In Defence Of Truth: The Elephant In The Room

There is a well-known analogy about an elephant that gets trotted out quite often. In its original form, The Blind Men And An Elephant was a parable where four blind men approach and touch this great mammal, and the point of it was to demonstrate that each man would come away with a very different perspective of what an elephant was. In this manner, the parable defied the idea that there could be such a thing as truth: each man’s truth was dependent on the bit of the animal that they were coming into contact with. I have some things to say about this and they are a bit complicated, but I think my variation of this elephant parable can help explain them in fairly simple terms, and after that I’m going to tell you how this all relates to why everything appears to be collapsing in on itself at the moment (spoiler: because everything is collapsing in on itself at the moment).

The elephant in my analogy is about 10,000 years old and still going strong, bless him, which is simply because this is my analogy and you’re just going to have to accept that. So about 10,000 years ago a human being came along and saw the elephant. This human being belonged to a tribe of about 40 people, and their mindset can be described as egocentric: they had thoughts only for themself and their tribe. This person was scantily clad with only a rag around their waist, and the rag so happened to be coloured red, and it did little for them other than provide a bit of warmth and humility. Red Rag did what humans do when they come upon something new, and decided to give it a name. When they came upon one they were very pleased with themselves, and so they settled in to watch it. Red Rag had called it an elephant, and because they did that, it was true.

A few millennia passed and another human being came along. They were different to Red Rag in that they wore amber coloured robes, and those amber robes gave them modest powers of writing and vague ideas of civilisation. Amber Robe saw the elephant and knew that it could be utilised in battles, or circuses, or in making nice ornaments, and indeed all of that was true. Amber Robe also saw Red Rag, who was still sitting there quite contentedly, and was immediately suspicious of them because Red Rag was different to Amber Robe. Amber Robe can be described as ethnocentric: they thought primarily in terms of Us Versus Them.

A lot more time passed until about the 17th Century when another human arrived and found the party of Red Rag, Amber Robe, and the elephant. This person arrived in a suit that was coloured orange, and that suit bequeathed them enlightened ideas of science, rationality, and progress. They moved from thinking in ethnocentric terms (Us Versus Them), to worldcentric terms (simply, Us). Orange Suit could study the elephant from a point of view far more informed than Red Rag and Amber Robe, although importantly they did also read the notes that Amber Robe had started to make about the elephant, and found them useful. After some extremely careful deliberation, Orange Suit declared this elephant to be the product of evolution. And that was true.

Surprise, surprise, some more time passed and then another human came along. It was about the 1960s when they found Red Rag, Amber Robe, and Orange Suit gathered around the great, wrinkly elephant. This newcomer bore a green beret on their head, and that headpiece instilled them with this incredible idea of egalitarianism, the likes of which nobody had ever thought of before. Green Beret, who was also worldcentric, read the conclusions that had been made by the group, nodded their head, and then announced their own discovery. “This elephant,” Green Beret declared, “Has a truth of its own! It is a sentient being! This elephant’s life matters!” And what do you know, that was true too.

This is an allegorical analogy: each of the characters represents a stage in our history, and each of them made observations about the elephant that were true. Red Rag is a hunter-gatherer who gave it a name; Amber Robe is from the agricultural period and had come to learn of an elephant’s potential utility; Orange Suit is from the Enlightenment and applied their scientific practices to understanding the elephant; and Green Beret is a postmodernist who brought with them the marvels of egalitarianism. The elephant, by the way, is simply an elephant, albeit a very old one.

Each of the characters had the advantage of being able to learn from the ones who were there before them (i.e. Orange Suit learned from Amber Robe, and Amber Robe from Red Rag), but this was a one-way street. Amber Robe, for example, could not think of the elephant in the way that Green Beret did: he simply could not have conceived of an animal having rights.

We need to take a brief but essential tangent. As well as providing a way to describe the stages of our history, we can use the terms egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric to describe the stages of our own individual development. A child is born entirely egocentric, and remain so until they realise that other people have mental states too, which normally happens between the ages of two and five. At this point they enter the ethnocentric stage, and think in terms of I/Us Versus You/Them. At some point – through the channels of education, experience and learned empathy – an adult can move into a worldcentric stage where they come to understand we are all One. Crucially, however, there is no guarantee that this development will be made by each individual and, as we will see, this is part of the problem we have now. So, in distinguishing between these stages of history and stages of individual development, we can see that is not necessarily the case that if you were born into the worldcentric stage of history (e.g. now) that you naturally get to the worldcentric stage in individual development. For example, 60% of Americans are still wearing an Amber Robe and as such are thinking ethnocentrically, even though the leading edge of society is now led by the worldcentric, postmodern Green Beret.

We are going to see how the struggle between the truths of Orange Suit and Green Beret – both in historic and individual terms – can explain why so many things seem upside down at the moment. These characters have been locked in an epistemological war for decades, and they are now both jacked up on a new drug called Internet, and it’s sending everything haywire. 

When Orange Suit arrived they made incredible discoveries. With the tools of science and reason they took into account the sides of the elephant that Red Rag and Amber Robe saw, and in time they made a monumental discovery: this elephant has evolved! It is very important at this point to acknowledge that we would not have expected Red Rag or Amber Robe to discover this: they simply did not have the means. It is also important to realise I am using evolution only as an example of a truth, yet you could substitute in an untold number of other things that we also hold to be true, but that – amongst the senselessness of the world at the moment – might appear more contentious. An example of such a truth might be: “it is better to live in a democratic society than a non-democratic society”. We have tools that prove this, if the word “better” is to mean anything at all. (Green Beret, as we will see, would opt for the unhelpfully nihilistic view that there is, in fact, no meaning in the word “better”, or any meaning to be found anywhere for that matter.)

Anyway, Orange Suit’s discovery of evolution is useful to hone in on, because it might have changed the way the world started to think about truth. The moment the elephant was understood to have evolved – that we were to have evolved – the idea of ‘truth’ melted under our very feet. Orange Suit had become obsessed with having the Last Word on everything: on finding the absolute and utter truths of the world and solving all of this agonising mystery once and for all. Orange Suit wanted to point at the elephant and say absolutely everything about them, and that would be that forever. But with the discovery of evolution – applied, of course, by Darwin to biology, but also by Freud to psychology and Marx to sociology – came the terrifying notion that reality was continuing to unfold around us constantly. Truth had legs: it was running through time, changing, changing, changing.

Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud gunning down modernity. Darwin never meant to do this, but the other three were hellbent on it.

And so the door opened for Green Beret to swoop in and declare that everything Orange Suit thinks they know is, in fact, merely a social construction. That is, anything anyone had ever thought about the elephant had only ever been a product of the information and values of that moment in history. Green Beret asserted that the elephant was not an elephant until Red Rag said so; it was not something that could be utilised in battle until Amber Robe realised so; and it had not evolved until Orange Suit proclaimed it so. These truths had only become true with time, declared Green Beret, and therefore what is currently true will not be true in the future. It was at this moment that Green Beret took its ill-advised leap into ‘no truths’. Nothing was true at all, it said: not then, not now, not ever. “Aha!” cried Green Beret smugly at Orange Suit, “Gotcha!”

Alas, no. Can you see the glaring contradiction Green Beret is making here? In claiming that there can be no such thing as truth, they are themselves making a truth claim, which by their very own metric cannot be true. As integral theorist Ken Wilber puts it:

“They most definitely and strongly believed that it is universally true that there is no universal truth. They believed all knowledge is context bound except for that knowledge, which is always and everywhere transcontextually true. They believed all knowledge is interpretive, except for theirs, which is solidly given and accurately describes conditions everywhere. They believed their view itself is utterly superior in a world where they also believed absolutely nothing is superior. Oops.”

Oops indeed. At the beginning I said everything is collapsing in on itself, and the reason for that is we are currently locked in to Green Beret’s self-contradicting way of thinking. When Green Beret first came along in the 1960s it did incredible things. Through its egalitarian philosophy it showed that one person’s truth is not necessarily somebody else’s truth. For example, it is true that the British Empire did incredible things for the world, but a Boer who was put into a British concentration camp in 1900 would have quite a different truth. Green Beret pointed out things like this, and in this way it brought about the civil rights movement, feminism, and environmental awareness, and undoubtedly the world is a better place for it.

But Green Beret went terribly awry. As it studied itself harder and harder it moved to an extreme conclusion of its logical principles, and slipped from the wonderfully nuanced idea of multiple truths, to the catastrophic idea of no truth at all. This happened because they were so determined that everybody’s view be absolutely equal that no view could not be valued above any of the others, not even its own. In reality, of course, Green Beret actually does believe that its own view is more worthy than any other, it just cannot admit it. If you are fed up with the Woke sector of society that might just about sum up why: it preaches love, inclusiveness, and egalitarianism, but behaves in hateful, exclusive, and superior ways.

The result of this is Donald Trump and other populist movements, such as Brexit. In his book Trump and a Post-Truth World (which is the basis for this blog and a read that I would highly recommend), Ken Wilber discusses how in the United States urban, educated, worldcentric elites look down upon rural, “white trash” for their ethnocentric views. This occurs despite the obvious inconsistency that in doing so the urban elites are holding views that are themselves ethnocentric. (This – coupled with the pernicious effects of echo chambers and social media – goes a long way to explaining the paradox of increasing polarisation in a world led by worldcentric belief.)

Hilary Clinton even gave those uneducated, rural-dwellers a name: the “deplorables”. But those “deplorables”, remember, are seeing the world in a very different way: their worldview is very much based in Us Versus Them. None of us choose how we come to see the world, our education and experience decides that. The so-called “deplorables” are not choosing to be racist, sexist, homophobes (at least, not for the most part); they are simply acting in accordance with ethnocentrism, and protecting their tribe. Attacking and vilifying these people is clearly not the answer, and in fact is only making things worse. The answer is to have empathy for these “deplorables” who have not been blessed with the opportunities of higher education and world travel that the wealthy, young Woke sector has benefited from. (Similarly, I must remind myself to be empathetic to the misguided Woke crowd that have come through universities riddled with the self-contradicting postmodernist idiocy). This is not to say we should be tolerant of the “deplorables” racism, but that we must be empathetic to the roots of that racism and recognise that education is the way to solve it. At the moment, however, we cannot even say that because Green Beret has got us stuck in this self-contradicting mindset of saying that the “deplorables” opinion is equal to everyone else’s, whilst at the same time labelling them “deplorables”.

Green Beret’s notion of no truth is the disaster of postmodernism. In philosophical circles postmodernism was pronounced dead long ago (an idea that shoots itself in the head quite simply has to be), but the remnants of it are very much alive in today’s culture, and it is wreaking havoc. Not only with things like Trump and Brexit, but with an inability to say anything that – no matter how well rooted in science and academia – does not fall into the increasingly narrow space of egalitarian thought. Political correctness, the denial of free speech, cancel culture, the suppression of comedy, and an emphasis on equal outcome rather than equal opportunity are now the order of the day. Postmodernism has torn up the map and now nobody has any idea what is right and what is wrong. Truth has become the elephant in the room: it’s there but nobody can talk about it. As Ken Wilber says:

“When no direction is true (because there is no truth), then no direction can be favoured, and thus no direction is taken; the process just comes to a screeching halt—it jams, it collapses.”

There is, thankfully, a way out of this mess, and Wilber notes the irony that it may well be the electing of Trump that gets us there. Trump thrives in a world of no truth because not even science is above him: either ‘his truth’ is equal to it, or there is no truth anyway so what does it matter? But when you put the living embodiment of Green Beret’s self-contradicting madness into the most powerful position in the world, it suddenly becomes clear how mad it really is. It is Wilber’s hope that we might finally be waking up to how stupid Green Beret has become. It is encouraging, for example, to see that Facebook has vaguely committed to the concept of truth by trying to reduce the spread of fake news. And in mainstream media, after Trump got elected, the New York Times changed their slogan to “The Truth Is More Important Now Than Ever“. And the surging popularity of movements like the Intellectual Dark Web – an eclectic group of academics that pride themselves on long-form conversation which seek to needle out the truth on YouTube and podcasts – is also very encouraging. Truth might be making a come back.

For this to really occur, two things need to happen. One, Green Beret needs to accept truth. They originally came to the elephant to try and get closer to the truth by pointing out that each of the other men’s truth had a historical dimension, and that often those truths had prejudiced elements that led to the oppression of minorities. That was a good point to make. But instead of running with this idea, it slipped into ‘no truths’, and as such it burned the map and got itself lost in no-truth-land. But it did not need to declare that truth was dead, rather that it is possible to discover more truth with more perspectives. Wilber puts it like this:

“It’s true that no perspective is privileged (which actually means that the more perspective you include, the more adequate and accurate your map becomes).”

For example, the history of the British Empire is now understood from many more perspectives than it was prior to the 1960s. This does not mean there are no truths about the British Empire, but that there are multiple truths and the more we gather the better idea we have of what the reality was.

And there is a second thing that needs to happen, and Wilber has predicted it will happen for a long time, it is just a question of when. On the horizon the outline of another person approaching the elephant is coming into view, and this fifth person is wearing a cloak coloured turquoise. Much like the amber robe, the orange suit, and the green beret, this turquoise cloak bequeaths the wearer with ideas that nobody has thought of before. These are the ideas of transcendence and integration. Turquoise Cloak brings us Integral Theory. Wilber describes it in this way:

“Integral stage is the first developmental stage in all history that feels that every stage has a great deal of importance and significance.”

The first four arrivals to the elephant thought that their viewpoint was superior, and Green Beret feels this so keenly that it despises all the other stages (which in turn makes itself confused, because it is supposed to be for egalitarianism). But Turquoise Cloak transcends this because it embraces each stage: it wants to integrate each person’s truths so that we get a clearer picture of what the world looks like, and where we take it from here. Turquoise Cloak recognises that each stage is necessary – none of them can be skipped in our historic or individual development – but it can also see the limitations of each stage. For example, it recognises that the Enlightenment got stuck when it tried to have the Last Word on truth, and it recognises the deeply destructive idea of postmodernisms ‘no truths’. To compare this to the original parable of The Four Blind Men And An Elephant, Turquoise Cloak is a newcomer that asks each of the four blind men for their observation, but Turquoise Cloak can also see the elephant with its own eyes, and in this way it seeks to put together the truth about the elephant.

This is a radical and alien idea at the moment, and we have no idea what a world led by Turquoise Cloak will look like because it has never happened in our history. But Wilber argues that as each of us as individuals develop to this integral stage, we will get society there too. History shows that once about 10% of a population get to the next stage a tipping point is reached, and at that point the stage becomes the leading edge of society. This happened in the 17th Century with the Enlightenment, and in the 1960s with postmodernism. To get ourselves out of this mess we all need to don a turquoise cloak. That is to say, we need to fight for the very veracity of truth, and be empathetic with (though not necessarily tolerant of) those who do not see the world through more learned eyes.

I will leave you with one more Wilber line, and implore you to read his book for a far more detailed account of the ideas that I have tried to introduce to you. Here is an excerpt from Trump and a Post-Truth World. I hope this has made sense, and that it will be of use to how you see the world from now on. We are profoundly stuck at the moment, and conversation is the only tool we have to get ourselves moving. Those conversations are not going to be easy, but they are going to be worth it. For everybody. Here is Wilber:

“In embracing all of yesterday, it opens us to all of tomorrow.”

In Defence Of Truth: The Elephant In The Room

One thought on “In Defence Of Truth: The Elephant In The Room

  1. Wow Tom, wow. I love the intrinsic irony as to every person who reads this, there is a microcosm of different engagements with the elephant (your blog). I found your insights profound and insightful, tentatively portrayed through the imagery of hats (it reminds me of de bono’s thinking hats). It also reminds me of some work I do with the Barrett Value Centre which is an infusion of modern and vedic philosophy to create a more holistic and tangential understanding of the world. I look forward to see what comes next and will most certainly get my hands on Wilbur’s book.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to top