Willful Blindness

What do you willingly ignore?

I’m sure you have all been in the situation at work or in your daily lives where you see something happen – something that is detrimental to somebody – and you just keep moving with your life because you don’t want to cause a stir.

My youngest memory of this happening is as a high school student. I was living in an apartment with my mom and sister and the woman in the apartment above us was being abused. One evening when I was home, she let out an earth shattering scream but all of the apartment residents seemed afraid to act (I mean I literally saw people in the hall looking in that direction).  I went to call the police but was stopped by my own mother. At the time, I was perturbed but later found out that it was fear that led my mother’s action. We were women, in the apartment downstairs all alone. My mother had a valid fear that the husband could try to retaliate against us. Thus, my mother went about her cleaning choosing to ignore that anything was happening upstairs. To this day, this incident still saddens and haunts me.

I first encountered this term “willful blindness” via Margaret Heffernan and her TED talk on the subject. One of the examples that she used was the environmental case in Libby Montana. How many people saw residents consistently sick and dying young but chose to look  the other way? What precipated these actions? How does this type of blindness shape our everday lives?

Now that I’ve unloaded this HEAVY message, what does this have to do with writing? Everything! Listening to this topic has given me another thing to key in on with my characters. For my SciFi book, there is a dystopia element which of course leads to some governmental situations. My new question is, “what is this willful blindness that characters have let seep in to make this new government the status quo?” What have people ignored and for how long?

When writing dystopia, I think this is a pivotal question that should be considered. If you are writing something in this genre, what are other questions regarding dystopia that you think authors neglect or share your own instances of willful blindness in the comments below.

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