“I’m not the kind of guy to rat people out, but some things just cross the line. Ignorance is bliss, they say, but you just can’t put up with things like this.”
-Soldier Joe Darby who discovered and handed over Abu Ghraib prison pictures
(Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk, The Dangers of “Willful Blindness”
It was early in the first quarter when I showed my sophomore English class Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk,“Willful Blindness.” We had just completed Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” a story in which the average and the gifted were handicapped by cumbersome weights and mind deafening jolts of sound. The imbeciles on the other hand were left to live and reign without any such burdens or consequences. I remember one unintentionally poignant series of questions a student (I’ll call him Joe) asked. The sweet sad irony unfolded,
“What are Hazel and George thinking? Why can that stupid Diana lady with a gun just take everyone out? It’s just so fake. This story’s stupid and doesn’t make sense!” Joe was clearly irritated by what seemed to be a waste of his time.
“Can someone tell me what happened in the Freshman Commons the other day?” I asked.
“What do ya mean?” said Joe
“Wasn’t there a fight the other day and everyone circled around to watch?”
“Uh, yeah. That was crazy,” Joe’s comment elicited a couple chuckles from the other kids and a few others tried to give some quick synopses of what they saw.
“What was everyone doing who was there?”
“Cheering it on, being loud,” he said
“Did anyone go get a teacher?”
“No, of course not! Snitches get stitches! One ended up showing up though.”
“So, not only did some people just watch it happen, others even encouraged it to continue and even worse, if you told then you were the biggest villain of them all?”
“Yeah! We don’t like snitches!” Again, a soft chuckling rolled around the room.
“Then would you say that Hazel and George did the right thing because they didn’t ‘snitch’?”
“No, that would be stupid,” Joe said deeply conflicted.
“So, then how are those kids who allowed the fight to continue any different than Hazel and George?” My words were met with silence and even some open mouths.
“That was deep, Ms. That was deep.”
It was at that moment my students realized they were potentially as much the problem as the two kids who were throwing fists. It was at that moment they understood they had to take responsibility for choosing to be “willfully blind” in the literal and metaphorical fights in which they’ve participated. It was at that moment they began to understand what it truly means to be an independent thinker and that there would be consequences for doing what’s right; but those consequences are absolutely necessary if they want the world to be a better place.
Heffernan’s talk continues to come up in class even though we’ve moved way beyond that unit and one student even accused me of making her “think too much about stuff.” I’ll happily take the blame, because what we don’t need are a bunch of Hazels, Georges and Diana Moon Glampers (imbeciles), and we’ve got to help mold our Harrison Bergerons (the most gifted) rather than leaving them to their own devices and ultimately, their own demise and/or misuse of power. To do that, we must teach our children and our students the value of reflection and ultimately, the value of life. We have to teach them that to do the right thing most certainly will result in pain and suffering, but that pain and suffering is precisely what gives us the ability to appreciate life and without it, no true learning takes place. We have to teach them to be brave. As Heffernan stated in her talk, “freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it” and so we must teach our youth to have the “determination not to be blind and not to be silent” when it comes to doing what is right, not what is expected.