"Willful blindness is a legal concept which means, if there's information that you could know and you should know but you somehow manage not to know, the law deems that you're willfully blind. You have chosen not to know. There's a lot of willful blindness around these days. You can see willful blindness in banks, when thousands of people sold mortgages to people who couldn't afford them. You could see them in banks when interest rates were manipulated and everyone around knew what was going on, but everyone studiously ignored it. You can see willful blindness in the Catholic Church, where decades of child abuse went ignored. You could see willful blindness in the run-up to the Iraq War. Willful blindness exists on epic scales like those, and it also exists on very small scales, in people's families, in people's homes and communities, and particularly in organizations and institutions.
Companies that have been studied for willful
blindness can be asked questions like, "Are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise?" And when academics have done studies like this of corporations in the United States, what they find is 85 percent of people say yes.
Eighty-five percent of people know there's a
problem, but they won't say anything. And when I duplicated the research in Europe, asking all the same questions, I found exactly the same number. Eighty-five percent. That's a lot of silence. It's a lot of blindness. And what's really interesting is that when I go to
companies in Switzerland, they tell me, "This is a uniquely Swiss problem."
And when I go to Germany, they say, "Oh yes, this is
the German disease." And when I go to companies in England, they say,
"Oh, yeah, the British are really bad at this."
And the truth is, this is a human problem. We're all, under certain circumstances, willfully
What the research shows is that some people are
blind out of fear. They're afraid of retaliation. And some people are blind because they think,
well, seeing anything is just futile. Nothing's ever going to change. If we make a protest, if we protest against the Iraq
War, nothing changes, so why bother? Better not to see this stuff at all.
And the recurrent theme that I encounter all the
time is people say, "Well, you know, the people who do see, they're whistleblowers, and we all know what happens to them." So there's this profound mythology around
whistleblowers which says, first of all, they're all crazy. But what I've found going around the world and talking to whistleblowers is, actually, they're very loyal and quite often very conservative
people. They're hugely dedicated to the institutions that
they work for, and the reason that they speak up, the reason they insist on seeing, is because they care so much about the
institution and want to keep it healthy."
Gayla Benefield was just doing her job -- until she uncovered an awful secret
about her hometown that meant its mortality rate was 80 times higher than
anywhere else in the U.S. But when she tried to tell people about it, she
learned an even more shocking truth: People didn’t want to know. In a talk
that’s part history lesson, part call-to-action, Margaret Heffernan demonstrates
the danger of "willful blindness" and praises ordinary people like Benefield who
are willing to speak up.