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Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

By Margaret Heffernan

Review by Douglas Balzer

Willful Blindness engages the complexity of one of the most pervasive issues we face as human beings: not recognizing what is right in front of us and visible. There are things we do not see, because we choose not to, because, in the words of Margaret Heffernan, “we are willfully blind.”

If you are not familiar with Margaret Heffernan, she is a Texan born, Cambridge-educated, raised in the Netherlands, entrepreneur. She has championed allowing employees to have an active role and voice within companies. Her background in business is impressive.

A reading of the title itself caused my curiosity to swirl. How do we intentionally diminish the ability to comprehend what we are seeing? In narrative style, Margaret weaves a tapestry that combines social anthropology and real life examples of human behavior with perilous results. She examines the common dilemma we all face: the act of being willfully blind, denying truths that are “too painful, too frightening to confront.”

The author begins by defining the concept of “willful blindness: You are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.”

Margaret essentially is asking, Why do people resort to denial? What is so appealing about ignorance? What is the role of fear in our willingness not to know? There are those who see more than others do. Why? Finally, she asks, How can we change?

Margaret builds her argument in an eloquent, narrative manner. She tells the stories of willful blindness in a circle form allowing each story to connect the dots. Her style is compelling in that she helps the reader see the realities he or she has unwittingly participated in –the best case and the worse case scenarios. The issue of willful blindness is pervasive infecting our private and working lives. Its imprint is upon our governments and corporations, as well as in our human relationships. Heffernan writes, “Embedded within our self-definition, we build relationships, institutions, cities, systems, and cultures that, in reaffirming our values, blind us to alternatives. This is where our willful blindness originates: in the innate human desire for familiarity, for likeness, that is fundamental to the ways our minds work.” It turns out that as we seek conformity, we become more susceptible to willful blindness, “familiarity, it turns out, does not breed contempt. It breeds comfort.”

Margret begins weaving a tale about a troubled marriage, in which a husband, Michael, has a heart condition, yet husband and wife live as though this isn’t a reality. Ignorance is bliss. Michael’s wife asks, “Was I willfully blind when I married Michael? Of course, I was. I knew about his heart condition—everyone did. But I fell in love with him and decided it didn’t matter.”

In our quest for certainty, people are known for having strong convictions concerning their beliefs. Heffernan suggests, “We may even talk of being ‘wedded’ to our ideas. Much of our identity is defined by what we believe, and we actively seek confirmation of those beliefs.” Actually, we go even further: Our brains treat differently any information that might challenge our closely held beliefs.” The author tells the story for example of Richard Doll, a member of the British Medical Council, who was willfully blind and would not accept the research of Alice Stewart that the cause of childhood leukemia was in fact related to a common prenatal procedure. In the face of overwhelming evidence, he “adjusted” the evidence to fit his convictions. When our convictions are challenged, we can reinterpret information to fit deeply held beliefs.

Some might suggest that the Catholic Church is guilty of “willful blindness” in dealing with the issue of predatory pedophile priests, going so far as to take out insurance policies against future litigation. Other examples might include the actions of the SEC, those caught up in the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, the evidence of the neglect for safety in BP’s track record, and military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Heffernan connects the deficiencies created as an example of allowing an environment where willful blindness can flourish. The book demonstrates how when we fail to see what is in plain sight, the lives of people, companies, even nations can be damaged.

Heffernan not only explains the challenge of willful blindness through a diagnostic, but she presses toward creating mechanisms, structures, and strategies that people, companies, and nations can use to combat the issue of willful blindness. Heffernan caused me to contemplate long and hard about the priorities of our daily lives. Through a willful act, we can obstruct our ability to live as honestly and truthfully.

A major part of the issue of willful blindness is recognizing its complexity and presence throughout all human relationships and institutions. Heffernan concludes, “We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?”

Willful Blindness is a great exercise in semiotics personally, corporately, and governmentally. If we are going to move forward within a living system, our culture, society, and globalization, the need to “see” is a critical skill we need to embrace for our relevance and success as the church of Jesus the Christ. I hope you will read the book and share it with others. It was my goal not to give too many spoilers, because as books go, at least for me, it has to grab me to deserve an in-depth reading. Willful Blindness is such a book.