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The Elephant is in the Living Room, Not Under the Street Light

A rejoinder to Don Michael's 'Some Observations Regarding a Missing Elephant'

© By Paul H. Ray, 2003


Note: In the text below items marked DM are numbered items in Donald Michael's text, while items marked PR are Paul Ray's rejoinders.

Don Michael's use of a Sufi teaching story leads me to remind the reader of another Sufi teaching story, of the drunk looking for his lost keys, or perhaps his elephant, under a streetlamp, 'because the light's better there.' It also reminds me of the common phrase among family therapists who treat drunks, referring to 'the elephant in the living room.' That one symbolizes unmentionable topics that are diagnosed by every other explanation than the most obvious one, which has to be ignored and sidled around. The obvious explanation is that there is an elephant to be known in the world problematique, and the issues he names are mostly about the decline of Modern institutions, and the long, slow replacement of Modernity by a new culture. The problems he named are not issues of what we can know, or what we can effectively do.

I'm sorry to say that Don Michael is wrong on every count, and is confusing conventional institutional practice, or academic ignorance of real world processes, with what can be known. This creates the fallacy of conventionalism: often coming from eminent old men who try to say what is not possible, even as the world is passing them by. Thus, the scientist who assured us that rockets would never go to the moon, or the one who insisted that the entire market for computers was half a dozen, etc. So when they say what we can't know or do in the future, they are almost always wrong, and when they say what we can do, they are far more often right. Most of what Don points to is likely to be resolved better by the emerging new culture, not only as an issue of knowledge vs ignorance, but as a matter of cultural and institutional praxis. There is indeed an emerging way of describing the world and acting in it, but it's not in Don Michael's culture.

DM1. Don Michael's 'first contributor to our ignorance. We have too much
and too little information to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation
within the time available for action. More information in the social
realm generally leads to more uncertainty, not less. (Consider
the status of the world economy. We need more information
to understand the information we have. So too, with global warming.)
Obtaining the additional information takes more time. So the time it
takes to reach agreement on the interpretation increases. During that
time, the information changes as well. We need more information to
interpret the information we have, and on and on.'

PR1. I don't believe this for a second. In fact the way he's stated it is a tangled version of Zeno's paradox about Achilles and the tortoise, saying that Achilles will never catch the tortoise. Nonsense. This is properly a comparison of two rate functions: the rate of social change and uncertainty formation, vs the accelerating rate of improvement of our paradigms, research models and information collection. He mentions global warming. That uncertainty has been resolved in the minds of all but the worst sci-tech whores of the big energy companies. Where this is often a problem for the general public is when a vested interestósay Big Energy: the oil, gas and coal industriesóactively suppresses and misrepresents what is going on as much as they can. Then the issue is not our knowing, but our publicizing of the facts, and the willingness of establishment Bigs (including Big Media as well as Big Government and Big Finance) to be bought off by other establishment Bigs. It is a problem of institutional lying and corruption. In a world of ever-growing transparency and information saturation, the Bush regime's Iraq war policy also looked like that, but unraveled within months.

Going deeper to the advanced and relatively expert knowledge level, the fact is that in an information saturated world, scientific and technical research can be, and usually is, better designed over time to address very large world problems, though not necessarily in narrow academic disciplines. The cross-disciplinary experts are often very clear what some parts of the elephant look like, and even the whole system is being sketched out, trunk to tail. We now are getting to 'elephant-like' pictures fairly rapidly. That's most often true when the knowledge and trends of our time are converging onto a new, emerging worldview of the next civilization.

When it really is a matter of apparent ignorance and unknowability, Don's point often fits academics doing narrow academic research within a Modernist paradigm, but little else. Even then it doesn't fit academic bio-medical research which is resolving many disease issues at an accelerating rate. Nevertheless, the opening up of genetic manipulation in medicine points clearly to our undeniable need for a new paradigm on who and what humanity is. Most of the time when there's this kind of problem, the various expert communities involved will more self consciously go after new paradigms, and also accelerate the speed and reliability of information gathering and transmission to get at the problems. Whenever they do, frequently in interaction with numerous people who horn in on the action from elsewhere in society, the emerging paradigms keep converging, and take us well beyond Modernism.

Where DM1 is a really big problem is not in the area of knowledge and knowledge generation, but in government. Modernist governments are often inadequate in the present era, and Don's discussion of feedbacks and feed forwards and information that never gets there in time fits governments perfectly. In the next era, we really will need to 'reinvent government' to operate differently. But that is an institutional problem, not a problem inherent in our knowing.

DM2. 'Second: there is no shared set of value priorities. We make much of
the fact that we share values and we frequently say that, well,
basically humans want the same things so we ought to be able to work
things out. Perhaps, at a survival level, but beyond that, and even
there, there is not a shared set of priorities with regard to values.
Instead, priorities change with circumstance, time, and group.'

PR2. This point only makes sense if there is a random set of differences in all the values priorities, with no correlation among them. In that case, all permutations and combinations are possible and there are no values patterns, which would truly make it insoluble as postulated, since values are about our deepest priorities in life.

Don's confession of incapacity to the task has two parts:

a) If you formulate this from his psychological view, believing this problem stems from individual differences, then it's not logically unreasonable. However, in straight empirical terms, the contrary is true: Values are not equally probable and uncorrelated, so there are not zillions of logical permutations in reality. What my empirical research shows and that of many other researchers, is that values belong to highly intercorrelated positions that come in clusters, structured by subcultural differences. Each culture creates its preferred profile of such values with few alternatives, and individuals learn the values profile of their culture, or deviate from it in highly predictable ways. And they wear predictable costumes and hair styles to prove it! What this means in today's terms, is that values differences turn into a problem of negotiations among subcultures over accommodating different ways of life that use different standards. It is not an impossibility formed by infinite permutations of unresolvable values. In fact, people regularly learn, and reconcile, new values if their subculture rewards it. Culture wars are an institutional problem, a social change problem, or a conflict management problem, but not a problem of knowledge, nor of our collective ignorance, nor a sign there's no elephant out there.

b) The fact that there are no universal values criteria is a problem within a triumphalist 18-20th century Modernist academe, which wants universalist rationalism, and only there. It is entirely possible that some universal values criteria will emerge with a planetary wisdom culture, as higher levels of consciousness make it possible to see larger patterns and frameworks in worldviews that will resolve these values issues. In other words, I'll bet that there will shortly be more fundamental values criteria to invoke from a Wisdom stance; that there is already lurking in the wings a planetary-level synthesis of many elements of high, abstract cultural reasoning, and that such a synthesis will be part of the integration process of a planetary Wisdom civilization that cuts across many cultures. It will manage diversity within unity.

DM3. '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.'

PR3. This seems to be incompletely specified, and not thought through. Yes, it's true that academics cannot solve this by thought alone, and not by sitting in their studies. That's why the philosophical theory of praxis was invented in the 19th century, and why engineers and craftsmen scorn academics. In fact, this only makes sense as an issue of informed democratic participation. It is only an issue for an atomized citizenry who have to figure things out for themselves from their own partial experiences of the world, plus an inadequate and censored news media and lying politicians. The moment people stop being passive, get together to talk such issues over, and take actions where they learn about things, this goes away. Citizen dialogs to do co-intelligent issue development and issue specification leads to quite adequate consideration of both background and foreground. See Tom Atlee's Tao of Democracy and Jim Rough's Society's Breakthrough for plenty of examples of how to fix 'the dilemma of context' with real citizen dialogues and action. Especially if they can have experts on tap to call upon.

DM4. 'A fourth item. Our spoken language, the language we read can not
adequately map the complexity that I am talking about. Our language,
because we hear it or we read it, is linear; one thought follows
another. Our language can not adequately engage multiple factors
simultaneously. (Poetry can but we have not yet figured out how to
use poetry for policy making, resolving issues of context, or value
priorities or the like. And perhaps some forms of visual language can
help because they can be simultaneously presented in three

PR4. Don ought to know better than this and not give up. This is the reason systems models and systems diagrams and computer simulations and synoptic computer graphics displays were invented over the last 40 years. You cannot do today's major military, engineering, electronics, social, environmental, economic, mathematical analyses any more without them. Most problems of civilized praxis do not lend themselves to verbal discourse: just pick any professional creative task of an artist, musician, fashion designer, design engineer, architect, or even of an ancient craftsman making an object, or a change agent in an organization, or a psychotherapist in deep interaction with a client, etc. Standard linear verbal conversations and written text are, and always have been, incompetent at it. Only book-bound academics fail to grasp thisóand lawyers, maybe. In particular, systems thinking of the kind that Peter Senge and countless other consultants do, is entirely oriented to getting past this problem. So are the scenario and brainstorming workshops that many organizations do. Don's own consulting in organizations could not be handled with linear verbal/written discourse. The proper response would be, 'So what? It's not as if we don't rely extensively on alternatives, most of which are quite successful.'

DM5. 'Fifth contribution to our inability to know what we are talking
about: there is an increasing, and, given the other factors, an
unavoidable absence of reliable boundaries. Boundaries circumscribe
turf, relationships, concepts, identity, property, gender, time, and
more. Without boundaries, we can not make sense of anything. One of
the Saybrook's forbears, William James, wrote of a boundary-less
world as one of "blooming, buzzing confusion". Boundaries are how we
discriminate, partition experience in order to create meaning in all
those non-material realms, not just turf.'

PR5. I agree that when this is true, it is a problem. Again, this has two parts:
a) Blurry boundaries are usually rectified by the invention of new culture. That's because they appear when old cultural forms are dissolving. The last time this was a big deal in the West was 500 years ago when Modernity was replacing what it then called Medievalism. The disorganization and blurriness of pre-Modern cultures around the world over the past couple of centuries, including the Arab world today, is precisely that kind of breakdown in the face of Modernity. As Modern culture declines now, Moderns have the hardest time with it. Cultural Creatives who invent new culture have a hard time in the transition period, but then start to operate out of new paradigms that work better than the old ones. As the new Wisdom Culture starts taking hold this will be less and less of a problem.
b) Rapid rates of change also are a major problem with blurring boundaries, because of the static bias of boundary formation processes. Much of Modern economies are built around exploiting rapid change, especially when powerless people in various markets have to bear the cost instead of the corporations. Successful adaptation beyond Modernity to ecological sustainability will slow down that change and make that kind of exploitation less profitable, and less probable. The rapid change boundary-less problems will decline in a Wisdom Culture.

DM6. '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 mostly unconscious instincts motives and
conflicts, our extra-rational responses. This situation 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, this acting-out allows for more creativity
than when we are bound by the exclusively rational but often, in this
complex world, the shadow is also in the service of violence,
oppression, selfishness, extreme positions of all stripes -- that
whole up-welling of the non-rational, the non-reasonable that is so
increasingly characteristic of all the world, not just the United

There was a time -- a long time -- when this sort of shadow-driven
acting out did not well up to the current degree. The elephant
depends on constraints, on boundaries, in order to be an elephant. In
the past, laws, rituals, 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). (Think of the up-welling of violence after the
collapse of the Soviet Empire.)

PR6. Don's last example gives away the game. This is not about our inherent ignorance, but about our exploitiveness as a cultural and institutional system. Modernism as a culture and an ideology is falling apart, and so is Modernity as an institutional system. All six above issues have to do with Don's unhappiness with that. Modern civilization will be replaced, however. The key to our understanding in a larger perspective is that the shadow comes forth in its nastiest forms as a ruling culture falls apart, and shows up socially as the exploitive colonialist West's controls over the rest of the world fall apart, partly in ecological crises, and in other problems unsolvable within Modernism. Another key is that Modern world is set up to concentrate power and money in the hands of a few, and screw the rest of us. At the bottom half of the heap, personal development is primitive, and external controls over bad behavior are needed.

Part of the way out is restabilizing the planet with a planetary Wisdom Civilization. Part of the way out is making psychological development and spiritual development normal for larger and larger portions of all societies in such a Wisdom Civilization. Rationalism has never been adequate to deal with shadow issue, because that is egoic, and it is the reeducation of the ego to be a good servant and the reeducation of the animal soul as well, that is the key Work to be done. Neither of these is within the purview of Modernism, and that is part of why it's failing. All of the incapacities Don Michael lists are the incapacities of the worldview and ideology of late Modernism, perhaps when it is at its final stage, falling apart. There are no solutions from within that worldview, and that was his problem. It need not be ours.


See also:

Tom Atlee's commentary Waking Up into Wholeness, Dialogue and Mystery

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