“Willful Blindness”

This morning, I listened to a brilliantly sobering TED talk by Margaret Heffernan on the topic of Willful Blindness.

The concept of willful blindness originates from law, where one intentionally avoids civil responsibility by putting himself in a position where he will be unaware of facts that would render him liable (wikipedia).

Likewise, we may be aware of certain social issues (and even disturbed about them) but prefer or choose not to see, hear or do anything about them.  There are different possible reasons for this, for example:

  • A general sense of helplessness or powerlessnes;
  • Concern over investing effort that does not pay off well;
  • Fear of consequences (esp. if it challenges authority or social norms);
  • Diffused civic responsibility (we think someone else will do something); or
  • Expecting the authority to do something (something not uncommon at home!).

In each of the reasons above, we start off with a sense of discomfort.  We may not be able to pinpoint it, but something just does not feel right e.g. when we see disadvantaged groups or groups who are taken advantage of.  The discomfort arises because it goes against our moral sense of values such as care, fairness and collectivism.  Yet, the same discomfort also chews at us, because we have a common and shared civic responsibility to do something.

There are a few strategies to address the discomfort when it arises: revise our moral code (very difficult to do), take action to redress the situation (which may take moral courage and effort), or rationalize the situation.  As it turns out, we are pretty good at the last strategy of rationalizing.

The trouble with rationalizing is that when we do it, and hundreds and thousands of others who are just like us, do the same, we collectively condone and perpetuate the conditions that create the social issues in the first place.  This inconvenient truth is a kinder version of a quote by the late US President John Kennedy, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

How is this related to the non-profit cause?

I notice that many non-profits emerge in response to some social issue(s).  This is highly noble.  At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that while the non-profit is about the social issue, the reverse is not true.  The social issue is not about the non-profit.

The reality behind social issues is often the lack of, and thus the need to have more and not less, collective responsibility and response.  Therefore, rather than make themselves the center of the issue, the mission of non-profits is to help each and every one of us realize our common and shared civic responsibility to confront those issues and take action.  Their role is to help us overcome our collective willful blindness to the issues and their effects.

There are many things that non-profit need to mobilize in each and every one of us, but I shall just list four of them (by no means exhaustive).

  • The moral courage to confront the tensions
  • The ability to reflect deeply about them
  • Developing our voice and agency to respond to them

My thoughts on the issue are still forming and evolving, but it seems clear that if non-profits are serious about their mission, it cannot be just about soliciting more donations to offer more services.

The following three cute monkeys is the original manifestation of the old saying “See no evil.  Hear no evil.  Speak no evil.”  In light of Heffernan’s comments on willful blindness, there is another possible reality: “Choose to see nothing.  Choose to hear nothing.  Choose to say (or do) nothing.”  Hopefully we can be less of the latter!

see no evil hear no evil speak no evil


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