Tuesday, July 03, 2012

`Caused by Willful Blindness'

In Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason (Threshold Editions, 2012), Christina Shelton begins by classifying those still maintaining, against all evidence, the innocence of the State Department functionary who spied for the Soviet Union. Among them are the true believers, those with “a blind spot, or scotoma, from the Greek word for blindness.” In fact, scotoma is rooted in σκοτοῦν, “to darken, make dim-sighted.” We might settle on selective blindness as a useful synonym. Shelton writes:

“A scotoma indicates that an individual fails to see or is blind to alternatives; as a result a sensory locking out of information from the environment, one observes only limited possibilities. People develop scotomas to the truth about the world…Scotomas prevent a change in views because people gather information selectively to verify what they already believe. Their minds see what they want to believe; they want to hold on to their version of reality. At times, however, what seem like blind spots may actually be purposeful deceptions.”
Among the citations for the word given by the Oxford English Dictionary is one written in 1992 by V.S. Ramachandran in Scientific American: “A person is often completely unaware of a scotoma.” The same might be said for the non-medical use of the word. Blindness may go unrecognized by those afflicted. We seldom defend a cherished idea so violently as when we know it to be false, and we may even convince ourselves of its truth. In “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” (Hidden Histories of Science, ed. Robert B. Silvers, 1995), Dr. Oliver Sacks writes:
“The term `scotoma’ (darkness, shadow)—as used by neurologists—denotes a disconnection or hiatus in perception, especially a gap in consciousness produced by a neurological lesion. Such lesions may be at any level, from the peripheral nerves, as in my own case, to the sensory cortex of the brain. It is therefore extremely difficult for a patient with such a scotoma to be able to communicate what is happening. He himself, so to speak, scotomizes the experience.”
Sacks goes on to describe the condition as “the deletion of what was originally perceived, a loss of knowledge, a loss of insight, a forgetting of insights that once seemed clearly established, a regression to less perceptive explanations.” Here the metaphorical and strictly medical definitions converge, and Sacks might be describing what passes today for politics, not to mention literature and the other arts. Near the end of Janet Lewis’ The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), the husband rejects Bertrande, the wife, and says:
“Dry your tears, Madame. They cannot, and they ought not, move my pity. The example of my sisters and my uncle can be no excuse for you, Madame, who knew me better than any living soul. The error into which you plunged could only have been caused by willful blindness. You, and you only, Madame, are answerable for the dishonor which has befallen me.”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

Why has "willful blindness" been adopted as a prosecutorial theory in criminal law? According to the classical definition this is a state of mind that implies a commitment to a point of view notwithstanding the facts only because the commitment owes its being to a doctrine or system of belief. The prosecutorial version holds merely that a person who is unquestionably criminally compromised chooses not to know or think he is. It seems the law has corrupted the classical form.

Richard G. Freeman