A term used in law to describe a situation in which a person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally keeping oneself unaware of facts that would render liability.
“I don’t want to know.”
You may or may not hear this sentence on a daily basis. If you’re a fan of Law and Order, Suits or any other TV show or movie where people are in trouble, you’ve probably heard lawyers say this more than a few times. But it isn’t just lawyers who say these words. We do it too, often subconsciously, more often than you might (want to) believe.
The legitimacy of willful blindness has been discussed in courts, and it no longer holds up in criminal cases. In the United States vs. Jewell criminal case, it was decided that willful ignorance satisfied the requirements of knowledge of a fact. In other words, you were guilty if you hide important information from yourself, when it’s obvious that you should have known or tried to know. They called this phenomena the ostrich instruction: “the requirement of knowledge to establish a guilty mind is satisfied by deliberate ignorance and deliberate avoidance of knowledge”.
As the story goes, Jewell was approached in a bar along the northern border between Mexico and the United States and after being asked to buy marijuana and declining, was asked if he would drive a car across the border for $100. The car was stopped at customs and marijuana was found in the car in a compartment that Jewell had noticed but not inspected. The law required knowledge that marijuana was in the car. The trial court instructed the jury that the “government can complete their burden of proof by proving… if the defendant was not actually aware… his ignorance… was solely and entirely a result of his having made a conscious purpose to disregard the nature of that which was in the vehicle.”
The appellate court wrote, “deliberate ignorance and positive knowledge are equally culpable… one ‘knows’ facts of which he is less than absolutely certain. To act ‘knowingly’, therefore, is not necessarily to act only with positive knowledge, but also to act with awareness of the high probability of the fact in question… ‘knowledge is established if a person is aware of a high probability of its existence, unless he actually believes that it does not exist.”
Cases like these are quite complex: how does one prove that someone else wasn’t aware of something? If a person is obviously mentally capable of being aware of many other things in daily life that he should be aware of, if he is proven to be responsible in other areas of life, you can safely assume that this particular suspicious piece of evidence, was deliberately ignored.
In this case, it indeed seems that Jewell chose to not to become aware, by not inspecting the jar that he presumably noticed, before he left, and should have questioned himself when some guys asked him to “drive across the border” for 100$ dollars by drug dealers… I mean, red flags everywhere, right? Right.
So, you’re guilty in the name of law, when you choose not to become aware of something you should be aware of.
You’re guilty when you choose to ignore the red flags.
But what about in our real lives? Are we guilty for overseeing our red flags?
Oh dear, at times they seem everywhere – to everyone but ourselves. Everyone, has at some point ignored their red flags: staying with a guy who is an asshole for way too long, staying at a job you hate working with people you hate, ignoring the blinking red light on your car warning you to change the oil, ignoring the bills that come in the mail… We avoid things that make us uncomfortable and scared. To make ourselves feel better, we pretend we don’t know about them! Ahhh.
We pretend we’re dumber than we really are, to get out of trouble. Results? We’re just digging ourselves in deeper and deeper into the trouble.
But, before you start feeling too guilty, remember: running away from danger is natural human instinct. It’s embedded in our DNA. It’s fight or flight, and some of us often choose to run instead of fight.
Ignorance proves to not be the bliss many said it to be.
It’s so easy to give a step by step process of what you should do when you’re faced with something that you’d rather not know because it makes you uncomfortable, because most of us already KNOW what we need to do: become aware of the issue, and calmly and peacefully resolve it in our own way. But in the sentiment of trying to help those who seek guidance, I will offer my simple take on how to dissolve the temptation of defaulting into willful blindness.
- Witness the thing you’re bothered by.
- Look at it, and try to be rational about it.
- Make a list in your head of everything you can do to solve the problem, or stop being bothered by it.
- Practice those ideas you came up with, while staying positive about the process and believing that it’s for the best.
- Be happy because you’re willfully aware and you’re dealing with it in an honest, authentic way!
Choosing to be willfully blind, only creates a sense of guilt in our life. We act dumb, but we can’t completely fool ourselves. We’re a lot smarter than we think. We know we’re being dishonest with ourselves, when we hide the truth from ourselves. Instead of making ourselves feel better, it just makes us feel shittier. So choosing to dispel everything you know you’re being wilfully blind about, is one of the greatest way to start living a more authentic and honest life! Are you with me??