States of Denial

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 23, 2011 

"Willful Blindness" by Margaret Heffernan (Walker & Company, $26.00) deals with the complicated topic of being "willfully blind" to the consequences of our actions from the Gulf oil spill to Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme to overlooking the faults in a chosen mate.

MCT

In "Willful Blindness" journalist and businesswoman Margaret Heffernan asks, "Why, as individuals, companies and countries, do we so regularly look at the mirror and ask how, 'How could we have been so blind?' "

When she asked people about the concept of 'willful blindness,' they gave examples on their own — abuse, divorce, Ponzi schemes, subprime mortgages. "Almost everyone mentioned the Iraq war and global warming: big public blunders caused or exacerbated by a reluctance to confront uncomfortable facts."

She was first introduced to the term when writing a play for the BBC on the failed energy company, Enron. The legal description for the term "willful blindness," as described by the judge, was: 'You are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.' In the case of Enron, (Chief Executive Jeffrey) Skilling and (Chairman Kenneth) Lay could have known, and had the opportunity to know, just how rotten their company was."

Heffernan has deeply researched her topic and uses numerous examples to illustrate her point in the twelve chapters. Each chapter — Dangerous Convictions, Just Following Orders, Bystanders, Love is Blind, De-Moralizing Work, Cassandra — elaborates on an aspect of 'willful blindness:'

In "The Ostrich Instruction," Heffernan uses the myth that an ostrich buries its head in the sand when danger is nearby to show how people often deny problems exist. "John Hawk isn't a priest; he's a dermatologist at St. Thomas's Hospital in London. When he sees skin that has been damaged by the sun, he asks his patients whether they've been sunbathing. 'You get the most extraordinary vehemence from people who've been using a sun bed constantly. They're prepared to shout at me, insisting they are not harmful.'... Thousands of people don't want to know that tanning is bad for them and that tanning beds can kill them."

Willful blindness can stem from familiarity, a "skein of decisions that slowly but surely restrict our view. We don't sense our perspective closing in and most would prefer that it stay broad and rich. But our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values.... We think we see more — even as the landscape shrinks."

In "Cassandra," Heffernan writes of those who have gone against the blindness, the segmentation, confronted the problems and initiated change. For their deeds, they can be punished in the court of human opinion. Do they feel that it was worth it? Joe Darby, who gave the Abu Ghraib photos to his superiors, says "I'm not the kind of guy to rat somebody out. I've kept a lot of secrets for soldiers. ... But this crossed the line to me. I had to make the choice between what I knew was morally right and my loyalties to other soldiers. I couldn't have it both ways."

He's now been relocated under a new identity because some in his hometown consider him "a traitor."

At the end of the last chapter, "See Better," Heffernan concludes, "We make ourselves powerless when we chose not to know ... 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?"

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