by Jerry Richardson 3/20/15
Is there such a phenomenon as willful blindness? If so, what does it mean and what is its cause? Most of us would probably confess to having been willfully blind at least a few times in our life, so we have some idea what it means; but it is difficult to describe in detail, and there are different varieties.
In the recent past, a legal concept of willful blindness has been developed by the courts. A major occurrence of this concept was explained by Judge Simeon Lake to the jury in the Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay trial that resulted from the Enron financial fraud. The legal concept hinges upon the notion that a defendant can be held responsible for not knowing something if he could have known and should have known something that instead he made an effort not to know.
Also there is the common every-day variety for which people attend psychological counseling: The unawareness-of or inattention-to destructive behavior in their personal lives.
But I’m interested in a variety of willful blindness that haunts everyday life on a collective scale, not the ad hoc pretend-blindness that is attempted when someone tries to avoid a loss in court due to neglect of reasonable duty. I’m primarily interested in one particular variety that is endemic in our modern world: Ideological willful blindness.
Willful blindness is sometimes characterized as being, in simplest terms, self-deception. But what does that mean? How does it work? How is it possible for a conscious, self-aware being to actually self-deceive? These questions have been asked numerous times, in retrospect, about Neville Chamberlain and his obvious duping by Adolph Hitler. Lately many of us have asked these same questions concerning some politicians in regard to terrorism. How can anyone seriously believe that the terrorist-state of Iran, or any other avowed group of terrorists, will negotiate in good faith?
It is easy enough to say in a truthful, but dismissive way, that self-deception is simply the act of fooling ourselves into believing something that is not true, or not believing something that is true. But it is more than that. In the movie A Few Good Men Jack Nicholson in his role as Colonel Nathan R. Jessep made a comment to the military prosecutor, Lt. Daniel Alistair Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) that is very apropos to our discussion: “You can’t handle the truth”! For a variety of reasons, that statement applies to many people in today’s world when they—sometimes us—are unwilling to deal with the painful truths of reality. There seems to be more to self-deception than simply fooling ourselves; there seems to often be an actual fear of the truth.
But how is it possible for highly intelligent people, scientists or professional scholars, to fool themselves into accepting a falsehood for truth in a supposed serious search for truth?
There is a simple but not very flattering answer. Even very smart people are not immune to prioritizing their own vested-interest. What seems to be a search for truth may in fact be an attempt to prove or support a vested-interest belief or assumption that has been accepted a priori as “the” truth by someone or some group.
When we examine the promoters of a highly politicized ideology such as the global-warming thesis, it is difficult to determine who is displaying what traits; who is displaying ideological willful blindness; who is, due to vested-interest, trying to protect research careers and reputations; who is simply being a con-artist in order to profit; and who is too uniformed or unconcerned to understand the issues. With an ideology we are often dealing with a broad potential mixture of deception and self-deception.
But why should we have a personal concern about self-deception?
Whether we admit it or not; we live-out our “truth”; if that “truth” happens to be a lie, then our life becomes a living lie. And the most spiritually and psychologically damaging lies will be the ones that we are unaware of, or perhaps vaguely-aware of; we will not only live the lies ourselves, we will teach them to others. All of this is true, but it does not give us insight into the actual mental-operations involved. How does self-deception actually play-out in the mind? I have not been able to find such descriptions, so I’ll have to paint the picture as I think it is with my own words.
However it works (mechanism not results), self-deception has been around for a long time. Many students of the Bible believe that self-deception began with Lucifer (Satan) and that both the activity and the results of self-deception are inherently destructive and evil. I share that belief.
As to the how of the mechanism, it seems to be sort of like a child’s game of peek-a-boo played in your mind with truth; now you see me; now you don’t; or rather, now I think it; now I won’t.
Willful Blindness certainly pertains to intentionally-ignored concepts of reality.
However the level of awareness of this blindness does not seem to be a single-valued perception; the awareness appears to operate on a continuum, depending upon the person and the situation, ranging from total-unawareness up to total-awareness: An intentional strategy for the deception of others.
But ignored concepts are likely to linger. One of Sigmund Freud’s proverbs was that “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Hence the often vehement anger when willful blindness is challenged. The anger undoubtedly results from activating the internal inhibitions. I think people get angry about concepts that they fear are candidates for truth; fearing that those concepts may undermine vested-beliefs and up-end a comfortable worldview. Why do you think Al Gore gets furious when his “inconvenient truths” are challenged? All of us do love our comfort zones.
I think the mechanism for willful blindness has to be similar to the mental balancing-act referred to by many people as compartmentalization. President Bill Clinton’s actions made this term and the concept familiar when he was seemingly able to put aside his emotions and thoughts relative to his misbehaviors with Monica Lewinsky and numerous other women; all the while remaining as President and remaining married to Hillary.
Also I think it must be similar to what is known as dissonance reduction. That term comes from a psychological theory that states that people seek consistency between their expectations and their reality. They seek to reduce conflict between their thoughts and actions. If there is great cognitive dissonance (mental conflict) and if a person cannot or will not adjust their actions, then some of their concepts or beliefs will have to be ignored or compartmentalized or anesthetized (brainwashing) to achieve consistency between thoughts and actions.
The concepts of Compartmentalization, dissonance reduction, and brainwashing can be viewed as similar or perhaps part of the same mental-mechanism as that which enables willful blindness which conceptually can be equated to a nifty term used by George Orwell: Doublethink, found in his novel 1984.
Winston [‘s]…mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies…to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again…
—Orwell, George (1983-10-17). 1984 (pp. 88-89). Kindle Edition.
Willful Blindness begins with a false belief; it might be the belief of a lie or an innocent untruth or just an unrealistic assumption. I believe that the impetus for these beliefs is mostly outside of the person who is blinded; hence the evil effect of propaganda. However, a tight-grip on a false belief is maintained and continued by lack of corrective self-judgment. Although these two activities (one of commission the other of omission) are dissimilar, they are in fact both associated with avoidance of reality and truth.
Willful blindness is hurtful and dangerous to those who get in its way; and also to the perpetrator by way of long-term spiritual damage—it violates deeply our operational design. I firmly believe that human beings are designed and created to operate with truth:
…in respect of human rationality itself, like also begets like, and the reason that our cognitive faculties are capable of perceiving truth and reasoning correctly is that they too— when functioning properly in their intended environment— operate as intelligently designed systems that have the formation of true beliefs as their purpose. Only under such conditions does our unspoken faith in human reason make sense.
—Gordon, Bruce; Dembski, William (2014-04-29). The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science (Kindle Locations 559-563). Kindle Edition.
Regardless of the point of origin of false beliefs, willful blindness is basically parasitic; it depends upon the host for its survival. Honest examination of our actions and the beliefs and assumptions that drive those actions is the type of self-judgment that is required to counter it.
One of the most misunderstood and perverted scriptures in the entire New Testament is Jesus’ teaching that deals with judging the behavior of others. Whenever someone is openly critical of another person’s behavior, words or actions, how often have you heard the following admonition?
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
—Matthew 7:1 KJV
There could hardly be a worse ripping of scripture out of context when this verse is misused, stand-alone, to rebuke criticism. The context that is missing is the necessary conclusion to the thought that Jesus was expressing, found four verses later:
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
—Matthew 7:5 KJV
To be a fair and impartial judge of others requires thoughtful and honest self-judgment; and the sinful behavior that the verse above highlights is not the proper judging of others, it is the self-righteous, self-deceiving smugness called hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can begin with self-deception regarding our own true motives for doing something; and if unchecked, it can grow into a full-blown state of “semi-unconscious intransigence of willful blindness” (Brad Nelson). Jesus reserved some of his most harsh criticism for the hypocrisy of the learned scribes (lawyers) and Pharisees (religious teachers).
Scott Peck, M.D. in his gripping book, PEOPLE OF THE LIE, stated that “…the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it”; an apt comment on the hypocrisy rebuked by Jesus in the above quoted verses.
I believe that we can, with scriptural justification, consider hypocrisy to be a proxy for willful blindness.
Probably the most repeated complaint concerning much of the news media today is the rank hypocrisy—double-standards—used in TV interviews, commentaries, and written articles where the not-so-subtle purpose is to criticize the ideologically-based actions of opponents without as much as a mention of the similar or worse actions of friends. Is it not easy to watch these programs and marvel at the obviousness of their willful blindness?
Media and educational propaganda have been the primary points of origin for much of the deceit behind ideological willful blindness.
To me the most disturbing portion of modern propaganda is not the media’s, as bad as it is; the most disturbing has been the increasing politicalization of almost all USA university curriculums. I think that collectively, Conservatives are being short-sighted in their lack of concentrated concern for this damaging area of progressive-hegemony. It is not unusual to hear Conservative commentators or Conservative members of Congress chastise the media for their one-sidedness; but how often do you see on TV or read of efforts to restore sanity, in academic studies, to our universities?
One of several people who engage in this arena is David Horowitz. He wrote a book (2010) about a campaign that he began in 2003 to restore academic standards to America’s universities. His efforts have been criticized or ignored by the left (he was once one of them) which is understandable; but where are the voices of Conservatives on this critical issue? Why is Horowitz like a “voice crying in the wilderness”? Why is Horowitz’ type of campaign so desperately needed? Here is a good summarizing statement, from Horowitz, of the academic situation in our USA universities:
The new academic orthodoxies teach that America is an oppressive society governed by hierarchies that are “racist,”“sexist,” and “classist.” Far from being academic in the dictionary sense of “theoretical” and “not leading to a decision or practice,” the new curriculum is designed to provide cultural support for doctrines that are sectarian and political and that have immediate practical implications. Engagement in political activism is often incorporated directly into the lesson plan.
For example, a course description at the University of California Santa Cruz explains, “The goal of this seminar is to learn how to organize a revolution.” The character of the revolution is then specified as “anti-capitalist” and “anti-racist,” and the only texts provided are those that articulate and support these specific revolutionary agendas. No skeptical examination of revolution or of the critics of capitalism or of the left-wing perspectives on racism presented in the course is incorporated into its syllabus.
—Horowitz, David (2010-08-10). Reforming Our Universities: The Campaign For An Academic Bill Of Rights . (Location 114-125) Kindle Edition.
Meanwhile, propaganda efforts from the left increase in the USA; and so does ideological willful blindness.
© 2015, Jerry Richardson