41 | Willful Blindness

Most people have a belief in the inner core of themselves as being good. So that whatever they’ve done, they’ll say, “That’s not the real me.” Prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, Unraveling the Mystery of Murderous Minds, Wall Street Journal 7/30/2011 - LINK

We think well of ourselves because we are loved and we will fight fiercely to protect the key relationships on which our esteem depends. And that seems to be just as true even if our love is based on illusion. Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

According to former BBC reporter Margaret Heffernan, we blind ourselves to unpleasant truths because it makes us feel safe. Parent-child and marital relationships are particularly susceptible to illusions, and cementing a family’s “group-think” ensures dissenters become the enemy. Heffernan also points out that maintaining illusions insulates us from having to act on the knowledge we would otherwise acquire.

Even apart from politics, willful blindness and moral nonaccountability abound. From Rupert Murdoch’s insistence that although he was “shocked, appalled and ashamed” by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, he personally was not to blame but was betrayed by unnamed “people I trusted”;  to residents of multi-million-dollar homes built on a South Dakota floodplain who were wiped out by rising waters, but insist they’ll rebuild (without insurance again, because floods like that only happen once a century); to the inhabitants of Uravan, Colorado, an abandoned uranium and vanadium mining town turned Superfund site, who’d like nothing better than for the industry that destroyed their town and their loved ones’ lives to start mining again.

Another striking example is the 2009 Air France crash off the coast of Brazil, with all on board lost. The cause was a mystery until black boxes and cockpit voice recorders provided the answer: equipment failure compounded by pilot error. The plane’s speed sensors iced, disengaging the autopilot. The captain was asleep in the crew rest area and two co-pilots were at the controls. Neither was trained to fly in manual mode or respond to the malfunction. When the engines stalled and the plane began dropping, they did exactly the wrong thing: pointed the nose up, which worsened the loss of forward momentum, instead of down, which would have enabled the plane to regain speed.

If the situation weren’t so tragic, Air France’s response would be laughable. It lauded the crew, saying they showed an unfailing professional attitude and remained committed to their task to the very end. At this stage, the airline added, there was no reason to question the crew’s technical skills. - LINK

Willful blindness has upsides. It allows us to preserve loving relationships, and families to exist. You can’t get through the day without it; if you consciously focused on all the things you’d otherwise blind yourself to (Greenland melting, say, or the Amazon rainforest burning up), you’d become paralyzed. And supporting a mine that’s destroying your town is a matter of personal dignity if it lets you put food on the family table. But does it make you safe?

Betty Frye’s blindness to the realities of her marriage may have cost her her life.

To what are you blind?

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