Is Blindness Learned?

593px-Family-House-1969

You see the world through the eyes of your family.

An incredibly thoughtful piece recently on the BIOLA University Center for Christian Thought: Blind Spots: What You Don’t See Can Hurt You. The author is Kyle Roberts, Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. His critical point is that…

Ignoring our blind spots can be deeply injurious to us to and to others, often resulting in far worse than superficial cosmetic damage. The dismal record, both past and present, of human discord, violence, subjugation, and oppression results in part from massive “blind spots” in our understanding of ourselves as human beings and in our behavior toward others. We are naïve—but culpably so—to the ways in which cultural, ideological, and religious forces invisibly (or subconsciously) shape and mold our interpretations and actions.

More perniciously still, many remain blissfully ignorant of the extent to which power and privilege constitute potent forces in our public discourse. These “invisible” forces of power and privilege are often painfully visible to minorities and marginalized persons—those who “see” (or feel) them simply because they don’t have the option to ignore them. “Harmless” blind spots for those of us with privilege and power can be constantly damaging collisions for others.

He makes several very important points in his piece. Read the whole thing. He’s trying to help us to think with a broad “imagination” about our world and experience in it. When I think about blind spots, I think about biases. There are any number of cognitive biases that people practice without even realizing it. Sometimes we do this to make sense of the world. Sometimes this produces a blindness effect much like what Dr. Roberts writes about.

  • Bias blind spot – the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people.
  • Clustering illusion – the tendency to see patterns where actually none exist.
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  • False memory – confusion of imagination with memory, or the confusion of true memories with false memories.
  • Hindsight bias – filtering memory of past events through present knowledge, so that those events look more predictable than they actually were; also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along effect.”
  • Just-world phenomenon – the tendency for people to believe that the world is just and therefore people “get what they deserve.”
  • Ostrich effect – ignoring an obvious (negative) situation.
  • Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions according to what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appeal to evidence or rationality.

When I read his post I can’t help but try and nail down some of the possible causes for this blindness. Roberts is making the point that blindness can be explained by the root cause of inherited sin that we all share. This “disease” leads to any number of twisted perspectives and selfish behaviors.

I think his point is right on target.

Something else interests me as I was reading his thoughts. He points out a number of examples of cultural beliefs and practices that perpetuate blindness.

  • Violent beliefs and behaviors
  • Stereotypes about other races and ethnicities
  • Cognitive biases that produce closed minds and narrow perception

All have a learning dimension. Studies have demonstrated that people learn from others how to think and act in ways that can produce blindness.

Here is where culture and family come in. One of the most important roles of the family in our society is to socialize children with the values, norms and practices necessary to become successful members, and in so doing, to create a stable and flourishing society.

When our families are fragmented we run the risk of creating a blind society whose members can’t see the future.

About Randy Wilson

Professor of Sociology at Houston Baptist University I read, think and write about religion and culture in the United States. It's very interesting and very complicated but incredibly exciting. For many years I have been trying to figure out how people learn best (my students and myself). The classes I teach are always in a state of experimentation - trying to reorganize around what students bring to the table and where we have to go.

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