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Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness makes grand promises of providing insights into human and social psychology – sadly it fails to deliver.
Review by Unmana Datta
In Willful Blindness, author Margaret Heffernan explores the phenomenon of denial – as the tagline says, “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril.” Why are red flags consistently ignored – in business and in relationships – and why do seemingly inevitable catastrophes catch people by surprise? According to the back cover, Heffernan “examines. . . what it is in human nature, in the structure of our brains and of our institutions that makes us so prone to this weakness.”
Unfortunately, the book itself disappoints. What makes for a provocative title (and is actually an accepted term of law) becomes distasteful when the author goes on and on about “overcoming our blindness” and “seeing better.” For a book that claims to make us more sensitive to our surroundings, it’s particularly insensitive with regards to the existence of actual blind people. Repeatedly equating ignorance, stupidity or even criminal behaviour with blindness doesn’t make for a provocative book, merely a lazy one.
The back cover also states that Willful Blindness is in the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell, which is partly true – it has all of his practice of stretching examples to cover an unconvincing hypothesis, with none of the incisive, clever writing that makes Gladwell a pleasure to read.
The book explores interesting stories (a tragic accident at a BP factory that occurred because safety procedures were ignored, a doomsday cult, a Nazi war criminal, an employee who committed fraud, a doctor who discovered the occurrence of high death rates when a particular surgeon operated, and more) but fails to tie them together in a cohesive or convincing way.
The author also seems singularly naïve: the fact that employees of a hospital looked the other way when a senior surgeon had higher than acceptable deaths can be more easily explained by a desire to keep their own bread buttered by not rocking the boat (to mix metaphors) than by any kind of “blindness”. In the story of a doomsday cult headed by a woman who claims that alien overlords are contacting her, Heffernan doesn’t even raise the question that the cult-leader might just be a con-woman and not a true believer.
Save yourself the time and reread the Tipping Point instead.
Publishers: Walker & Company
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