Column by Sharon Byrne
An interesting phenomenon happens when people start discussing hotbed social issues. I’ve been watching this for a while locally on the subjects of homeless and gangs. It goes like this:
Person A might think of gangs as the Mara gang leader in the film Sin Nombre. Straight from Central Casting: covered in MS13 tattoos, Darth Vader demeanor, muscled, and murderous. This gang leader hesitates not at all when putting a gun in a 12 year-old’s hand, dispatching him as a hit man. If the 12 year-old is caught, he goes down for the murder. If he rats out the gang, he’s green-lit for death. No big loss – he was a newbie. Thus the gang leader is completely insulated, and free to carry on with gang activities.
Person B, on the other hand, might think of her 14 year-old nephew, accosted by the police for hanging out with friends by the creek, just doing what normal boys do. Their hip-hop style clothing is unfortunately also favored by homies. It’s a case of mistaken identity, but the damage is done. These particular kids are not gang-affiliated, but they probably no longer see the police as the good guys after that experience.
Now imagine these two people, A & B, in their respective thought clouds, formed from their experiences, discussing the pending gang injunction, and the feelings they’re each likely to have. A is thinking of gang leadership, hard-core felons, and cartels. You need to deal with them firmly and swiftly. B is thinking of her innocent nephew, and how kids like this need protection from the police, not more cracking down.
Are these two likely to have a productive conversation?
Not unless one of them pauses, and says, “What is it, exactly, that you are talking about? What images and experiences are you working from?”
People in their thought clouds are like the old fable about the three blind men, each feeling an object, trying to discern what it is. The first declares it’s a tree. The second says it’s a vast wall. The third laughs, “you idiots! It’s a twig!” They argue heatedly, and nearly come to blows over it.
Turns out they had their hands on an elephant. The first had hold of the elephant’s trunk, the second, its middle swath, while the third was feeling out the tail. In the story, a king explains that they are all correct. The elephant has each part they described. But it is all of these parts, not just one of them. The point of the parable is that truth can be stated in different ways, and people with different belief systems can cling rigidly to their version, blinding themselves to the overall truth.
So let’s stop playing the part of the blind man, trying to prove the other blind men wrong. Let’s instead poke at the thought clouds, and ask what’s in there? Everyone is probably right in some way, but also very likely to be holding only one piece of that elephant.