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Willful Blindness

my authentic me Apr 18, 2022

Willful blindness, also known as conscious avoidance is a term used in law to describe a situation in which a person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally keeping themselves unaware of facts that would render them liable or implicated.  Although the term was originally and still is used in legal contexts, the phrase "willful ignorance" has come to mean any situation in which people intentionally turn their attention away from an ethical problem  that is believed to be important by those using the phrase (for instance, because the problem is too disturbing for people to want it dominating their thoughts, or from the knowledge that solving the problem would require extensive effort).

Lately I have observed far too many individuals implementing willful ignorance.  It has left me with an alarming feeling. The biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don't see--not because they're secret or invisible, but because we're willfully blind. This leads me to ask questions such as:  What makes us prefer ignorance? What are we so afraid of? Why do some people see more than others? And how can we change?

The answer is we turn a blind eye in order to feel safe, to avoid conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to protect prestige. Some see this as a logical way of thinking.  I, for one, completely disagree.  Before you say it, yes there is a time where ignorance can be bliss.  Maybe you choose to ignore the person cutting  you off on the freeway.  Perhaps you choose to overlook someone shorting you a dime at the grocery store.  These are not the situations I am speaking about. 

We all want more out of life.  The need to fulfill one’s purpose is embedded in our DNA.  The only difference between those that fulfill their calling and those that don’t is applying willful blindness.  Those that choose the path of greater understanding are lead to solutions. It is only by challenging our biases, encouraging debate, discouraging conformity, and not backing away from difficult or complicated problems--we can be more mindful of what's going on around us and be proactive instead of reactive. Mankind's capacity for complex thought can be a burden, and it can feel more comfortable not to know certain things.  However, by covering up/avoiding up the important issues and situations that are in plain sight we will end up leading a life of merely existing instead of truly living. 

Our brain likes the familiar We are not meant to operate in neutral. There’s always a bias.We cannot escape willful blindness altogether, but we can choose to overcome it by  implementing techniques and tools to our everyday life.  Blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make . Maybe the best we can do is to balance our biases.  Margaret Heffernan gives several ways to manage willful blindness.

Keys to Managing Willful Blindness
  1. Travel between Perspectives- “Thinking without a banister.” Traveling between points of view can be risky, says Heffernan. “But in the intersection between disciplines, real insight can be gleaned.”
  2. Seek diversity.  Put more effort into reaching out to those that don’t fit in. 
  3. Know the Limits of Our Cognitive Capacity. 
  4. Seek Disconfirmation- “The ability to endure or even welcome debate and conflict. “ It requires practice and protection….You need to create a state in which you have the courage to do something. 
  5. Challenge Complexity-  Provoke skepticism around complexity.
  6. Endure the Noise- Without conflict, everyone remains afraid and blind…We need to celebrate those that make the noise, heroes more inspiring than talent contest winners and drunken movie stars.

Willful blindness is universal but need not be debilitating if we can develop the courage to think critically and welcome other perspectives.  Try implementing some of the above tools in your everyday life and see how far you can go when you too can overcome willful blindness. 






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