The Elephant in the Room

The expression 'the elephant in the room' is often used as a metaphor for a truth that is ignored, despite its obvious size. However, it has become a somewhat over-used expression as there appears to be so many elephants discussed in connection with human activity, e.g. personal, social, economic and political. Despite the implied over-use of the expression, this discussion wants to draw attention to one other specific elephant, which is often ignored because it suggests that, in evolutionary terms, we are not really so different from our earliest ancestors in how we actually think and act, despite all the apparent advances in global civilisation. If this is the case, it may effectively restrict the number of political options open to humanity in its attempt to create a better collective global society, at least, in the near-term. Of course, many may consider this position, along with the previous discussion, as being far too pessimistic, even defeatist, as they might reasonably argue that optimism may still help determine the path taken by future generations. In this context, the optimist may point to the many technical and social advances throughout the 20th century, which have elevated much of humanity out the day-to-day drudgery of mere existence. Of course, in contrast, the pessimistic may point out that the benefits have not been universally shared and that technology has often helped exacerbate many of todays global problems.

So is technology the elephant?

While technology has undoubtedly affected the path humanity has taken, ultimately it has been human decisions that have put us on the current path. If so, we have to consider any evolution of politics as an activity that is profoundly influenced by the mindset of humanity itself. However, at this point, we need to make some clearer distinction between the scope of political thinking, as oppose to the practical aspect of the political process and the subsequent reality of political action. If political thinking only aspires to discuss the world as it is, there may be little to no restrictions placed on academic discussion, provided it is not seen as a threat to the stability of the state. Likewise, it has been acceptable for some global institutions, such as the United Nations, to broadly adopt democratic processes in respect to its voting process, ignoring veto mechanisms, even though individual member states may suppress such democratic ideas within the borders of their own nation state. However, the reality of implementing effective political action can be an entirely different matter, especially if that action is perceived to adversely affect the nation state or the ruling minority or even any wider voting majority.

So is political action the elephant?

While political action can be the catalyst of unwanted change, which then acts to polarise people, communities and nation states, it is primarily an effect rather than a root cause. For it is argued that the actual cause is invariably linked to what has been described as the 'human condition' in which we might perceive the disparity between what we, as individuals, know should be done and what we, as collective groups, consistently fail to achieve through the political process.

So is the human condition the elephant?

It is argued that many aspects of human society have raced ahead of the evolutionary idea of natural selection, while other aspects of our individual behaviour remained anchored to our DNA and basic survival instincts. If so, the dichotomy of the human condition may explain why progress towards more ethical global politics, and an equitable economy, have either failed or been torturously slow throughout human history. While this assessment of humanity does not ignore the development of our ideas of right and wrong or individual desires to build a better world, it does question our collective ability to override our survival instincts, which have brought us this far down the evolutionary road. If so, we need to stop talking about 'elephants' and recognise that it is we, i.e. humanity, that are the very large problem on the planet and why we may have no obvious solution within ourselves.

If this problem cannot be solved, then why discuss it?

While there may not be an obvious solution to the human condition in the near-term, it does not mean it is impossible to overcome; especially if we recognise the restrictions it may place on the scope of any immediate change. Of course, some might rightly point out that this problem is implicitly recognised and accounted for in the guise of political compromise. However, we also need to understand where political compromise may lead us.

What is the difference between compromise and appeasement?

If compromise leads to a mutually agreed solution, which may serve longer term goals, then the process may have value. However, it might be recognised that appeasement often has more to do with the human condition that seeks to avoid conflict with a powerfully bully, be it in the form of an individual or collective nation state. Either way, there is a survival logic at work that may quite reasonably prevent us from confronting the bully, but which then deflects our path. While aspects of our individual survival instincts relating to compromise and appeasement also extend into the political arena, the collective effects can be considerably more complex. For example, we might realise that those in power tend not to be the ones who serve on the front-line of any physical conflict, such that they need to be held fully accountable by some other means. Of course, democratic governments can be held to account for failing to take the 'right' decision by a voting majority and a free-press, although they may have different perceptions of what decision is right or wrong. However, it also needs to be highlighted that this accountability may not really exist in some authoritarian systems, which can then distort the degree of compromise achievable, if a politically powerful minority can remain protected from the consequences of its own self-interests.

So who are the bullies on the global stage?

While we who live under the political governance of a democratic system might feel we can point the finger towards others, who have adopted more authoritarian systems, history suggests that powerful democracies are also capable of simply bullying smaller countries into a negotiated compromise by the threat of force or economic sanctions. Clearly, in such cases, the powerful may actually need make little in the way of compromise, while the less powerful are forced into a position of appeasement that may only add to the global resentment and increased social instability. The number of present-day examples of nation states acting in this way are possibly so obvious that they need not be cited by name.

How else might the human condition influence political decisions?

Possibly the biggest dichotomy in the human condition relates to our inner conflict between self-interest and the idea of altruism; where the latter is simply defined as putting the interests of others before your own. Again, we might start by realising how self-interest can be driven by our survival instincts for the 'essentials of life'; although exactly what constitutes 'essential' can be very subjective and, in sense, adapts to our current life-style. Today, the sheer scale of the disparity being suggested can be seen in the life-style of the top 10% in comparison to the bottom 10% of the global population. Of course, this does not mean that the top 10% have no moral compass when it comes to specific acts of altruistic generosity, only that it is rare to find such acts resulting in any major change in the fortunes of the rich. However, it is possible that we all have limits on the impacts we are willing to accept to our own life-styles, such that the poorer you become, the more desperate you become to protect what little you have. If this perspective has any validity, it may not be so hard to realise why the disparity between the rich and the poor has grown throughout the 20th century and continues into the 21st century.

So what do we really know about the human condition?

The scope of what has been described as the human condition is both wide and complex as it encompasses the evolution of humanity in terms of its physiology and neurology in combination with the development of human civilisation, especially over the last 10,000 years. As a consequence, there are many fields of research that are attempting to put forward various hypotheses that may help explain how the human brain has evolved in terms of natural selection and ultimately how humanity's ability to change its own environment may have accelerated this process. Given the breadth of these topics, the next discussion should only be seen as an overview of just a few speculative lines of research.