The Elephant in the Room

There’s this metaphor I heard a few years ago I really liked. It describes the human mind in two parts: an elephant and a human riding atop it. The elephant in this metaphor represents your emotions and the generally “animal” part of your brain; the human represents your rational self. The human rider’s control is at the mercy of the large and powerful elephant it rides atop. The rider can suggest, but the elephant is going to go where it wants to go.

The metaphor comes from Jonathan Haidt’s book, which admittedly I have not read, so it’s possible I’m misinterpreting it. But I like it because it helps me understand what goes on in my own head (for example, I have a hard time focusing when I’m hungry! the elephant gets what it wants!), and it helps me understand what’s going on in the heads of other people. We want to be rational and sensible, but our emotions often get the best of us.

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It’s funny to me, framed by the above metaphor, that the United States’s Republican Party uses an elephant for its mascot. The two aren’t logically connected, of course, because the symbols are arbitrary (if you want to interpret the symbols literally, consider also the Democratic Party uses an ass), but it’s funny to me nonetheless.

In the 2016 election, it feels like the elephant got the best of the rider. I’m not implying merely having conservative political views means you’re irrational or at the whim of your animal brain, but I am saying many people voted out of fear above anything else.

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Last week my wife and I visited her parents for American Thanksgiving. Her parents generally fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum, but it seemed as though they too were unhappy about how the election had gone.

There was an elephant in the room that I both wanted and didn’t want to talk about. I think every one of us felt it. Any mention of politics was quickly met with silent, downtrodden eyes. A game of “jumbling towers” (a knockoff of Jenga) prompted me to make a joke, “jeez this thing looks as rickety as one of Trump’s towers,” that led to short, nervous laughter from all at the table. But there remains an elephant in the room.

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