I awoke this morning with a joke in my head. This is not a particularly uncommon occurrence for me. I often wake up with a song or scene from a movie inexplicably tumbling around in my brain. Maybe some left over dream absurdity, who knows? This morning it was a joke, one I hadn’t heard for a long time, and one I can’t remember ever recalling before this morning. The joke, as it was told to me, goes like this:
Ever seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch?
See? They’re good at it!
Admittedly not the most laughable joke. To be frank it sounds like one your grandpa tells and you laugh at out of sympathy. Yet, for some reason this joke wouldn’t leave my mind. It was nagging at my brain all morning. As a fiction writer, I tried to log it away as a possible witty quip that some clever character would say in something I write someday, but I still wasn’t satisfied. Somehow I was compelled to get to the source of this joke. Little did I know the rabbit hole I had stumbled upon.
I started of course with a quick google search, and came across a cultural fad from the 1960s called elephant jokes. Elephant jokes, much like the modern fad of anti-jokes, derive their humor from deconstructing the riddle-joke formula. This works because we all know this formula, either consciously or subconsciously. It works by setting up a ridiculous premise and providing a simple, reductive solution that usually involves a pun or a stab at the characteristics of the subject matter. So a basic joke about an elephant might go like this:
Q: Where does an elephant keep his stuff?
A: In his trunk!
Hilarious, I know. If this joke isn’t particularly funny to you, you probably have an intellect higher than that of a small child. Hence the need to add some irony into the format. Elephant jokes do this by replacing the simple, reductive solution with one more absurd and complicated than the premise, while also usually ignoring the obvious characteristics of an elephant, most commonly its size, for example:
Q: How can you tell that an elephant is in the bathtub with you?
A: By the smell of peanuts on its breath.
Obviously, if an elephant were in a bathtub with you, you would notice for any multitude of reasons besides the smell of peanuts on its breath. This format has lent itself to some rather offensive jokes in modern time, like this one about Helen Keller:
Q: Why couldn’t Helen Keller drive?
A: Because she was a woman.
This joke is funny (if you have a sick sense of humor) because it casts Helen Keller’s affliction of being blind and deaf as less of an impediment to her ability to drive than her being a woman, a tasteless jab at a gender stereotype. The fad has evolved in many other ways however, and the elephant has since become the centerpiece for any kind of nonsensical or absurdist humor, such as this website dedicated to all of the absurd methods you could use to catch an elephant in the Sahara desert, including one that extends the strawberry patch joke (though they use tomatoes, but we will translate it to a strawberry patch for our purposes):
Put a strawberry patch in a cage. The elephant will naturally come to it for hiding. Close the cage. The only problem now is to find the elephant in the strawberry patch.
Anyway, it is from this fad that the precursor (that I was unaware of) to the joke I couldn’t shake comes:
Q: Why do elephants paint their toenails red?
A: So they can hide in strawberry patches.
As explained above, this joke defies your expectation of a simple, possibly punny answer with one more illogical and absurd than the premise, as well as playing on the illogic (and comical imagery) of an elephant trying to hide in a strawberry patch, given its size, coupled with the absurd suggestion that painting its toenails red would do anything to help hide it. Often many of these jokes were strung together to create an outlandish surreality where the normal characteristics of an elephant are completely ignored, which gives us the complete version of the joke that I was unaware was incomplete:
Why do elephants paint their toenails red?
To hide in strawberry patches.
Have you ever seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch?
See? It works!
The second part of the joke can stand alone though, as it plays on the logical fallacy known as the converse error. This logical fallacy breaks down as such:
If P, then Q.
This is fallacious logic because P is not the only condition that yields Q. Plugging the joke into the equation (which necessitates a double premise) yields:
If elephants hide in strawberry patches, AND they are good at it, then you wouldn’t see an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch.
You’ve never seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch.
Therefore, elephants hide in strawberry patches AND they are good at it.
This, I believe, is why the joke somehow stuck with me for so long. The joke blatantly points out this logical fallacy, one that you often encounter in arguments with deluded individuals. It is the basis for confirmation bias, which is the basis for many delusional theories. The intelligent design theory, for example, breaks down when we subject it to the logical equation:
If the universe were created specifically for us, then we would be extremely well-suited to survive in it.
We are extremely well-suited to survive in the universe.
Therefore, the universe was created specifically for us.
The Ancient Alien or Ancient Astronaut Theory is also broken down this way, though it involves some syllogism:
If aliens visited our ancient ancestors, then our ancient ancestors would have misinterpreted them as gods.
If our ancient ancestors misinterpreted them as gods, then they would have written stories about them.
Our ancient ancestors have written stories about gods.
Therefore, aliens visited our ancient ancestors.
We could go on with other theories like Creationism or the Illuminati, but I think you get the idea. The point is that the joke blatantly and humorously exemplifies the illogic of this line of reasoning in an absurd and obvious way, and that’s what makes it such an interesting joke.
But the internet wasn’t done with me yet. I kept digging and found that the common thread of the elephant jokes, the obviousness of an elephant being present in any situation, has long been fodder for comedy and ironic situations. Wikipedia gives us this bit of trivia:
In 1935, comedian Jimmy Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stopped him while leading a live elephant and asked him, “What are you doing with that elephant?” Durante’s reply, “What elephant?”, was a regular show-stopper.
It may be from this joke or any derivations thereof that we get the phrase “the elephant in the room,” generally referring to something obvious to the situation that no one is addressing. It conjures up an image of people sitting around a room in which there is a giant elephant without even addressing the presence of the elephant, almost reminiscent of an absurdist play. The irony of the situation comes from the fact that to have an elephant in a room without addressing it takes a conscious effort on the part of everyone in the room not to address it. This phrase has become so common as to be conflated with other phrases, for example “the pink elephant in the room.” In this case the phrase was combined with the idiom of the pink elephant, which comes from a thought experiment in which a subject is asked not to think of a pink elephant. Inevitably, and even despite the conscious effort of the subject, he is forced to think of a pink elephant, exemplifying ironic processing. This psychological phenomenon is also the basis for the popular game you may have encountered in which whenever you think about the game, you lose. If you’re unaware of this game, you may have noticed some people around you unprecedentedly and unexpectedly complaining, “Damn, I just lost the game.” It should delight you to know that these people are not, in fact, schizophrenic.
Hold on now, this is where it comes full circle. The ‘elephant in the room’ has also been used by several philosophers to debate our method of gathering information or knowledge known as epistemology. The most famous of these arguments comes from… I’ll give you three guesses… got it yet… if not, go check the about page…….. You got it! In an early philosophical discussion with his friend and mentor Bertrand Russel, patron of this very blog Ludwig Wittgenstein was asked if he could at least say with certainty that there wasn’t an elephant in the room. Sometimes the story involves a rhinoceros instead of an elephant, but Russell’s own autobiography confirms that it was indeed an elephant (granted he wrote this much later in his life). Unwilling to admit to certainty in any matter, Wittgenstein replied that he could not say that with certainty. Russell then went to work searching all of the cupboards and under each piece of furniture for the elephant, a sight gag very similar to Durante’s much later use of it. Ironically, the information superhighway had thrown me down a rabbit hole only to bring me back to a familiar starting point. I’m not sure if there is meaning in this or not, but I know better than to try and find it.
There was one last stop along this journey, however, seemingly unrelated, but interesting nonetheless. While exploring this cultural psychological philosophical phenomenon surrounding elephants, I came across a parable I hadn’t heard before, but which goes along with my own philosophy about epistemology and theology. The parable seems to be shared among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others, but the moral is always the same. I’ll go ahead and tell my own version for the purposes of this post.
Six blind men are called by the king to his court in which he has placed in elephant. Each of the blind men is asked to touch a different part of the elephant and confer with each other on what the elephant is like. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. Unable to agree upon the nature of the elephant, the blind men set to quarreling and throwing blows, all to the delight of the king.
The king in this allegory may be God (or for my atheist friends, ‘that which knows the true nature of reality’), who instills within us a desire to know the true nature of reality, knowing full well that we cannot know it. Each of us attempts to investigate it by our own means, and we quarrel and fight amongst ourselves when we cannot confer on its true nature. This allegory has been used to describe many things, from philosophy to theology, and even the strange phenomena encountered in quantum physics, such as wave-particle duality. Ironically, the story has become like the elephant itself, with each of us determining our own interpretation of it, unwilling to confer on one meaning. This is at once the beauty and the curse of stories, jokes, and metaphors. When we hear them, we know we’ve learned something, but when we try to put it into words, we create our own controversy. To tie it all up, a clever elephant joke retells the story this way:
Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’ After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.