Willfully Blinkered: The Case of the Hyper-certain Mind

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April 1, 2012
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James Aho

In Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2007), journalist Michelle Goldberg quotes a Christian motivational speaker taking issue with an audience member who was claiming that sex education works to deter unwanted pregnancies: “People of God,” she urgently replied, “can I beg you to commit yourself to truth, not [to] what works? To truth? I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day, I’m not answering to you; I’m answering to God.” These are the words of the willfully blind: obstinate and unyielding, dismissive of practical facticity, ravenous for certainty — for something indubitable and genuine.

The beliefs of the willfully blind can often have the appearance of science — as did the alchemists of the past, with their lab coats, their elixirs, their gleaming instruments, and their mathematical calculations. But contrary to science whose assertions are verifiable, the presuppositions of willful blindness are immune to the process of determining veracity. Observations can be amassed to “confirm” these assertions, but insofar as their adherents already know them to be true, they are beyond the reach of criticism.

Here are two examples of willful blindness: first, so-called “birthers,” who will not accept anything — neither a published birth announcement nor a birth certificate — as evidence that President Obama is a bona fide American citizen, and second, Holocaust deniers, who are so certain of their claim that they will not accept as legitimate any evidence that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews.

As is the case with astrology or research into sightings of legendary creatures like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, willful blindness can be innocuous — even, sometimes, fun. But such blindness can harbor menacing implications by preparing audiences psychologically to inflict harm on others, or by ignoring the cries of victims. Such is the situation with the argument that global warming is a hoax (and we can therefore continue pouring CO2 emissions into the atmosphere without concern); or that the U.S. Defense Department is using chem-trails to sicken Americans and erecting concentration camps to imprison dissenters (therefore: arm yourself for battle); or that the Great Sanhedrin, the supreme court of ancient Israel, authored the antisemitic screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to promote a reign of evil on earth.

One plausible explanation for smug self-surety is the “authoritarian (proto-fascist) personality.” This describes someone who clings to (especially sexual) convention, admires “strong” leaders, hates presumed indicators of weakness (art, music, male homosexuality, and the like), and repudiates moral ambivalence. According to psychologist Alice Miller, the trauma of child abuse is a cause of this phenomenon, but other theorists are less certain.

To preserve the sanctity of their beliefs, people who are willfully blinkered employ standard rhetorical operations: They pose their assertions in such vague terms that virtually any event can be cited as proof; and when seemingly contrary findings are acknowledged, they invoke auxiliary propositions to bolster their contentions — most notably, the defense that “exceptions prove the rule.” Finally, people call on celebrity pundits, star athletes, self-proclaimed prophets, and holy books to refute detractors and/or to justify their claims. When these fail, they simply shut their eyes and refuse to listen.

What makes willful blindness so seductive is that it doesn’t allay one’s fear or unease about concrete threats such as terrorism, AIDS, or crime. Rather, it alleviates what German philosopher Martin Heidegger calls angst: dread about nothing in particular — the contingency and precariousness of existence. Angst is not new, but electronically mediated psychic mobility has made it more widespread. Now, everyone experiences the ground under their feet eroding, or, as Karl Marx put it, “all that is solid melt[ing] into the air.” As a result, all of us seek harbor in something firm, imperishable, and certain: a “thing” or a “person” on which to stand; foundational principles (say, the U.S. Constitution), founding fathers, faith fundamentals. In any case, the willfully blind seek not what works, to quote Michelle Goldberg, the motivational speaker cited earlier, but “truth.” The irony is that willful blindness not only overlooks the very thing that is most certain of all; it enables us to pretend that we can flee it altogether: our own dying.

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James Aho is professor emeritus of sociology at Idaho State University, and author of many books, most recently, Sociological Trespasses: Interrogating Sin and Flesh.

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