In 380 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato in his most famous work ‘The Republic’ presented the ‘Allegory of the Cave.’ The ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is one of the most important and vivid metaphorical stories in the history of philosophy and outlines Plato’s assertion that most people are blind to the reality that surrounds them.
To make his point, Plato asks us to imagine an underground cave, in which prisoners are shackled by their legs and necks. The prisoners are unable to move or turn their heads and can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them, on a raised platform is a puppeteer and behind him, is a fire. The fire casts a continuous parade of puppet shadows on to the prisoners’ wall. The prisoners have never lived outside the cave and consider the shadows to be real.
The peculiar imagery in this story and the way in which it conveys the prisoners’ deep, distorted and disconnected perception of reality has always fascinated me. The notion that reality was framed for the prisoners by not only the puppets, but by the shadows of puppets, is very disturbing. To make the story even more interesting, Plato tells us that if the prisoners are suddenly released and shown the truth they become overwhelmed, confused and bewildered and will ultimately disregard the truth as false. Not all prisoners can bear to recognise that the shadows are puppets and only a few make the journey upwards and out of the cave towards the light.
Plato uses the cave to symbolise society and makes clear his view that we all, at some point, will be prisoners within it. In my view, the cave is one of the most optimistic and beautiful depictions of our human ability to cast aside the bonds of conformity, established opinion and ordinary experience, in the pursuit of enlightenment.
Although Plato wrote about the cave more than twenty four centuries ago its powerful imagery resonates intensely with the influence of mass media on our modern world. We are living through one of the most technologically advanced and intellectually stimulating periods in human history. We can access information and images from a bewildering assortment of mass media outlets (i.e. newspapers, television, radio and the internet) in an instant. Despite the growth of social and other online communication technologies, mass media remains the dominant figure with respect to local, national and global news and what that constitutes. These outlets have unparalleled reach as a communication mechanism and have enormous influence in setting the kinds of issues that we should be thinking about, concerned about and taking action on.
The availability of so much news makes it a formidable challenge for individuals to determine whether or not the information and images provided by the media are real and worthy of our belief. To illustrate the point, the veteran news reporter Jon Snow, in an article in the British Medical Journal, provided a powerful insight into the disproportionate media focus on negative news stories in the NHS. The article made visible the preoccupation amongst the media with naming and shaming hospitals and exposing failures. Little attempt was made to look beyond the immediacy of failures, and opportunities for qualification or even praise were eliminated. His critique acts as a cautionary reminder that reality as depicted by the media is not always what it should be. The way in which the NHS is reported matters, because it shapes how the NHS is perceived by patients, staff and the wider public. It is for this reason that the prevailing tendency towards negative reporting puts the NHS at risk of becoming lost in an abyss of media complacency, which puts news corporation profit above other considerations.
The power of Plato’s imagery amazes me with its timelessness and urges us all to recognise that everyday belief and opinion are no better than seeing shadows. Thankfully, we are not like prisoners chained with our backs to reality and all we need to do to improve our modern world is turn around, take notice and do what matters. Of course, doing what matters is never easy and I am reminded of the poem by the Greek poet Aeschylus:
“And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair and against our will, comes wisdom.”
Yvonne Christley is Head of Patient Experience and Communications at NHS Dumfries and Galloway