The comfort of censorship and willful blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious
Debate is dying. Free speech is under threat. We are living in the Age of Comfort. We are the willful blind. Is that new? No, says Margaret Heffernan. She examines what “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know… the more tightly we focus, the more we leave out.”
We enjoy the peace of mind darkness brings.
She comments on the message:
“[Media companies] know that when we buy a newspaper or a magazine, we aren’t looking for a fight… The search for what is familiar and comfortable underlies our media consumption habits in just the same way as it makes us yearn for Mom’s mac ’n’ cheese. The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.”
And it’s neural:
To build that sense of self-worth, we surround ourselves with people and information that confirm it. Overwhelmingly, we prefer people like ourselves – and there is a solid physiological reason why. The brain can’t handle all the information it is presented with, so it prioritises. What gets a head start is information that is already familiar – and what is most familiar to us is us.
So, we feel most comfortable with people and ideas we already know. Just like Amazon’s recommendation engine or eHarmony’s online dating programmes, our brain searches for matches, because building on the known makes for highly efficient processing. At a trivial level, this preference shows up in consumer preference for products whose names share their initials: Carol likes Coke but Peter prefers Pepsi. More seriously, over time our neural networks, just like our opinions and ideologies, become deeper but also narrower.
That is as true for us, when we choose media we agree with, as it is for party leaders who give priority to editors who agree with them. Everyone is biased in favour of themselves; it may be one reason why, despite decades of diversity programmes, women and minorities have made so little progress inside corporations..
As Colm O’Gorman, one of the first people to uncover abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland, told me: “We make ourselves powerless when we pretend we don’t know.” But just because wilful blindness is endemic does not make it irresistible. Roy Spence, a Texan advertising executive, refused to work with Enron even as the rest of the world beat a path to its door. How did he see what others missed? He thought a lifetime of seeing through the eyes of the powerless gave him different perspectives. “My sister had cystic fibrosis and I used to wheel her to school every morning,” he told me. “I could see people pitying us, oblivious to the richness of our relationship. It made me ask, then as now: if they’re missing so much about us, what I am missing about them?” That internal dialogue is what Hannah Arendt called thinking.
Don’t be a bystander:
There’s a lot of willful blindness around these days. You can see willful blindness in banks, when thousands of people sold mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. You could see them in banks when interest rates were manipulated and everyone around knew what was going on, but everyone studiously ignored it. You can see willful blindness in the Catholic Church, where decades of child abuse went ignored. You could see willful blindness in the run-up to the Iraq War. Willful blindness exists on epic scales like those, and it also exists on very small scales, in people’s families, in people’s homes and communities, and particularly in organizations and institutions. Companies that have been studied for willful blindness can be asked questions like, “Are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise?”
And when academics have done studies like this of corporations in the United States, what they find is 85 percent of people say yes. Eighty-five percent of people know there’s a problem, but they won’t say anything. And when I duplicated the research in Europe, asking all the same questions, I found exactly the same number. Eighty-five percent. That’s a lot of silence. It’s a lot of blindness. And what’s really interesting is that when I go to companies in Switzerland, they tell me, “This is a uniquely Swiss problem.” And when I go to Germany, they say, “Oh yes, this is the German disease.” And when I go to companies in England, they say, “Oh, yeah, the British are really bad at this.” And the truth is, this is a human problem. We’re all, under certain circumstances, willfully blind.
In her book Willful Blindness:, Heffernan, writes:
Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.
Is there hope?
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?
Which returns us to debate and being open to ideas. And why censorship and the killing of conversation is wrong…