Of the economically developed countries of the world, the U.S. has the most dysfunctional society—that is, we have depression despite material goods, materialism without community, more teen and single parents, less trust, more impoverishment, higher infant mortality, more drugs, obesity, school bullying and school shootings. The dysfunction and its correlation with income disparity were documented in the scholarly book, The Spirit Level. What’s behind the dysfunction, the non-working of social things that should work?
Why, I wonder, are the homicides in the news, why are the drunk-driver fatalities featured on TV, why do we get sound bytes blaming Democrats for not generating jobs, then sound bytes telling us that government should not interfere in the market? What’s missing?
What’s missing in each case is recognition of the elephant in the room. An elephant is a fact so obvious, but so threatening, that everyone ignores it. Like the drunk at the garden party, ignored by all of the polite guests despite their discomfort with him. Imagine the momentary terror, then the relief, if one person were to announce, “George, you’re drunk and your behavior insults everyone. Please go home.”
Let me venture a guess. I suspect that in every dysfunctional family—the place where the norm is rigid silence or screaming outbursts, where the kids are out of bounds, where there are smart phones in the pockets but no food on the shelf—I guess that there are big elephants, big issues that nobody talks about, situations that all present pretend not to see. Yes, I’ve been there.
So why can’t we solve our social problems—the federal budget, the inadequate schools, the continuing pollution, the immigration problem, poverty amidst plenty, a booming stock market but no jobs? We (or politicians) talk about (or deny) budgets, schools, pollution, immigration, and jobs. That’s it. We talk about the problems but the evident problems are symptoms, like a fever is a symptom of an infection. The elephants in the room are the underlying causes of the symptoms, the infectious causes, too discomforting to acknowledge. George may be obnoxious, but no one will say “Drunk, go home.”
I suggest we have big elephants in our politics because we have elephants in every level of social connection and regulation, from families to churches to license bureaus, from state legislatures to congress. It is the unmentionable that hurts us, but the politician who mentions the unmentionable won’t be elected for the same reason that the newspapers won’t print the unmentionable and the citizens won’t discuss it.
Let’s take an easy one. Illegal immigration. It’s uncontrolled and it’s causing social disruption. Should immigrants and their children receive driver’s licenses, welfare and public schooling? We debate those questions, knowing that humane treatment will attract more immigrants and more problems. What we don’t discuss is the fact that the illegals come because whatever they find here is better than the poverty and social injustice at home. We don’t discuss the fact that illegal immigrants provide an underpaid class of labor, generating manual services and larger profits for some of us. That’s the elephant. The un-printed, un-discussed fact is this: it’s profitable to pay eager illegal workers a sub-standard wage, rather than to employ uneager sub-standard American workers at a prevailing wage. This generates an underground barter economy of unlicensed parties, providing low-cost services while growing a disparate, divided society.
There’s an elephant in every insoluble situation. What’s not talked about in the federal budget? Pork projects in congressional districts. Religious goals in politics. Corporate and big-money control of elections. Military expenditures contrasted with social expenditures. A parade of elephants to see, so little vision to see it, so little courage to say it.
Why do cities build new stadiums or new golf courses, or initiate other grand projects while basic services, like sidewalks and sewers, fail? What’s not talked about? The fact of who profits from the project.
Why does drunk driving persist on our highways? The judge might require that a repeat drunk install a breath tester in his car. He might even confiscate the car. What’s not talked about? Responsibility. We assign responsibility to the mechanisms, not to the driver.
What’s the message?
Wherever you see a political or social dysfunction, an insoluble problem, look for what’s not being said. Then say it. And force those in authority to say it.
Never tolerate an elephant in the room because elephants are so messy. However, prepare to be unpopular, because people love their pet elephants. While they complain about the mess.