You have surely heard the expression “the elephant in the room” as a metaphor for something gigantic that is being ignored. It turns out that the psychological significance of this metaphor has far-reaching cultural and political consequences.
The Elephant RiderJonathan Haidt
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written extensively on morality and the blind spots that emerges from belonging to a moral tribe – living in a bubble. In his book The Righteous Mind, he described the relationship between the rational self and our emotions as similar to that of a rider and his elephant.
The metaphor is brilliant because it captures important aspects of the human mind in a highly visual way. The first thing you will notice is that the rational rider is small in comparison to the giant elephant he is sitting on. Consequently, whenever the two disagree, the elephant is going to win. It captures the notion that reason is vulnerable and can easily be overpowered by emotion.
The best possible outcome is when the elephant and the rider agree. That is, when reason and emotion are in alignment, you are most effective at making good choices in your life.
However, part of the metaphor is that the elephant has a mind of its own, so sometimes it just goes wherever it wants and the rider has no control of it. What does the rider do then? He invents reasons to explain why the elephant moved the way it did. He tells a story after the fact to make the elephant look good.
One recent example of this is when the left felt a sudden outrage and sadness over children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, which they for mysterious reasons had never experienced before.
The Elephant Trainer
Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand might also have commented that the best way to control the elephant is not for the rider to use a stick or carrot in the heat of the moment, but rather to be a trainer and instill values and habits in the elephant over a long period so that as little force as possible is needed.
The Elephant in the Room
This brings us to the final metaphor, which is that even though the elephant is huge and fills most of the room, it is hard for us to see because it is unconscious and has no voice.
The reason most people don’t talk about the elephant in the room is that they don’t notice it.
But it’s there, and it is making decisions over your life. If you ignore it, you lose any hope of gaining control of it.
Left Versus Right
It turns out that Christians have a long tradition of self-scrutiny and searching for less than noble sources of motivations. As such, they have developed the most sophisticated cultural understanding of the elephant.
Such self-awareness is, however, exceedingly rare on the left. Leftists are very good at being critical of everyone else and can even make a big deal about unconscious bias in others. When was the last time you heard prominent leftists talk critically about their own biases? In practice, leftists tend to lack a conscience, and therefore consistently ignore the elephant in the room.