13. Viewpoints, Tolerance, Compassion and Truth

In an  often quoted (and commonly misattributed) example, Gotamo presented the story of blind-folded men examining an elephant. As can be expected, the man touching the foot comes to fundamentally different assertions about the nature of the elephant than the other men who examined the ears, tusks, and other parts separately. The paradoxical situation arises where all men are contradicting each other even though their individual observations are not apparently incorrect.

However, while the observation of a situation will yield as many different results as there are observers, one can still expect an agreement about certain basic circumstances provided the viewpoints of  the observers are close together.

In the example above, two men examining the right foot within a small time frame should arrive at similar evaluations.

Part of a comparison between differing concepts should therefore be an estimate of the divergence of the viewpoints involved and an honest effort to duplicate viewpoints that are noticeably different from one's own.

If such a comparison does not yield in finding common ground, however, the question arises whether one should just leave the other's viewpoint alone or if one should insist on the truth (or one's own perception and/or formulation thereof).

In an extreme case, if the other's viewpoint would seriously impact the conditions of other people or oneself, the decision whether the tolerate the perceived untruth or not may become a considerable problem.

We have hit a major paradox:

  How much intolerance can be tolerated without sacrificing tolerance itself?

Telling the truth may not be advisable in situations where it would cause more harm than good. In an individual situation, this will always be a judgement call. Typically, this judgement call is based on true compassion (in Gotamo's sense), depending on the circumstances of the partner in the dialogue. 'True Compassion' in Gotamo's sense is a mental state rather than an physical emotion. In such a state an evaluation can take place whether a dialogue partner would suffer more by not knowing the painful truth than if the truth would not be announced at all.

In a book, however, as in every written and widely distributed statement, the audience is not present at the time the statement is made. An estimate of the impact of an assertion is much more difficult, if not completely impossible.

This circumstance is creating an impasse. Should an author not speak up because some time in the future a reader may look at a text and, not being ready for it, may get hurt? 

Copyleft 1998 by Maximilian J. Sandor, Ph.D.