Do One-Eyed Rule Blind?

A 1904 H.G. Wells short story, “Country of the Blind“, questioned the old proverb “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” In the story, a sighted man stumbles into a long isolated mountain valley where where everyone has been blind for generations, and have adapted their social customs and other senses to being blind.  This new man assumes he will soon be king, but to the locals he seems incompetent:

They thrust him suddenly through a doorway into a room as black as pitch, save at the end there faintly glowed a fire. The crowd closed in behind him and shut out all but the faintest glimmer of day, and before he could arrest himself he had fallen headlong over the feet of a seated man. His arm, outflung, struck the face of someone else as he went down.

His attempts to prove he can see things they cannot go badly.  He underestimates what they can sense via sound:

He would show these people once and for all what sight would do for a man. They would seek him, but not find him.
“You move not, Bogota,” said the voice.
He laughed noiselessly and made two stealthy steps aside from the path.
“Trample not on the grass, Bogota; that is not allowed.”
Nunez had scarcely heard the sound he made himself. He stopped, amazed.

He also miss-specifies a test he offers to pass:

He induced them to let him go a long way up the sloping meadows towards the wall with one complaisant individual, and to him he promised to describe all that happened among the houses. He noted certain goings and comings, but the things that really seemed to signify to these people happened inside of or behind the windowless houses–the only things they took note of to test him by–and of those he could see or tell nothing.

The claim isn’t that a person with a powerful new insight could never prove it to others. Rather, the point is that someone with a new insight could easily fail by arrogance, assuming his insight offers more than it does, and underestimating what can be done, and how things look, without it.

The sighted person in this story could have succeeded by carefully mastering the usual skills and practices of the blind, and then carefully seeking simple clear ways to show how his new ability could give advantage, in the context of their usual practices.  Assuming instead that your new insight excuses you from the need to follow the usual social paths, or to learn the usual insights and skills of your chosen area, is a recipe for failure.

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