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The comfort of censorship and willful blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious

willful blind


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.




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Posted: 2nd, February 2015 | In: Reviews | Comment