hope has to do with looking directly at the circumstances we're dealing with, at the challenges we must accept as finite, at vulnerable beings and activities, recognizing the limits of our very interpretation of what we're committing ourselves to, and still go on because one hopes that one can make a difference in the face of all that stands in the way of making a difference.


Fifth, this means one acts according to what I've been calling 'tentative commitment'. Tentative commitment means you are willing to look at the situation carefully enough, to risk enough, to contribute enough effort, to hope enough, to undertake your project. And to recognize, given our vulnerability our finiteness, our fundamental ignorance -- we may well have it wrong. We may have to back off. We may have to change not only how we're doing it, but doing it at all. And then do so! Tentative commitment becomes an essential individual and group condition for engaging a world where we don't know what we are talking about.


Suggestion six, then, is to be 'context alert' as a moral, and operational necessity. Among other things, this carries a very radical implication, given the current hype about the information society that promises to put us in touch with practically infinite amounts of information. That is, if you are context alert you can only be deeply understanding of very few things. Because it takes time to and effort to dig and to check and to deal with other people who have different value priorities. This means there are only a few things that you can be up on at any given time. But this is a very serious unsolved, indeed unformulated, challenge for effective participation in the democratic process -- whatever that might mean.


Number seven: One must be a learner/teacher, a guide in the wilderness. Be question-askers all the time, not answer givers.


Number eight again echoes the great religious traditions (all of which recognized our essential ignorance): practice compassion. Given the circumstances I have described, facing life requires all the compassion we can bring to others, as well as to ourselves. Be as self-conscious as possible, as much of the time as possible, and thereby recognize that we all live in illusion, we all live in ignorance, we all search for and need meaning. We all need help facing that reality and that help goes by the name of practicing compassion.


The blind must care for the blind.