Jeremy Statton

Living Better Stories

Are You Willfully Blind?

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Have you heard those stories about people or companies who chose to remain ignorant of something on purpose?

They see something happening, something bad. A part of them deep down inside screams for them to speak up. To act. To intervene.

But they don’t. They remain silent. They act as if they didn’t see what they did see. They choose to keep their eyes closed and their ears shut. They choose to be ignorant even thought they are not. They choose not to take the much needed step to act on their new knowledge.

This is  called Willful Blindness.

photo by

photo by Seth Rader

The Legalities

Willful Blindness is actually a legal term. It means:

When an individual seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting himself in a position where he will be unaware of facts that would render him liable.

I think of cigarette companies. Ignoring warning signs about the harmful effects of nicotine. Effects like addiction and cancer.

I think of Richard Nixon and his minions and Watergate.

I think of Enron. Hiding unlawful and blatant accounting errors. While some were intentional in their actions, others chose to pretend like it wasn’t happening. They kept silent in order to save their own heads. And their wealth.

I think of a factory dumping mercury in the local lake.

I think of illegal file sharing software developers. Claiming that they had no idea what type of information might be traded using their technology. Even though everybody knew.

I think of Nazi officers at Nuremberg. Defaulting to their commanding officers’ orders, even if they felt it was wrong.

I think of patients. Ignoring a growth on their skin. Hoping that eventually it will go away, even though it has been slowly getting bigger.

I think of myself years ago when I saw a group of young boys getting ready to beat up a homeless man near a downtown parking lot, but I hurried on my way, turning my head away from what I knew would happen before anything actually happened.

Willful Blindness is a self-destructive malady. It only makes a big problem even bigger. It only makes the inevitable more profound.

The Cost of Blindness

I recently read a book called There is No Me Without You  (affiliate link) by Melissa Fay Greene about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, specifically Ethiopia. The disease was devastating. Millions died. Many who died were children. Millions more were orphaned.

These millions died needlessly.

The sad part is that many after the drugs that could keep HIV suppressed were already developed. In America, the virus was no longer viewed as a terminal illness. Yet for others, it still was.

In the book, one person asked an obvious question. A question to the makers of the drugs. A question to the American government. A question to those of us who have more than what we need to survive.

Do they not know? Because if they did, wouldn’t they do something?

The reason the drugs were not available in Ethiopia was the cost. They were too expensive. The people could not afford them. So instead of handing over money, they had to pay with their lives.

Many of those who died could have been saved. If only…

Why Do People Choose Blindness?

The purpose of Willful Blindness is to avoid getting in trouble. To avoid consequences. To save your own skin.

It is based on the idea that you would have done something if you had known. But doing something is much harder than finding out. So you choose not to know.

But the truth is you could know and the only reason you choose not to know is because if you do, you will have to make another choice. Either act or knowingly ignore. And to act would come at such a great price, it is easier to remain blind.

So you make sure you never find out. And make sure that nobody can prove you knew.

Some do choose to see. They choose to speak up. They do choose to love and to do.

Those who open their eyes and see what we all know is there also pay a price. Their fears are justified.

But it can be worth it.

These are the ones who make a difference. These are the ones who change lives. In some cases, they even save lives

Our Blindness

We can all do more than what we are. And we know it.

We choose blindness out of fear. We choose blindness because of the potential cost. We choose blindness because we don’t want to let go of things that we can never keep.

What are you keeping your eyes closed to?

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About Jeremy Statton

Jeremy is a writer and an orthopedic surgeon. When not ridding the world of pain, he helps you live a better story. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook or Google +.

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4 Replies

  1. AGStatton

    We don’t want to let go of things we can never keep – ouch! We change the definition of our reality so that its easier to make ourselves blind – even to the point of blinding ourselves to the realization that we can’t keep what we are grasping on to so tightly.

  2. Oh I wrestle with this so much. There is so much to see and feel hopeless in the face of, and I’m sorely tempted not to look. But I get sucked in and find myself praying audacious prayers anyhow. My recent one is about the projects down the road from me. I’ve started asking God, “why don’t I have black friends, what do you think about these families, why is there poverty, how can I help, will you make me a real neighbor?” We can all bet I’m about to have my world rocked and heart stretched, my view of God, myself, and people altered!

  3. I don’t believe that you are willfully blind. I know you see something that others don’t, specifically beauty in a bunch of kids that nobody else is noticing. Thanks for opening your eyes.

  4. It would be painful to make an inventory of everything that fits this description.

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