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Internet debates have actually been going on for centuries. They were foretold long ago.


When I stumble into some raging torrent of online vitriol these days, I can usually step back and stay out of it. For fun I might just snipe from the edges–just to keep my troll card active.

It wasn’t always that way. At one time I would wade in with both pistols firing until I ran out of ammo and was consumed by the surrounding zombie militia.

Then I realized that the other participants weren’t just trying to be contrary. Their reality was different. They weren’t just zombies.

The world is necessarily a different place to each person in any conflict. What seems like drudgery and despair to a 22 year-old white kid from a secular, affluent upbringing is going to look different to a 42 year-old Hispanic Catholic woman who has worked since she was 4. And vice-versa.

With the help of referees, we can sometimes pause and try to explain to each other, but the fundamental experience differs. We’re always going to see things based on the mode of the receiver. So the debates rage on–with occasional breaks in the action, promises of breakthroughs, false dawns, etc — and nothing is settled.

This is more-or-less a mother goose story. It’s basic. Boring. It’s old as the hills. It’s also more relevant now than at any time in the past, thanks to what’s happening in Palestine (and yeah, I just called it ‘Palestine’), and the way it has spilled into the online community around the world.

But what is most important to remember in this little homily is this: There still is an elephant. It is a real thing. It has objective reality. It can be observed, measured, classified, described in some way that is instantly communicable to the non-vision-impaired. The blind men can’t see it, and never will see it. They can only — perhaps — be guided to possibly accept that there are other aspects to this thing that they haven’t yet taken into account, and that their perspectives are limited.

There is an objective reality: It’s just that none of us sees the whole thing at once.

The Blind Men and the Elephant:

The Buddha answered, “Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, ‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind… and show them an elephant.’ ‘Very good, sire,’ replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, ‘Here is an elephant,’ and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

“When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’

“Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

“Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

“Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”

Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,

      O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
      For preacher and monk the honored name!
      For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
                  Such folk see only one side of a thing.
    Jainism and Buddhism. Udana 68-69:Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

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