None So Blind
By Judith Ireland
No one likes to think they're ignorant, scared or corrupt. But confronting uncomfortable truths takes more effort and moral fibre than many of us have on standby. Two recent books explore why this is so. One takes us inside our brains, families and workplaces to understand why it is so easy to ignore the obvious. The other provides a first-hand account of how difficult it is to get people to listen when you blow the whistle.
Margaret Heffernan first encountered the concept of "wilful blindness" while writing a play about Enron for the BBC. Trawling through the trial transcripts of the disgraced company's chief executive and chairman, she was taken by the judge's instructions to the jury: "you may find that a defendant had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been obvious to him" Heffernan then started to see examples of wilful blindness everywhere from doomed marriages, skipped doctors' appointments, unsafe medical and industrial practices, and the Iraq War to climate change. As she notes, "many, perhaps even most, of the greatest crimes have been committed not in the dark . . . but in full view of so many people who simply chose not the look and not to question".
In Wilful Blindness the author, playwright and chief executive uses psychological research, case studies and interviews with whisdeblowers and criminals to explore the forces that stop us from seeing what's in front of us. The list is extensive from our fear of conflict to our love of the status quo, desire to please and need to conform. Studies have found that we tend to see only what we expect to see, while the socially inhibiting presence of other people decreases the chances we'll acknowledge a problem and take action (the so-called "bystander effect"). Money may make us work harder but it dangerously "blinds us to our social relationships.
Heffernan started to see wilful blindness everywhere - from doomed marriages, skipped doctors' appointments, unsafe medical and industrial practices, and the Iraq War to climate change creating a self-sufficiency that discourages co-operation and mutual support". At the same time, the increasing complexity of organizations with their baffling communication channels actively encourages deliberate ignorance.
Lack of sleep is also a surprising culprit. According to Harvard University professor Charles Czeisler, 24 hours without sleep or a week of sleeping just four or five hours per night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1 per cent. Heffernan quite rightly questions why we glorify sleeplessness in our work culture, when it reduces our brain function and prevents us from seeing the obvious.
Despite its thorough critique of human frailties, Willful Blindness is an optimistic book. While forces like fatigue. money and obedience work against seeing, it is possible to break through. "The world is full of Cassandras, individuals whose fate it is to see what others can't see, who are not blind but feel compelled to shout their awkward, provocative truths." Whistleblowers are invariably driven and obsessive truth seekers, but asHeffernan notes, they come from all walks of life. While some of the terrain in Wilt hi Blindness such as Stanley Milgram's classic study on obedience will be familiar to pop psychology devotees, it is full of challenging examples and bite. Indeed. Heffernan makes you wonder what in your own life you're not seeing or not wanting to see.
The Whistleblower is a first-hand account of wilful blindness and the trials and tribulations of being a modern-day Cassandra. Kathryn Bolkovac was a divorced Nebraska cop when she saw an advertisement for a well-paid job in the UN's International Police Task Force (IPTF) in Bosnia in 1998.
Keen for a change and a pay rise, she applied to DynCorp the private military contractor responsible for providing US police to Bosnia without asking many questions. But it didn't take long for Bolkovac to feel uneasy about her new employer: the recruitment standards were woefully lax, the training was almost non-existent and when her group arrived in Bosnia, they discovered their pay checks had shrunk by $10,000.
While many of her colleagues seemed hell bent on pushing paper to fill time between partying and jaunting around Europe. Bolkovac applied to the human rights division to put her specialist training in child sex crime and domestic abuse to use. During a raid on a bar in Zenica (near Sarajevo), she made a gut-churning discovery: wads of US dollars and stolen passports behind the counter and an upstairs room full of young girls. As Bolkovac noted, only the US bases, where military and DynCorp staff had access, used US dollars.
It wasn't a localised incident. "All across the country, brothels masquerading as cafes, bars, and hotels had sprouted practically overnight around the vicinity of the military bases. . . Girls and women were herded in, force to strip, and were evaluated by bidders who bought and sold them like cattle," writes Bolkovac.
With a new post as gender officer at the UN headquarters in Sarajevo, Bolkovac was in a perfect position to take up the fight. But despite clear evidence IPTF officers and DynCorp personnel were involved in trafficking and prostitution, no one wanted to know. After a battle with senior management, Bolkovac was demoted and then fired. Physically threatened, she escaped from Bosnia with crucial files in her duffel bag. A film adaptation of The Whistleblower is set to be released later this year starring Rachel_ Weisz as Bolkovac. It's not hard to see why it has all the elements of a Hollywood epic: plucky protagonist, big business, international intrigue and gross corruption. There's even a love story (Bolkovac met her new husband, Jan, in Bosnia).
Yet the book is a disappointingly straightforward account. While Bolkovac has co-written The Whistleblower with writer Can Lynn, it feels as if you're reading a report back from the scene. Nor does it give enough insight into the issue of trafficking in Bosnia, which ultimately takes a back seat to the unfair dismissal case that Bolkovac fights towards the end of the book. Despite this, however, The Whistleblower still paints a damning and prescient portrait of the use by the US of private contractors in conflict zones.
Wilful awareness is not for the faint-hearted. Both books tell us that discovering the truth is a challenge in and of itself. But convincing others of it and mobilising them to take action is an entirely different question indeed.