A Quick Summary of The Allegory of the Cave by Plato in The Republic (BCE 517):
Deep in an underground chamber of a cave there are prisoners chained to a wall in such a way as they cannot move their heads to look around – all they can see is the wall in front on them. These prisoners have been there since they were children. Behind them and higher up is a ledge that has a burning fire and between the fire and the prisoners stretches a road. All their lives, these prisoners see the shadows of passing men and animals carrying all sorts of gear and objects with them. To the prisoners, this is their reality.
The Allegory of the Cave is perhaps one of the most powerful metaphors in thought. When describing the allegory to someone, there are two general reactions: one of excitement and fascination, and one of apathetic boredom. The latter reaction is most likely from one living in the cave. The problem with those who are in the cave is that it is incredibly difficult to convince them that they are and incredibly difficult to have much of a discussion as to any other thoughts other than those that are already within the cave. In the Allegory, when imagining people’s reaction to showing them an alternative to the cave, Socrates asks, “Don’t you think he would be at a loss and think that what he used to see was far truer than the objects now being pointed out to him?” he continues, “and if he were made to look directly at the light of the fire, it would hurt his eyes and he would turn back and retreat to the things which he could see properly, which he would think really clearer than the things being shown to him” (Plato, 242). In this explanation, one immediately thinks of discussion politics, science, or even basic facts with family or friends on social media – it is almost Thanksgiving, so it is far too accurate not to consider. But I would extend that this train of thought is a natural, albeit extremely limiting and bad, human nature of thought that infects everything people are involved in – especially the workplace.
It should be noted that it is an act of maturity, and a hard-fought one at that, to admit that you are operating in an illusion. Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan describes this phenomena perfectly when he notes that “the last thing a fish is likely to discover is the water it is swimming in. The water is so fundamental to the fish’s way of life that it is not seen or questioned” (Morgan, 209). And in an organization, the situation is no less fishy. Public agencies are susceptible to the same pitfalls as any other human organizations and can become so enthralled by their current method of operation, that they fail to adapt, change, or challenge the status quo to meet the changing needs of the environment they operate in. Those who occupy a position for a long period of time often find themselves comfortably settled and comfortable with the processes and methods of operation around them. There can also be a dangerous group consensus that everything they do is acceptable and the best way of doing it – they’ve been doing things this way for years! Why change anything if it works? This groupthink is, again, another natural yet destructive side-effect of human group collaboration and can described as “situations where people are carried along by group illusions and perceptions that have a self-sealing quality” (Morgan, 211).
For an example, I turn toward my own organization. An almost century-old institution, my office is filled with processes and culture that are set in stone by the long-term employees who work there. They often wait until technology is far beyond outdated to seek new methods, but when pointed out as outdated, some in the office actually become angry and lash out – much like those in The Allegory of the Cave, I might add! They seem to take it personally when you note that there is a more efficient, or less redundant, or more rational way of doing something. It is often off-putting and leaves me in the same place that I would imagine others would be in – put off by suggesting improvements and think it would be easier to just submit to their way of life. But I rely on the words of Mark Twain who once said “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform”. It is definitely better to be a skeptic in these situations. I often tell my spouse and children that it is better to question because if you point out a flaw and you are right, you and those involved are now better off, but if you point out a flaw and you are the one who is wrong, you not only learn something yourself, but you strengthen that which you criticize. “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth”, as Carl Sagan once put it.
We need to be open to not only taking criticism, but also giving it. The end of the Allegory is Socrates explaining that this reality outside of the cave “once seen, is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right and valuable in anything, producing in the visible region light and the source of light, and…controlling source of truth and intelligence. And anyone who is going to act rationally either in public and private life must have sight of it” [Italics my own] (Plato, 244). Once you see outside the cave in your own workplace, it is seen as a duty to make sure that others too are dragged kicking and screaming out of their own psychic prison – for their own benefit and for the benefit of the organization. It is a responsibility, a duty, and good.
Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Plato (2007). The Republic, translated by Desmond Lee, 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books
Featured Image: The Allegory of the Cave (2012) by Read Lockhart. https://www.artprize.org/53391