“Willful blindness (sometimes called ignorance of law, willful ignorance or contrived ignorance or Nelsonian knowledge) is 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 putting him or herself in a position where he or she will be unaware of facts that would render him or her liable.”

– Willful Blindness, Wikipedia

I have a real chip on my shoulder when it comes to willful blindness. 

Ignoring the facts of a situation is a human trait that has always made my blood boil.

It’s a pet hate has been with me right form the very beginning because there was a lot of willful blindness present in my family and it’s the reason why my family fell apart.

Inevitably, my aversion to willful blindness always finds its way into all my creative outlets. 

This was especially true of the Breaking Cinema podcast which was a product conceived to directly tackle the problem of willful ignorance.

My highly annotated paperback of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan

Breaking Cinema would have used film and mutlimedia as an example of how human beings go about committing willful blindness and also how we can go about tackling it head on. 

The following is a personal essay I included in the Vision Document for the Breaking Cinema podcast.

I wrote the essay largely in stream-of-consciousness and in it I reflected on what willful blindess is, what are my issues with willful blindness and how my experiences with willful blindness it have gone on to shape me as a person…


Why do you have a massive chip on my shoulder regarding willful blindness and how is it interconnected to my incentive and purpose for the Breaking Cinema project?


“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

– Batman, Batman Begins


“What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth.”

– Walter White, Breaking Bad


“The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose it’s like a promise you make.”

– The Doctor, Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor


Apologies, but this one is a bit of an essay.

An essay that runs very deep.

Deep into the past and deep within me.

But it is also a narrative, a narrative of where I began and where that has taken me.

It is where I get my passion and my anger from.

Although, it always amazes me that no one has ever clocked onto the fact that my anger and my passion are the same thing.

It’s just, as a passion, developed over many years and greatly helped by my love of cinema, passion is anger vastly better executed.

Anger is a toddler bashing his fists against his chest.

Anger transformed into a passion – that is a purpose.

It has been there right from my very first memory and I know it will be present with me in my dying moments.

It is fundamental to the biological and psychological entity that identifies itself as Peter O’Brien.

It’s the fuel that keeps me going.

Willful blindness, a.k.a. burying your head in the sand, is the single biggest threat currently facing humanity (inside or outside a legal concept) because it is the basic human trait that enables us to ignore all the other big and small threats facing the human race.

“This is how willful blindness begins, not in conscious, deliberate choices to be blind, but in a skein of decisions that slowly but surely restrict our view. We don’t sense our perspectives closing in and most would prefer that it stay broad and rich. But our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that, as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks.”

– Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness, 2012:27

We all commit willful blindness. 

The funny thing is, if you claim not to have ever committed it… then you have just committed it.

Worse still, we currently live in a culture of, among other things, religion, economic systems and negative news reporting that encourages us to keep committing willful blindness.

Although we like to tell ourselves otherwise, willful blindness is as human as lovemaking.

The ability to commit willful blindness forms a fundamental component of how our brains are wired.

“Neural networks don’t give you a direct route from, say, a flash of light straight to your consciousness. There are all kinds of committees that vote along the way, whether that flash of light is going to go straight to your consciousness or not. And if there are enough ‘yes’ votes, then yes you can see it. If there aren’t, you could miss it. But here’s the thing: what does your brain like? What gets the ‘ yes’ vote? It likes the stuff it already recognises. It likes what is familiar. So you will see the familiar stuff right away. The other stuff may take longer, or it may never impinge on your consciousness. You just won’t see it.”

– Robert Burton, Willful Blindness, 2012:26

Willful blindness is one of the reasons the human race is still here today, what type of positive progress would be achieved by a life-form who was constantly aware of the fact that he/she was going to die at some point and probably sooner rather than later considering the high mortality rates of our cave ancestors?

“Ordinary social intercourse consists of improvisation around a repertoire of ready-made lines, expressions and gestures that we draw upon to make our ‘performance’ convincing. (It’s not insignificant that the word ‘person’ derives from the Latin word for a mask worn by an actor.)… we’re all actors who have half-forgotten that we’re acting. Most of the time we play a game, aware that others are performing for us and yet believing in the performance at the same time.”

– Ian Leslie, Born Liars, 2011:333

Not all willful blindness is bad, human social interaction and relationships (and civilisation) would fall apart if we did not turn a blind eye to other people’s defects.

However, when willful blindness causes the suffering of another human being or is detrimental to the environment, that is when it becomes unacceptable and, unfortunately, this currently transpires on a day-to-day basis as an ever growing epidemic!

We like to think that evolution is an intelligent designer with a moralistic conscience that took great care in constructing us, but evolution is not a sentient entity, it’s just a thing, a natural process that keeps going as long as there are organisms to reproduce, evolution is as unintelligent as gravity.

Evolution did not produce a pretty bow-wrapped perfect human lifeform; as with all the current species on this planet it haphazardly produced a biological organism for survival.

“In terms of biological design for the basic neural circuitry of emotion, what we are born with is what worked best for the last 50,000 human generations, not the last 500 generations – and certainly not the last five. The slow deliberate forces of evolution that have shaped our emotions have done their work over the course of a million years; the last 10,000 years – despite having witnessed the rapid rise of human civilisation and the explosion of the human population from five million to five billion – have left little imprint on our biological templates.”

– Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 2004:5

In many ways the human being is still very rough around the edges – look at the human eye, a terrible configuration!

“Our night-vision is, at best, only so-so, and for some it is very poor. Compare this to cats, whose night-vision is legendary. So sensitive are cats’ eyes that they can detect a single photon of light in an absolutely dark environment. For reference, in a small brightly lit room, there are about one hundred billion photons at any one moment in time.”

– The Poor Design of the Human Eye

However, evolution did get something astoundingly right when it produced homo-sapiens, it produced a life-form that had the capacity to exercise rationality and analysis.

It produced a brain template capable of higher functions that could look back at the work of the zero-sentient evolution process and work out where it went wrong… in order to then fix those problems, whether those shortcomings be psychological or psychological.

“we operate two modes of thinking: System 1, which is intuitive, associative, very fast, and born of habit. It is, in essence, shortcut thinking – and much of the time, it is good enough. System 2 is more deliberative, analytical, slow and requires much more effort; it’s what we use if we want to solve a maths problem correctly but one of its other purposes is to monitor System 1 for errors.”

– Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness, 2012:210

 And this is where the concept of willful blindness comes into play, it is something humans evolved to commit, but it is also something that we can overcome by exercising our higher functions.

Therefore, willful blindness is not something you can ever fully hide behind, because it is something you can very knowingly stamp out.

And, as the most intelligent life-forms on this planet, the caretakers of the planet Earth if you like, as indeed I would like it to be, we have an obligation to overcome our persistent habit of willful blindness, breeding further widespread willful blindness.

“man is a flawed creature, but it’s his social obligations rather than abstract moral rules that keep him honest, which is why we must engage in a constant struggle to maintain and improve the institutions of an enlightened, liberal society. It’s also why we should take care to design and sustain social environments – at school, at work – that reward truth-telling more often than not. Honesty is something we do together.”

– Ian Leslie, Born Liars, 2011:326-27

In a sense, evolution is now a sentient entity, because it is us and we need to carry on its work, but this time we need to do it with the philosophy of a rational and emotionally aware designer.

We are not cave people any more, we have produced a highly advanced technological civilization and its time we grew up with it.

I am no saint and I am just as guilty as anyone else, I have committed willful blindness many times over.

I am a product of willful blindness, I come from a family that only ever feels safe and secure when it is being willfully blind.

I had to endure over a decade of this collective ignorance and then another decade detoxing the habit from my system, a detox I am still working on!

In my very first memory I watched as the willful blindness encompassing my family was briefly shattered and ever since that traumatic event and the aftermath that followed, I have continued to see the cracks of willful blindness in the world around me.

This is where my life-long interest in human psychology, and now neuroscience, comes from and I suspect it also accounts for the complexity that permeates throughout all my endeavours – a lie is simple, but the truth is vastly more complicated.

If human physiology is the hardware, then the human mind is the software and countering the global effects of willful blindness requires us to first counter the habit of willful blindness at an individual level… and we do this by upgrading the individual’s software.

With a fully developed adult (and narrow-minded) human being, you can only get so far, which is precisely why the education of willful blindness and the rational and critical tools necessary to counter it need to be taught right from day one of childhood education – this is why I am a strong advocate of progressive education.

Hook a human being from day one and you have got them for life, teach every human being to stamp out willful blindness and you will change the world for the better.

However, I believe that upgrading the software will still only get the human race so far, because the hardware underlying that software was built by a zero-sentient process and that haphazard hardware can be quite persuasive when times are tough.

Therefore, if we really want to make human beings willfully blind-averse then we need to upgrade both the software and the hardware that operates it, which is why I am strongly invested in transhumanism.

“Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”

– Transhumanism, Wikipedia

It may seem that my life is all over the place, but there is a clear focus connecting and dictating it all. For me, willful blindness runs very, very deep, seeing its toxic fear is how I started in life, it’s eradication is the fundamental motivation governing my life; look closely and you will see the same aversion to willful blindness written in all of my creative projects.

Willful blindness is my number 1 pet hate and I have an inherent obligation to eradicate it as much as I possibly can!

When time comes to tell my story, if it says my life stood for one thing, then I would like that one thing to be my stand against the cowardly disease of willful blindness.

“All of us want to bury our heads in the sand when taxes are due, when we have bad habits we know we should change, or when the cars starts to make that strange sound. Ignore it and it will go away – that’s what we think and hope. It’s more than just wishful thinking. In burying our heads in the sand, we are trying to pretend the threat doesn’t exist and that we don’t have to change. We are also trying hard to avoid conflict: if the threat’s not there, I don’t have to fight it. A preference for the status quo, combined with an aversion to conflict, compel us to turn a blind eye to problems and conflicts we just don’t want to deal with.”

– Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness, 2012:211

Be honest with yourself, be the conqueror of your fears and be a courageous human being – that’s all I ask.

What is so wrong with that?

Because its uncomfortable, because it’s scary?

So is everything in life, even playing it safe, I think that is one of the most terrifying things of human existence.

Continually playing it safe and never questioning anything and never acting against something that is highly detrimental is a very easy way for you to let your life waste away, without impact or relevance on the world and the people around you.

That’s not being human, that’s trying your damned hardest to not be human!

I see the world through shades of grey, because I know that a human being is vastly too complicated to ever reside wholly on either good or bad side of the spectrum. Truthfully, we are all shades of grey; we all just idiots who rarely ever wholly understands ourselves.

I have already been through a great deal of shit, that many have yet to experience in their life!

To lose people who are close to you.

To not get a second chance.

To make hard decisions.

To turn your back on your dependence.

To have nothing.

To be alone and isolated – I know that one too well! Do not even attempt to lecture me on this one!

Hit me and I am going to hit back, as hard and as passionately as I possibly can.

My principle against willful blindness is stronger than my own family – I have seen the damage it can cause – and that is why I can not and will not ignore the pervasive problem that is willful blindness.

Everyone is the problem and everyone is the solution.

We all have our roles to play and this is mine.

Cinema is my religion, it is where I have always found solace and sanity in a world that rarely ever makes sense

I don’t have the time. Well, if you believe that then you might as well be dead already.

Be boring, don’t be abnormality

I’ve lost my home – twice over, first when my original family fell apart and second after my stepfather died. I don’t even know what a home is, people keep telling me its somewhere you can always live, but I don’t see it, because I don’t have one.

I have no money.

No entitlement.

You know that stories are how we organise the world

I’ve already lost it all, I literally have nothing left to lose!

If you don’t like it, go and bury your head in the sand, I just dare you!

Or be bold and brilliant and beautiful and come with me…

The state of the world pains me a great deal!

“And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight… Til it burns your hand. And you say this — no one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will ever have to feel this pain. Not on my watch.”

 – The Doctor, Doctor Who: The Zygon Inversion