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11 May 2012

Willful blindness

Willful blindness

‘Willful blindness’ is a legal term, referring to someone who has intentionally chosen to be unaware of the facts. The term featured prominently in the Enron scandal and the banking crises where the CEO’s had surrounded themselves with likeminded people, thus shielding them from awkward questions and critical views. Last week, the term emerged again in the media scandal when the culture committee accused Rupert Murdoch of willful blindness.

In her column, entrepreneur and CEO Margaret Heffernan wrote, ”… it is the responsibility of the powerful to ensure that they surround themselves with independent thinkers and critical allies who have the freedom and moral courage to tell them the truth. When leaders choose not to do so, so, they embrace blindness and the moral darkness that goes with it”.

In her book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril she describes how small acts of avoidance build up towards big disasters such as the recent Gulf oil spill and multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes. So, not merely at the top, but at every level can people contribute to a culture of organisational silence.

A biblical account of willful blindness is found in 1 Kings 22 where the king has surrounded himself with 400 prophets who promise him victory in battle. ‘Groupthink’ of biblical proportions. It’s easily confused with ‘unity’. Groupthink is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Though the king is merely interested in a similar, favorable report, he still consults the prophet Micaiah who predicts his defeat. Sadly, he proves to be the only true prophet. Having chosen to ignore the minority voice, the king dies in battle.

A dramatic disturbance of the groupthink occurs in Revelations, where the King himself spoils the party of the Laodecian church leaders who are blindingly unaware of their pitiful, poor, and naked condition. While accessing the wise counsel, the refined riches, and the healing balm will be costly, such overcoming carries invaluable promises.

It takes courage to invite people to crash your party, to include unlikely people in your orbit, to listen to unharmonious sounds and to go to unlikely places. It’s hard to see the ‘unity’ being disturbed. It’s much easier to sanitise yourself from critical voices. It’s humbling to learn from the ‘out crowd’. Much easier to discredit and patronise them.

And all the while, the simplest of questions starts a new trajectory; the modest of voices brings a truthful clarity; the unlikeliest of people raise the imagination; and even the young have visions and dreams. Such is the disturbingly egalitarian nature of the outpouring of God’s Spirit.

Creating cultures of learning involves us all. It means asking the unlikely question and taking time to cultivate a curious mind. It may be costly to voice the blindingly obvious, particularly when the huge white elephant in the room threatens to crush you. Standing on a hill in Galilee, Jesus declares that the excluded, those who suffer for something righteous, or are spoken against, are blessed. For their reward lies somewhere else.

Furthermore, they are in good company - the best, in fact. While you may find yourself among the ‘superfluous’, the saving companionship with Christ will prove to be most precious.

So, whether we are in the ‘in’ or ‘out’-crowd, may the eyes of our heart be enlightened so that we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints (Ephesians 1:18).

Marijke Hoek, coordinator Forum for Change