Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reading: "Willful Blindness" by Margaret Heffernan

I can't remember if I saw an article about it first or spotted the book at the bookstore... but as soon as I saw Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril by Margaret Heffernan and realized what it was about, I knew I had to read it ASAP (or at least, as soon as I finished reading & blogging about Melissa Ford's book, Life From Scratch). ; ) I enjoy reading books that help explain what makes people tick, and why they do the things they do. Willful Blindness could be read as a companion volume to Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided (which I also read & reviewed on this blog). Both books explore slightly different facets of the same issue: what happens when we are confronted with the less pleasant aspects of being human, why, and what we can do about it. Ehrenreich focuses on the pervasive tendency in our culture to "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative." Heffernan casts a somewhat broader net, looking at the reasons WHY we sometimes fail to see the obvious and, importantly, what can we do about it. "Willful blindness," Heffernan explains,
...doesn't have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can't notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won't let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It's a truism that love is blind; what's less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncapivated mind, is obvious, dangerous or absurd and there's much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves." (pp.3-4) (emphasis mine)
While Heffernan doesn't specifically address issues of infertility or pregnancy loss in her book, it's easy for infertiles/bereaved parents to draw some insights from her keen observations. Here are some of the chapter headings, & how I see the material in them relating to the ALI world.

  • Affinity and Beyond: Heffernan describes how we naturally gravitate toward the familiar, consciously or unconsciously seeking out the known & the comfortable. It's why we seek each other out in the blogging world, isn't it? -- to find others who have an experience similar to our own. And it explains why others who haven't had a similar experience -- even friends & relatives who love us -- consciously or unconsciously shy away from us when we remind them of our infertility &/or our lost children. They thought we were like them -- suddenly, we're not, and in a way that's pretty foreign to them (not to mention unpleasant, maybe even frightening). "What's most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more -- even as the landscape shrinks." (p. 21)

  • Love is Blind: not only do we tend to overlook the faults of those we love, says Heffernan, "we are highly driven to find and to protect the relationships that make us feel good about ourselves and that make us feel safe." (p. 24) Hearing about infertility & pregnancy loss doesn't make people feel good or safe (even if it's not THEIR infertility or pregnancy loss) so, often, the relationship suffers. We also don't like to think associate sad or unpleasant things with people we love. As an example, Heffernan writes about how she spent most of her first marriage in denial about the seriousness of her husband's congenital heart defect: "Because our identity & security depend so much on our loved ones, we don't want to see anything that threatens them."

  • Dangerous Convictions: Heffernan describes how our brains tend to filter out information that might challenge our most cherished beliefs. Which might explain why it's so hard to dispel some of the myths & misconceptions surrounding infertility & loss -- & why it seems to hard for some people to accept that not everyone will achieve pregnancy, not all babies get to come home...

  • The Ostrich Instruction: refusing to see anything that makes us uncomfortable, resistance to changing the status quo -- even when the status quo is endangering lives.

  • Just Following Orders: Our inclination is to trust our doctors & to do what they tell us to do. Most of the time, that's the wisest course of action -- but how many of us have followed our doctor's orders against our better instincts, and lived to regret it?

  • The Cult of Cultures: groups exert a powerful conforming influence over the individual. And right now, of course, what more powerful "cult" is there than the worship of all things pregnancy, mommy & baby related?? "Once we conform, there are many rewards. Not just Cayman Islands bank accounts and media coverage, but tiny, daily reinforcements that come from being with the in-crowd..." (p. 133) So often, the in-crowd (parents) doesn't even recognize all the ways in which they are privileged, in which non-parents feel excluded.

  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind: "It is so much easier to be blind to the consequences of your actions when you do not have to see them play out," writes Heffernan. (p. 167) She was talking about how difficult it is for huge multinational corporations to take responsibility for their actions when the people actually doing the work are so far removed from those at the top (case in point: BP & last year's Gulf oil spill). But, as a non-parent, outside the "in-crowd/cult/power group" (i.e., parents), I found meaning in these lines: "Power imposes distance between those that have it and those that do not. The powerful are quite often unaware of this; the best struggle against it, but the distance is always there." (p. 168)(emphasis mine) She does note that power often comes at a cost: isolation from reality. And if and when the bubble of power bursts, the awakening can be very rude.

  • Cassandra: In ancient Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy -- with the accompanying curse that nobody would believe her. "She embodies that baffled rage that we all feel when no one else can see what we see." (p. 201) Sound familiar?? So does this: "The greatest shock, for Cassandras and whistleblowers alike, is their revised view of the world. Having started as conformists and loyalists, they emerge from their experience wary of authority and skeptical of much that they see and read and hear. Seeing the truth, and then acting on it, changes their vision of life. This independence of mind can instill a profound sense of isolation. But setting themselves free from consolatory fictions can also reveal new allies and soul mates and inspire a vibrant and purposeful identity." (p. 220)
"Cassandras show us that we don't have to be blind," Heffernan concludes. Her final chapter, "See better," outlines some of the steps we can take to combat willful blindness in our own lives. A few of these include (not necessarily in the author's words here):

  • "Recognizing the homogenity of our lives... putting more effort into reaching out to those who don't fit in and seeing positive value in those that prove more demanding... we have to acknowledge our biases." (p. 223-4)

  • Be wary of grand ideologies that neatly answer all questions. "We need actively to seek disconfirmation" & third opinions. (p.224)

  • Learn to think critically. "Being a critical thinker starts with resisting the urge to be a pleaser." (p. 230)

  • Stand up for others. Develop empathy. There's an interesting description about a successful anti-bullying program that tries to change patterns of thinking and understanding, from "me" to "we."

  • Learn from history: lessons from the past can alert us to trends and sensitize us to signals in the present.

  • Work to tear down the silos that separate us.

  • To what extent are we educating & bringing up our children to comply and conform?

  • We "need to celebrate those that make the noise, heroes more inspiring than talent contest winners and drunken movie stars." (p. 245) (As the quote goes, "Well-behaved women rarely make history.")
"We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking," Heffernan concludes. I've only just skimmed the surface of Heffernan's thinking here. If what you've read here intrigues you, then "insist on looking" at this thought-provoking book!


  1. I'm going to have to check that out, it sounds fascinating!

    Really loved the highlights you posted, so so true.

  2. OK--another book for my list. This sounds really interesting. I read _The Unthinkable_ by Amanda Ripley about why people react in surprising ways to natural disasters and catastrophes (why people in the Twin Towers paused to grab their purses or shut down their computers even after their felt their building shake). This sounds like an intriguing take on our natural responses to more ordinary aspects of life (and helps me understand further the "denial" that I feel like certain people in my family are practicing in regard to our baby's death--just pretend it never happened so we can all be happy and okay and alike again!).