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I'm looking for an alternative to the blind leading the blind that won't be offensive to anyone.

Proverb - Someone who is not capable of dealing with a situation is guiding someone else who is not capable of dealing with it.

(McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms)


Okay, I see now what a terrible question I wrote. Here's the context: I wrote a question on http://apple.stackexchange.com that started out like this:

My friend has an iPad. I have never used an iPad, but am trying to help her set things up better -- so it's clearly a case of the blind leading the blind.

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    However you politely you phrase it, it's sure as shooting going to be offensive to whomever you apply it to. – Dan Bron Sep 22 '15 at 5:42
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    Why is that proverb offensive? It's only meant to be figurative. Oh, wait. I know! "the visually impaired leading the visually impaired". Better? We need background info, context. Give me something to work on :) – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '15 at 6:08
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    Yea, this is silly. I'm all for being sensitive, however here I suspect the people getting offended are the social justice folks rather than the visually impaired. – Sridhar Ratnakumar Sep 27 '15 at 18:33
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    “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” –John Lydgate - There is nothing that "won't be offensive" to someone. – Mazura Sep 27 '15 at 22:34
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    I don't believe in taking anonymous (i.e. sneaky) actions and so I'm noting here that I tried to close-vote but wasn't allowed to because of the bounty. I therefore asked for moderator intervention. The question, I'm looking for an alternative to the blind leading the blind that won't be offensive to anyone. Is clearly opinion-based. Everyone has their own idea about what is offensive. I believe the question could be made good by removing the "...won't be offensive..." requirement. – chasly from UK Oct 1 '15 at 10:27

15 Answers 15

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I think I've finally got something useful, with the right tone, and a parallelism that echoes blind being repeated. To make it work, I had to swap the two roles and use the passive.

This is clearly a case of the helpless being led by the clueless.

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  • Many blind people would be offended by a euphemism. Therefore you are chasing an unrealistic goal. I've expanded this in an answer, q.v. – chasly from UK Sep 30 '15 at 17:08
  • Chasley, that does not matter in this case. This is mainly about appealing to the PC scene. Another important thing to consider is what might happen if one used aparente001's phrase around a blind person. Do you think they'd immediately recognize that it is a euphemism for the phrase "blind leading the blind"? To me it just sounds like a more concrete variation. I see "blind leading the blind" as much more abstract and metaphorical. There's not a single issue with the euphemism. – shaunxer Sep 30 '15 at 21:18
  • Surely this is offensive to the helpless and clueless... – Greybeard Mar 7 at 15:01
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Ask George Lucas:

Who is more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?

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    This doesn't fit but it's exactly what I thought of. I find the reasoning behind this question unnecessary. – Mazura Sep 27 '15 at 22:31
  • So could one say the following? "My friend has an iPad. I have never used an iPad before, but am trying to help her set things up better. It's clearly a case of a fool leading a fool." – aparente001 Sep 28 '15 at 4:47
  • fool leading the fool seems valid enough to me. – SrJoven Sep 28 '15 at 20:31
  • Indeed you are powerful. – Cloud Sep 29 '15 at 3:25
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Here's a presumably PC proposal that might pass muster:

The blindfolded leading the blindfolded.

Unless there are serious blindfolded folks somewhere who might think this pokes fun at them.

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  • I think this is perfect. Also I couldn't find any criticism over the word "blindfold" so I'd call it a winner! – shaunxer Sep 28 '15 at 20:31
  • If I assume I don't want to hear "blind" in a context like this, then I imagine I wouldn't want to hear a word that contains "blind" in it. Just like, if I don't want to hear the the N-word, then I don't even want to hear people using "N-word" as a euphemism. – aparente001 Sep 29 '15 at 3:26
  • Well, it's your question, so what can I say? You get to choose whatever words you want. If blind alley is offensive to you, so that you liken it to someone using the N-word, then I'd say yes, you should avoid blindfold, venetian blind, and probably a lot of other things. – Drew Sep 29 '15 at 3:35
  • @chaslyfromUK: My thinking too, but I can't speak for the blind. Such a reference is helpful, even if it might not be the last word (no organization speaks for all blind people, of course). – Drew Sep 30 '15 at 17:01
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One somewhat similar phrase (which may have insensitivity problems of its own) is usually stated either as the inmates have taken over the asylum or as the inmates are running the asylum. The "running" wording appears to be slightly older than the ""taken over"" wording, but both have been around for at least 45 years. From Transactions of the Commonwealth Club of California, volume 61 (1967) [combined snippets]:

"Inmates Are Running the Asylum"

I'm sure all of us would be offended if someone from the Department of Welfare or the Department of Parks and Recreation or some other state department would come before us and maintain there really is no need for meaningful review of their program by the public, through its representatives, because they're doing such a splendid job. In essence that is what those who argue for no changes in the present Highway Commission are saying. Under the present set-up, even if we had seven McNamaras on the Highway Commission, there would still be no means available to them to bring the California Pentagon under citizen control.

And from Federal Firearms Legislation: Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency (June 26, 27, 28, July 8–10, 1968) [combined snippets]:

"The Inmates Have Finally Taken Over the Asylum"

By Art Buchwald

To the rest of the world the United States must look like a giant insane asylum where the inmates have taken over. The guards are gone, the doors are open and everyone thinks the other person is sick.

These alternative phrases don't work in the specific sentence that the OP asks about:

My friend has an iPad. I have never used an iPad, but am trying to help her set things up better—so it's clearly a case of the inmates running the asylum.

But they can work in related circumstances. For example:

Our English teacher unexpectedly quit last month, and school administrators haven't been able to find a suitable replacement. So in the meantime it's a case of the blind leading the blind/the inmates running the asylum.

The meanings of the phrases differ somewhat—"the blind" might refer to teachers or administrators who are not trained to teach English, whereas "the inmates" is more likely to refer to the students themselves—but both convey a sense of chaos resulting from depending on leaders who are not qualified to lead. Of course, that similarity doesn't get you anywhere if "the inmates are running the asylum" is viewed as being just as offensive to severe mental disorders as "the blind leading the blind" is to people who cannot see.

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    Unfortunately, yes, I feel more vicarious potential offense from this than for the original. Still, a valiant effort. – aparente001 Sep 29 '15 at 3:21
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+50

Newborns School Nurslings!

I'd offer you a phrase or two, but I'm afraid it would be a clear case of a putz/simpleton/jackass/buffoon/bozo advising/counseling/instructing/coaching/informing a fool/idiot/blockhead/ninny/dimwit. Give a man a proverb, after all, and it may vanish with the dropping of the first veil of dementia. Encourage a man to compose his own proverbs, though, and you nurture a lifelong habit of self-indulgence.

Choose your terms sensibly. If you're an Australian, the first may be a wally, the second may be a nitwit. Then stitch them together with the right verb: that wally will knock some sense into the nitwit, for sure.

Or keep it simple by calling both the first and second fools, and have one do for the other whichever of the many things it is fools don't do well. Keep it varied by choosing the terms (noun-verb-noun) to slot into the formula depending on the circumstances. It's a game you can play well, I'm sure.

Chimp Sets Table For Barbarian!

The origin of the "blind leading the blind" proverb may be this:

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind.

(From Juan Mascaró (tr), The Upanishads, Penguin Classics, 1965, p. 58.)

In various metaphorical forms, the proverb also appears in the Canki Sutta (an article of the Buddhist Pali Canon), Horace, the Gospel of Thomas, and Matthew and Luke of the Holy Bible.

These distinguished and varied origins suggest, and Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, (former Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute) confirms, at least for herself, that you needn't concern yourself much about pushback when you use "the blind" in the way it's used in the proverb.

Goths Etch Miniatures for Vandals!

However, you asked for an alternative "that won't be offensive to anyone". I think not being offensive is situational: if you're among friends, you know (you hope) what will offend them and what will not. If you're not among friends, you know at least what is likely to offend and what is not, depending on your audience. The choice, barring ignorance, of whether or not to offend is yours, and how you go about avoiding offense is beyond my purview. Alternatives, though, those can be produced in abundance, and the likelihood of them being offensive can be assessed (by you) by examining the terms used.

ENIAC programs Colossus!

A case of the unlearned teaching the unschooled.
A case of an ignorant instructing an ignoramus.
A case of the cart trying to pull the horse.

The first and the last of these seem least likely to offend. The second...it depends on the sensitivities of those involved. Of the first, it seems fairly neutral: if said with reference to yourself and another, you've at least insulted yourself as much or more than you've insulted that other.

The third (which incorporates an improvement from the OP's comments on this answer) borrows from the familiarity of another proverb ('putting the cart before the horse') and intertwines the two proverbs: the horse pushing the cart or pulling it backward is preposterous, and the cart pulling the horse or pushing it backward is preposterous. Voila! A potentially offensive proverb has been replaced and the replacement does double duty as both old and the new: a horse not capable of pushing and a cart not capable of pulling are both in the position of doing just those things, pushing and pulling, with each other as both the leader and the led.

Who's leading whom?

Of the three explicit examples, for your purposes, I favor the first, mostly because the third is a braintwister. Beyond all the examples, though, it's notable that nobody (or very few) think that they are fools, dimwits, or simpletons, and so are unlikely to be offended by being compared to one in the same breath that you compare yourself to one--you can't be serious calling yourself a fool, and therefore you are not serious calling them one.

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  • Thanks for the reassurance, and thanks for the great link. Said link contains tons of useful stuff -- could you summarize the takeaway you are hoping I'll get from that web reference? // Could you give an example of your "x advising the y" idea? – aparente001 Sep 27 '15 at 14:23
  • @aparente001, I had no particular takeaway in mind, I guess. Whatever works for you. The "person first" terminology is interesting to me when considered with respect to the usual responses to disabilities...yet easily ridiculed in overly literal practice: "oh look, it's a person wearing a TWA uniform! (wouldn't want to depersonalize them!)" // I've included some examples of the compositional principle applied to the example you provided in your question. – JEL Sep 27 '15 at 17:40
  • Do any of these have potential? It's clearly a case of the idiot leading the dummy, the totally lost leading the disoriented, the know-nothing leading the uninitiated, the muttonhead leading the bumpkin, the cow leading the goose, the clueless leading the bewildered, the know-nothing leading the discombobulated. – aparente001 Sep 27 '15 at 17:57
  • In "the A leading the B" I have to make sure B isn't a word that would make someone take offense. In Spanish, there is a way of softening critical words, e.g. tontuelito is softer than tonto. And "tontuelito" is the sort of word I would use when, for example, criticizing my spouse for having done something that was not very well thought out, when speaking in front of my children. – aparente001 Sep 27 '15 at 18:00
  • @aparente001, yes, the examples you've come up with have a lot of potential. With respect to your second comment, the formula would be restricted to non-offensive terms, whatever those might be in the given use: "a case of the cart pulling the horse". – JEL Sep 27 '15 at 18:04
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While I can't remember the exact phrase, you can use something along the lines of:

The student/novice teaching the class.

There's another somewhat new word that's gendered and a little offensive, but may suit the situation:

Mansplaining: explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows/may know more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.

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This is a coinage, but I don't think there are any real existent alternatives to the original:

My friend has an iPad. I have never used an iPad, but am trying to help her set things up better -- so it's clearly a case of all students, no teachers.

This has the advantage of being easily understood, and not insulting of anyone.

Alternately, if you want to try to repurpose a real proverb, you could go with:

My friend has an iPad. I have never used an iPad, but am trying to help her set things up better -- so it's clearly a case of too few cooks in the kitchen.

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  • Ha ha! No shortage of cooks, only that we apparently have no opposable thumbs. / I voted up "all students, no teachers." Although in this case, this friend and I are just mangling everything, we're not even decent students. I just wander around pressing this and that, with no idea what things are even supposed to look like. – aparente001 Sep 29 '15 at 3:14
  • @aparente001 In my experience, the canonical form is "all chiefs, no braves," but that may not fit the inoffensiveness threshold you have set. It is also what you are trying to say inverted, as you want "all braves, no chiefs." – stevesliva Sep 29 '15 at 5:20
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At the risk of offending hogs, you could use the following American (rural) idiom:

know as much about something as a hog knows about Sunday

Rur. to have no knowledge of something. Don't let Jim make dessert for the picnic. He knows as much about pies as a hog knows about Sunday. I had quite a time changing the tire, since I know as much about cars as a hog knows about Sunday.
thefreedictionary: McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

So your phrase would be

My friend has an iPad. I have never used an iPad, but am trying to help her set things up better -- however we both know as much about iPads as a hog knows about Sunday

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  • Very nice indeed. – aparente001 Sep 30 '15 at 6:06
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EDITED

enter image description here

The point of the proverb, the blind leading the blind, is purely figurative. A blind person guiding another blind person across unknown territory is pretty useless. If two or more people are equally ignorant about a topic they are not helping each other.

There is no intentional malice or disrespect aimed at people whose sight is impaired, it's just a metaphor from the Bible that people still use today because everyone understands it.

The original line from Luke 6:39-40 is

"Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher."

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If the “A leading/advising A/B” form isn’t required, I’d say that “Where iPads are concerned you two (or ‘we/they’) are both as clueless as each/the other" (link to Google Books showing its use in the classic “Greetings From Scurf Bay: Wish We Weren't Here!”)

Arranged to fit your example it would look like this:

“…-- so it's clearly a case of us both being [just] as clueless as each/the other.”

(If the "A leading/advising A/B" form is required, you could at least drastically reduce the extent and scope of any real or perceived collateral damage by working your two least favorite politicians into the equation in no particular order.)

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I believe that a Central Powers military leader characterized the British Army as "lions led by donkeys." Simultaneously -- praise for the Tommies and a slap at their leadership.

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  • Lovely phrase, but of no use to my iPad scenario. – aparente001 Oct 1 '15 at 2:45
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Your quest to find an alternative that won't be offensive to anyone will be fruitless. I quote:

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind ..., this 9th day of July, 1993, that the following statement of policy be adopted:

We believe that it is respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use. We can make our own way in the world on equal terms with others, and we intend to do it.

**The Pitfalls of Political Correctness: Euphemisms Excoriated by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan - Copyright © 1994 - National Federation of the Blind

If you use any euphemism at all then you will offend the blind people who drew up and voted for this resolution.

Answer

It can't be done.

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  • I'm confused. Is that quote saying that the National Federation of the Blind has no problem with the phrase "blind leading the blind", or that they do have a problem with it...? – AndyT Oct 1 '15 at 15:22
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    It was difficult to pick a quote that fitted perfectly. I think the phrase 'Euphemisms Excoriated' is pretty indicative of dislike. The original question was clearly asking for a euphemism. If you read the whole piece, I think you'll be convinced that a goodly proportion of blind people dislike this kind of euphemism. I used to work with blind people and I know that it was often embarrassing for all concerned when sighted people tried to avoid phrases such as, "I see what you mean." – chasly from UK Oct 2 '15 at 22:55
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I like:

The unknowing leading the unknowing

I think it fits the situation nicely without slurring the subjects.

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  • But it's a bit drab, unfortunately. No zing. – aparente001 Oct 1 '15 at 2:44
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It's not as flexible a phrase as that in question, but used in the way you have in your example, I think it might do the trick.

"You want my son giving your uncle directions? Sounds like recursive senselessness to me.

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  • Too sophisticated for my taste! I deal with too many people who don't understand the word recursive. Still, I could see that it might work in the right environment. – aparente001 Oct 2 '15 at 21:06
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I just used the phrase, "It's a case of a novice teaching the novices" and it seemed to not only work in the context but it lines up better with the meaning.

Could also work with "a student teaching the students" or "the lost leading the lost," hope those help!

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