Is Ignorance Bliss?
While I have certainly enjoyed multiple philosophical discussions around the expression that ‘ignorance is bliss’ with friends and peers over the years, ultimately, I’ve always considered ignorance to be risk-inducing, i.e.: scary, rather than blissful.
This perspective has been enhanced as I watch COVID-19 continue to spread in devastating numbers across the US, and as the depths of the injustices that our communities of color have been subjected to for centuries continue to rise to the surface. With all of the realities that we are facing right now, I’m having more and more of a difficult time accepting the idea that people can choose ignorance and its veiled artificial bliss, when we are seeing first-hand how destructive the consequences of those choices can be.
Ignorance vs. turning a blind eye
Before we continue, let’s make one thing clear: there’s a difference between being ignorant and choosing to turn a blind eye. We are all ignorant to some extent for the simple reason that one person cannot know absolutely everything. Faulting someone for what they do not yet know would be the equivalent of faulting a toddler for not yet knowing simple addition.
However, in my opinion, once we become aware of what we do not know—especially when that ignorance inflicts pain or the potential of harm to others—we have a responsibility to not turn a blind eye thereafter.
Maya Angelou famously said it best when she said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” There’s a big difference between not yet knowing and choosing to not do better when you’ve become aware.
Human nature plays against us
I’ve learned throughout my professional career that it is human nature to want to turn a blind eye to risk. Not many people know this better than crisis management professionals—especially those crisis management professionals who focus their energy on helping organizations mitigate risk and strengthen their culture of crisis readiness prior to a risk or threat ever materializing.
But here’s the thing: Choosing to turn a blind eye to certain realities because they are unpleasant, uncomfortable, scary, or disheartening does not diminish their existence or the impact that they threaten. Rather, it increases the exposure and enhances the effects of those impacts.
The risks of turning a blind eye
If you have a threat in front of you and you decide to close your eyes, what happens to the threat? Does choosing to close your eyes magically conquer the threat, or does it give it the upper hand, allowing it to more easily approach you or even choose a different line of attack that you now can’t see because your eyes are closed?
Let’s make this real with some examples.
Example 1: If a worrisome mole suddenly appears on the surface of your skin, does choosing to avoid the doctor’s office out of fear of what the test results might reveal reduce the risk that the mole might be cancerous? Or, does avoiding the doctor’s office increase the chances that this potentially cancerous invader will grow and spread, putting your life at further risk?
Example 2: Did avoiding the trajectory that COVID-19 was taking from across Asia to across Europe and inevitably across the oceans into the Americas protect the Americas from the impacts of the virus, or did it put our businesses and our society at a susceptible disadvantage? Could the impacts of COVID-19 have been better mitigated and prepared for had we chosen to not turn a blind eye to its trajectory, and as a result, could we have saved lives and economic impact?
Example 3: Does something like choosing to limit COVD-19 testing, due to the increasing numbers that these tests are revealing, remove the reality that the numbers are on the rise? If we choose to close our eyes to those numbers, does the reality go away or do we leave ourselves, our families, our businesses and our economy increasingly exposed?
The challenge is amplified because it is not entirely rational
Choosing to not turn a blind eye is so much easier said than done. Rationally, we can see the likelihood or probability of certain risks and make completely valid arguments as to why it is beneficial to actively work to mitigate and ready against them. But the heart of the problem is not rational, it’s emotional. As we cannot beat emotion with logic—as dictates one of the Crisis Ready® Rules—the challenge becomes significantly enhanced.
Facing risk is uncomfortable, unpleasant and often times scary, making it highly emotional. In my professional experience, this leads to the tendency for leaders to find excuses as to why today is not the right day to prioritize it. So, while logically we can know that turning a blind eye significantly increases the risk and its potential impact, emotionally, doing so can feel extremely vulnerable and uncomfortable—and it’s human nature to want to protect ourselves from being vulnerable and uncomfortable.
Braving the discomfort to gain strategic advantages
Fighting against the human nature that aims to protect us from the uncomfortable requires awareness, courage, conscious dedication and communal support, especially at the beginning. In my experience, once this choice is made, implemented and supported top-down, the rewards become so abundantly clear that choosing any other way no longer makes any sense—rationally or emotionally. In other words, once you start doing it, it becomes easier and easier to do.
For example, weeks before COVID-19 began to devastate North America, the majority of my clients had already worked with me to examine the risks of COVID, their potential impacts and a variety of response management strategies that supported flexibility and adaptability depending on how things were to play out. This meant that while the rest of the country was panicking, the organizations that had chosen to confront the risk head-on prior to its impact materializing, had already confronted and worked through their fears and were now able to act with more clarity of mind—i.e.: making more rational versus emotional decisions in the heat of the moment.
Let me make something clear: these clients were not free from worry. No one was. No one had all the answers and, as I’m sure you can attest, it’s really scary to have more questions than answers when you know the impact can be monumental. That said, because these organizations and professionals chose to confront these worrisome risks before they materialized, they had the luxury of time to work through their fears and put a rational plan in place, rather than needing to do both at once in a very tight timeline.
While no one could anticipate or prevent all of the challenges and impacts that COVID-19 would present, being confident in your ability to make strategic decisions moment-by-moment in highly volatile circumstances is empowering to the organization, its leadership team, its internal teams and its external stakeholders. In a time when stress is high, escalating fear is real, and uncertainty is abundant, having taken the time to bravely confront the risk before it struck provided powerful opportunities and strategic advantages to those who braved it.
Moving forward what will you choose: to confront the risk or to turn a blind eye?
Risk is always abundant, especially for those who have a culture of turning a blind eye. Today, we’re confronted with COVID-19 and the impacts of centuries of systemic racial inequity and injustices. Tomorrow, I can guarantee that we will be confronted with something different.
While we cannot go backwards in time, we can repeat the same mistakes if we don’t learn from them and bravely choose to do better.
The choices you make today directly impact the results of your tomorrow. The good news is that the choice is always yours and there are experts who are here to help and support you. So, if the choice is yours, the benefits are abundant, and there are experts to guide, help and support you through the challenges, let me leave you with one very important question to answer: