The Problem With Elephants
Let me start by saying that I have no problem with actual elephants. They are intelligent and amazing creatures who need protecting wherever they live. I can assure you that no elephants have been or will be harmed in the writing of this blog.
My problem is with metaphorical elephants. White ones; ones which have a habit of being “in the room”; ones who never forget and the ones you have to eat one bite at a time.
White elephants look fantastic but they serve no real purpose at all other than to look fantastic. It doesn’t matter whether their presence actually contributes anything to anything – by owning one you have the right to point proudly and say “look at my white elephant.”
If you’re really clever you can make other people want your white elephant. If you point at it often enough and keep telling people how great it is – they will believe you and will then go and buy one of their own so they can point at it as well.
It then becomes almost compulsory for everyone to own a white elephant and simply having one becomes a criterion for and marker of success.
The problem with white elephants is that they might look impressive but they take up a lot of space and often this means having to move things out of the way. Things just get shunted somewhere else to make way for the white elephant. White elephants then become very useful for being white elephants. They then become essential – simply because… well… it’s a white elephant, damn it. Just LOOK at it and its glorious white-elephantness!
Another kind of problem elephant is the one who enters rooms. This one doesn’t have to be white. It can be any colour. But whatever colour it is it just sits there – getting in the way and irritatingly “being there.”
These elephants have evolved over millennia and have developed a very special skill which means that despite their size and presence they either remain completely invisible or they use some kind of telekinetic mind trick to make people refuse to see them or willfully ignore them.
This is reminiscent of the Ravenous BugBlatter Beast of Traal from Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy.
Described as a creature “so mind-bogglingly stupid it thinks if you can’t see it – it can’t see you.”
Except elephants are not mind-bogglingly stupid and neither are the people in the room with them. They have just developed this incredible ability not to be pointed at and the people simply do not feel obliged to recognise or even see them. It is the very example of Darwinism.
Some people are immune to the hypnotic powers or invisibility cloak of the elephant in the room but these people tend to be castigated if they try to alert their fellow room dwellers to the presence of the pachyderm. The common response to even mentioning the elephant is either hysterical coughing or raised eyebrows and the kinds of faces people pull just before they witness a car crash from the other occupants of the room. In severe cases it has been known for people to approach the person spotting the elephant and quietly but sternly say “we don’t mention the elephant” or worse still “there is no elephant.”
This then leaves the elephant pointer confused and bewildered as they really were pretty sure they had seen a large creature sat looming in the background and nobody else could see it. Or that the presence of the elephant was indeed confirmed but they have been told to deny its existence. People really do struggle with this level of cognitive dissonance.
The final kind of problematic elephant is the one who never forgets. It is well established in fable that elephants’ memories are infallible and once told something it stays lodged in the engrams forever. This can, however, manifest itself in frustrating ways.
Not least of these would be the phrases “but we’ve always done it like that”, “you’ve always done it in the past” and “that’s not what I was told.”
The problem with never forgetting things is that memories – even those as capacious as an elephant’s – must have a finite storage capacity. So these “never forgetting” memories must be so completely full of old stuff there isn’t always room for new stuff.
You know the score – you try to download the latest IOS upgrade on your phone only to be told that there isn’t enough storage space so you’re stuck with the old one.
In reality these means that when you try to tell the elephant that things are changing they have no room for this information and will automatically default to what they haven’t forgotten. They can’t forget it. They are elephants.
You can tell elephants numerous times that “what you know is wrong” “it has been replaced with this” but if the floppy disc is full then this new information simply isn’t going to register.
There are not very many strategies for dealing with these kinds of elephant. As has been described – pointing at or simply trying to shoo the elephant away would be met with incredulity and derision and the elephants have become very stubborn. Shouting at them so that they understand simply doesn’t work either.
In fact – the only way anyone suggests getting rid of the elephant is to eat it. Which – given its prodigious size – is something of a mammoth task (pun intended.)
So in order to overcome this huge undertaking, the advice is simple – you eat the elephant one bite at a time.
This is sensible advice but elephants are big creatures. There is, on average, a lot of elephant to get through and it does take a long time.
Sometimes there simply isn’t enough time for the meal. Sometimes you really need to leave the table so you can be somewhere else.
Of course the obvious answer here is to invite guests so you can perhaps achieve more together. It’s at this point that you learn that some people eat far too slowly, some like to guzzle too quickly, some people are allergic to elephant and some are simply vegetarian and want to eat something else.
You can, perhaps, think of different creative ways of cooking and serving the elephant – to steal from Monty Python’s Dennis Moore sketch (substituting “lupins” for “elephant”) you could try
“……elephant soup, roast elephant, steamed elephant, braised elephant in elephant sauce, elephant in the basket with sautéed elephant, elephant meringue pie, elephant sorbet.”
But – as the poor peasants in that sketch get fed up with being brought lupins instead of useful things like wood, food and clothes – people will eventually get very tired of eating elephants and will want to change the menu.
“We sit on elephants , we sleep in elephants, we feed the cat on elephants, we burn elephants, we even wear the bloody things!”
This phenomenon is known as “elephant fatigue” and it is very bad for morale.
In fact – it is not uncommon to be half way through eating the elephant before someone comes in and declares the restaurant closed or you discover that the elephant is off. It is also not uncommon to be midway through the elephant and someone comes and takes your cutlery away or tells you that they simply have to go and pick up the kids and can’t stick around anymore.
It is for certain that elephants are not easy to eat and even doing so one bite at a time can lead to elephant-overdose or simply a tired jaw. They are a choke hazard especially in quantity. You can get sick from eating too much elephant.
Now – the worst possible case scenario – the real “extinction level event” scenario – is where you come across a white elephant, in a room, with a full memory and who is trying to avoid being eaten slowly.
At present – not even an eight-part high definition documentary series with Sir David Attenborough can shed any light on how we deal with this.