Margaret Heffernan draws you into her book on this subject by starting right where the heart is: with our relationships. Or, as she puts it, opposites attract but they never marry. A quick look around seems to verify this view: how many teachers are married to teachers, or academics to academics, doctors to doctors, socialists to socialists, libertarians to libertarians, intellectuals to intellectuals, artists to artists? How diverse are friendship groups? Chances are, not that much. We meet friends through work, university or through other friends. Families might be a bit more diverse, but do we have much to do with that brother or sister, or cousin or uncle who is rather more different to the rest of the clan? Probably not. Ex-pats abroad inevitably congregate with other ex-pats, the familiarity of language and heritage, the alienation of being in a strange place, drawing them closer. And don’t think eclectics escape all this sticking together. It turns out that even eclectics prefer eclectics.
But why? We feel safe when we agree on certain things, we relax when we are with those who share our views. It’s a natural part of the brain’s functioning to take the easy way out, to take shortcuts. Through our brain we choose our partners, our jobs, even the neighbourhoods we live in, and find ourselves among those with familiar outlooks, familiar views, familiar lifestyles. We slide into a rut and narrow down our openness to new ideas and new experiences.
We choose our news sources according to the views we already agree with. Even the internet, for all that is said about it being such a diverse source of information, facilitates the like-minded getting together through shared-interest forums. Have you ever noticed how so many news stories come up in your news feed on Facebook that just go to prove what you already know, so you cry out in frustration, “It’s so obvious. Why can’t the politicians see this!” That’s because Facebook is adept at encouraging wilful blindness. It analyses what you read and like and just gives you more of the same. Facebook works like the brain: not only does the brain prefer familiarity, it will actively work to eliminate the distress of conflicting information. It’s genetic, it’s heritage, it’s evolutionary. It’s survival. Ancient communities survived by sticking together, not rocking the boat, maintaining the status quo.
So we are never challenged, we are never stretched, and we are encouraged to never see or access an alternative point of view. We never step outside our comfort zone. It’s the brain’s way of coping with the barrage of information coming its way. It’s the same brain function that causes addiction and makes quitting smoking so hard. And habit conforms to the familiarity so favoured by the brain.
But does it matter? Well yes, it does. Because it’s not just a neat way of increasing the chance of a long and happy marriage (as pleasant as that may be). It’s much more than that. Because wilful blindness is no excuse in law, or as we might more commonly say, ignorance is no defence in law, and wilful blindness can land you in prison. And because wilful blindness can affect us all in catastrophic ways.
Why did nobody in the banking industry see what was happening in the run up to the credit crunch in 2008/9, when it was so obvious what would happen? Why did no-one realise what was going on in Libby, Montana, when so many were dying from asbestosis (as told in the book)? Why did the executives at BP not realise the dangers of executive decision cutbacks, until after disaster occurred? Why did no-one intervene to stop the decades of child abuse in the Catholic Church, when so many people could see what was going on? Why did a whole nation follow Hitler? Why did no-one report Jimmy Saville when it seems that so many were suspicious? Why is it always the wife or husband who is the ‘last to know’ when the other is having an affair? Wasn’t it obvious? With hindsight, yes, but not at the time. Why do doctors never treat their own relatives? Because it’s a known phenomenon that they are less likely to ‘see’ the signs of serious illness in their loved ones because they don’t want to see. How did the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham get away with it for so long? The very crimes that have prompted David Cameron to propose making ‘wilful neglect’ a criminal offence for social workers punishable by prison sentences. But will it make any difference? Will social workers ‘see’ those child abuse rings any better? Will another banking crisis be averted in the future? Can we say there will never be another Jimmy Saville? Can we put a stop to global warming (you may not think it’s a problem, my Facebook news feed says it is)?
Probably not. Statistics show that when directly asked 85% of people are able to recognise the existence of a problem, but haven’t done anything about it. They were wilfully blind. They followed the crowd – it’s a known phenomenon that a lone person is more likely to rescue a drowning man than anyone in a crowd. We don’t want to stand out, we don’t want to be seen to be different. It may not be a conscious thought but we seem to follow the line that ‘no-one else is going to his rescue so he probably doesn’t need rescuing, I’m not going to make a fool of myself’. We became ‘blind’ to his cries, his distress, his drowning. Or we think standing up on an issue is futile, it won’t make any difference. We fear retaliation. After all whistleblowers come from the remaining 15% and we all know how much difficulty they face for ‘causing trouble’. We don’t like cognitive dissonance, it’s painful to live with. The old is invariably chosen over the new. Priests are Godly men, they can’t be abusers. Jimmy Saville did so much good he can’t be a bad man.
It takes less energy for the brain to believe than it does to doubt, and the brain takes the path of least resistance. It takes effort to go against the grain. A small few are both blessed and cursed with the ‘gift’ of seeing. For the rest of us, we have to make superhuman effort to re-train our brains to see beyond the ‘obvious’ our brain chooses to show us. And a good start is by reading Margaret Heffernan’s book:
Wilful Blindness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril. Margaret Heffernan, 2011, Simon & Shuster, London, £7.99 paperback