By Thom Little, Ph.D.

As we rapidly approach the 2020 elections, one thing seems quite clear. We are a very divided nation. Democrats vs. Republicans. Liberals vs. conservatives. Urban centers vs. the heartland. Millennials and Gen Z vs. Baby Boomers and Gen X. We often yell at each other, but we seldom talk to each other. We hear each other, but we don’t really listen to each other. We have become enemies instead of people who disagree.

It seems we have isolated ourselves into like-minded groups. We are more concerned about confirming our preconceived beliefs than we are informing those beliefs. We watch newscasts, read articles and follow websites that reinforce what we already believe and we delete links and unfriend people who don’t. It is as if we live in our own little echo chamber, a cave of sorts, populated by other like minded people, that limits what we see and hear.

Believe it or not, Plato saw this coming more than two centuries ago. While Plato did not know anything about the Internet or television or podcasts, he knew (and wrote) a lot about caves and echo chambers. In his “Republic,” Plato offered one of his most famous pieces that has become known as “The Allegory of the Cave.”

In the allegory, several people are imprisoned in a cave, chained together so that they cannot see beside or behind. All they can see are shadows reflected on the wall in front of them and performances presented by the “puppet showmen” behind them. The world they know is defined completely by the shadows presented to them. At some point, one of the prisoners escapes and leaves the cave, going into the light. At first, the escapee, used to total darkness, stumbles around and finds the new world disorienting. However, as he adjusts to the light, the escapee realizes the beauty of the real world and is moved to return to the cave to “enlighten” the others. Upon entering the cave, he stumbles, no longer accustomed to the dark, and is assumed to be blind by the other prisoners who have no interest in leaving the world in which  they are familiar and comfortable.

I believe the cave that traps the prisoners is very much like the communications cave that traps many of us today. The “reality” we see is distorted by the information we choose. The “shadows” are merely a reflection of the limited websites we view, tweets we get, articles we read and news sources we listen to. We are imprisoned by our own information choices.

I am going to assume that as someone who leads a legislative body composed of members from all different parties, ideologies and perspectives, you have escaped the cave, at least for a time, that defined you in the past. While you may not agree with the diverse opinions represented in your body, you are very much aware that life is different outside your cave and maybe, just maybe, some of those opinions may have enlightened your thinking as well. Now what do you do with this enlightened perspective?

Do you keep this new world to yourself, perhaps acknowledging it when you are in the Capitol, but not really sharing it with your constituents back home or the members of your ideological base who are still constrained by the shadows they see? Or, do you go back into “the cave” and try to lead those constituents and members of your base by exposing them to ideas and values they seldom hear in their cave and try to explain that the shadows in their world are more a  reflection of the puppetmaster than of reality? No doubt allowing them to stay in their cave where they are comfortable is the safest path for you, but in the long run, is it the best path for you or those you lead?

I would suggest that it is your obligation as leader to accept the challenge of trying to lead your constituents and supporters out of their caves. I know this will not be easy. Persuading people that their perspective may not be correct never is.  It may mean telling them that something they read on Facebook is not accurate or that contrary to popular belief, your opponent is not evil. Confronting those who are promoting falsehoods and distortions is never easy, but if you have built up a sufficient level of trust and respect with those you lead, as I suspect you have, I believe they will at least give you a listen and maybe even follow you out of their cave. For the sake of our two hundred year old experiment in self-government, I hope they will!

As I conclude, I am reminded of the words of our former Chair, the late Lois DeBerry, the first African American to hold the post of Speaker Pro Tempore of the Tennessee House of Representatives in reaction to “The Allegory of the Cave.” She turned to me and said, “Son, let me tell you something. If there’s people in chains in that cave and I go in there, they’re damned well comin’ out!” And may it be so with you.