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A Society Afflicted by Willful Blindness

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. Mark Twain

Weapons of mass destruction that weren’t. Obama’s birther status that wasn’t. Implausible Brexit that did. President Hillary Clinton – not. Trump’s Russian collusion that didn’t and his facts that aren’t. Fake news is arguably the defining phrase of recent political seasons. But it is not just politics. Our opioid crisis began with the false narrative by Purdue Pharma that these drugs had minimal addiction risk (less than 1%). The sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic church appears to reflect willful blindness. At a time when we have more information, more ways of sharing it and bigger data than ever, we increasingly question what we can believe. It feels like we have been overtaken by a massive wave of blindness. Being radically wrong is not new, but being so convincingly, entertainingly, expertly, approvingly blind is.

Surely, it takes effort to be this consistently wrong. Actually, it does because blindness, if not a whole new industry, is at least a budding, evolving business model. The business of telling people what they want to believe, what fits their preconceived notions, what looks good for our side that pokes the other side, has taken us to a new level – thanks to social media, endless cable news choices and our need for drama that makes us feel good. Fox News during the Obama administration and CNN and MSNBC during the Trump campaign/administration have flourished. The New York Times gained 600,000 new digital subscriptions, roughly a 40% increase, around Trump’s election and its stock price jumped from a three-year low of $10.80 on November 3, 2016, five days before the election, to $28.23 by November 1, 2018. Former Times reporter Jeff Gerth referred to the paper and Trump “as sparing partners with benefits.” Being one-sided and even blind has proven to be lucrative.

The supply of blindness is growing. Why? Because evidently the demand keeps increasing. Our desire to be confirmed by people just like us – who see things the way we do – causes and expands blindness.

We live in a time where we have not yet adjusted to our newfound freedom of access to just the news and truth we want. The power of confirmation bias – our tendency to be blinded by our preconceived notions and our affiliate tribes – knows no end. While our close relationships and communities decline precipitously, we fill the void by joining tribal groups who build connection and intimacy by vilifying common enemies and discouraging access to opposing views. Warfare may draw us closer to our friends but it greatly feeds hate, distances our enemies and causes immense harm, much of it in the form of mass blindness.

And here is the kicker: hate doesn’t make us different from our enemies – it makes us like them in the most detestable ways. Exhibit A: the people who seem to most hate the loud, boastful bullying and lying of President Trump mimic him by their own loud and often inaccurate accusations. Those who were most boisterous in supporting the Obama birther movement are the ones who whine the loudest during the Mueller investigation. In fact, recent research finds the more highly educated and engaged people tend to be more politically prejudiced. Surely, they are blind to becoming what they say they disdain. Each side becomes "justifiers" by claiming “what-aboutism…well yes, but what about” – just another way to justify what they say they condemn.

Blindness comes in many forms. Anger blinds us by narrowly and intensely focusing on what we dislike about another to invoke intense feelings and even rage. Apathy deadens us from seeing –and in fact can make invisible – others in peril. Stereotyping transforms the uniqueness and goodness in each person into a standardized, negative image. Greed blinds by incessantly inflating and inflaming our wants while shrinking needs and warranted due of others. Pride blinds by overvaluing our contributions while undervaluing others.

All of these forms of blindness have a common characteristic: they destroy relationships. So, let’s examine more closely two ways that we both see and are blinded.

Seeing Is Believing

First is what many find to be beyond reproach: seeing is believing. In this mode we demand proof, facts, data, observations – things that are visible. It is looking and seeing with your eyes wide open. We only believe “for sure” what we see. It is what the law seeks to convict those charged with a crime. Feelings and opinions may matter, but proof is based on objective, tested facts. Seeing is believing keeps us out of outlandish, unsubstantiated claims and hearsay. For many, this is the highest realm – asking questions like: What are the facts? What does the math say? What is the science?

Yet this realm has its limits. Facts, figures, science, and math are boring to many. They often miss a more interesting and important question: Why? They lack the emotion, language and possibility of opinions, gut feels and powerful feelings like lover or hate.

In looking for facts and a world that can be objectively quantified, we often are blinded to the qualitative. In the power of intuition, meaning, morality, and higher purpose – facts, figures, science and math seem limited. In my previous life as a CEO of a company developing new products, we used to say that if you wait until the data reveals market opportunities, you are too late. Staying ahead of the curve required sensing and some gut feel in the race to stay relevant in a rapidly evolving marketplace.

Yes, big data and other analytical tools can reveal much but being too locked into “seeing as a requirement for believing” can blind us to much of what is real, powerful and meaningful in life.

Believing is Seeing

The second way of seeing is through the prism of what we believe: believing is seeing. Because of what we believe we are able to see things that are not fully visible. Visionary leaders see things with their eyes closed that others cannot see with their eyes open. Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, and Steven Jobs seemed to have a sense of things, a belief that they could not fully describe or tangibly prove long before it bore fruit. Great coaches envision the potential of their players and of their teams beyond what is visible in current time and space. It reflects the old adage: everything is created twice, first in the mind and then in reality.

Walking by faith and not by sight can enable seeing and moving when facts and science would have us give-up or give-in. Religion is oft criticized because it places a higher value on faith than on fact. And by the way, atheism – the belief there is no God – also relies on faith and belief. Regardless, faith and belief provide a way of seeing facts and reality that can imbue greater meaning and purpose. Questions like Why are we here? What purpose are we to serve? Why should we help those in need? Why would a parent sacrifice everything for a child? Is there a power higher than ourselves? These are questions that science and math struggle to address.

The whole realm of feelings, emotion, desire, arousal, affinity, and entertainment seem to come from this less provable space. What is fun? Funny? Fulfilling? Relationships, social connection, community, collaboration seem to tie more to this reality of qualitative belief. There are all kinds of science and research to support how important these areas are to our mental, physical and social health.

Obviously, believing is seeing has its downside. We can become so wed to our beliefs that facts and objective reality are either rejected or twisted to fit our preferred narrative – everything confirms our beliefs. Sound familiar? Issues like climate change that relies heavily on science, becomes bogged down in tribal, partisan battles.

At a time when organized religion is losing ground in the realm of belief, growth in other kinds of belief seems to be replacing it. Some call politics the new religion. For example, whereas religion was once criticized for being cultish in discouraging marriage outside one’s faith, recent survey finds that 45% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans say they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party. It’s not just marriage. Between 2016-2018 the percentage of women prioritizing the importance of similar political views over “great sex” in a romantic partner increased from 27% to 42%.

Outlandish and even crazy notions can abound in belief that runs the risk of seeing what is not there and missing what is visible. There is little basis for countering highly unreal assertions without the judgment of facts or science.

Salena Zito had the defining quote of the 2016 presidential election regarding candidate Trump: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” The press used his abuse of facts to disqualify someone whose beliefs they opposed. His supporters overlooked his misuse of facts, because they were so aligned with his beliefs. Both sides applied facts as a tool to support their belief.

It seems we have the worst of both worlds – fake news grounded in willful manipulation of what we can see and misapplication of what we believe.

Relationship: A Place Where Blindness Can Be Removed and Sight Restored

So how can we more effectively navigate the world of seeing and believing? Relationships, especially diverse relationships, have the potential to influence us is in ways that more facts and louder belief cannot. Think about a time recently when you changed your mind in a blinding flash of new seeing – hopefully you have had one. Odds are that it occurred in the context of a relationship with someone – family, friends, colleagues, community members, adversaries. How many of us have been moved to a new insight or belief by our kids that surprised everyone? Becoming a parent, boss, close to someone in pain or great joy, or having a life experience with someone who is radically different – these relational experiences can bring sight and remove blindness.

If you only get your facts and beliefs from those just like you, you are missing a whole new world. Diversity includes race, sexual orientation, economic – it also includes generational, rural/urban, geography, left/right.

Our best shot at overcoming fake news is to be in relationship with those who have different facts, beliefs and experiences than the ones on which we rely. I have often imagined a five-minute summary at the conclusion of Fox, CNN or MSNBC news by their political rival with a brief, reasonable, polite rebuttal of facts and opinions offered including key topics omitted.

Some blindness is inevitable – willful blindness is not. How does your choice in relationships enable sight or willfully blind you?

Robert’s latest book, “This Land of Strangers” is now in paperback. A “recovering CEO,” he has authored 150 published articles and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post, The CEO Magazine.

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