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Blind Eye

The popular idiom, ‘Turning a blind eye,’ refers to ignoring undesirable information. Most of us have probably uttered those words before, but perhaps not all of us know its derivation. It refers historically to an incident involving an aggressive naval commander by the name of Horatio Nelson.

During a naval battle in 1801, Nelson—who was blind in one eye—was ordered by his superior to cease aggressive action. Signal flags communicated ordersin those days, and when the directive was given by a nearby ship, Nelson took his telescope and put it up to his blind eye.Not seeing the directive, Nelson ordered his crew to press on and engage the enemy. Nelson, of course, knew what he was being ordered to do, but he chose a clever way to ignore the command.

Seeing (or not seeing) what is before us is not unusual—then or now—because we tend to filter and interpret ideas and circumstances in ways that fit our preferences. It is human nature.

I was thinking about that the other day as I was scrolling through my Facebook Feed, looking to see how those in my social network were reacting to the circumstances in the Middle East. My Feed was generally quiet about the Biden Administration authorizing nearly $1 billion in an arms sale to Israel. I found the same response (lack thereof) regarding the length of time it took the Biden Administration to take an aggressive, public stance on a cease-fire.

Seeing (or not seeing) what is before us is not unusual—then or now—because we tend to filter and interpret ideas and circumstances in ways that fit our preferences. It is human nature.

Why? One take is that most of my Facebook Friends support Biden and infrequently criticize him or his Administration. But the content of my Facebook Feed is quite different from what I have been reading about the situation in the Middle East and what America should/should not do in our international leadership role. Senator Sanders’s responses are an example. He sought to block the sale of arms to Israel and he called out Israel for what he interpreted as “illegal settlement activity.”

Sanders’s positions made me think about the important contributions made by those who put principle before affiliation—in Sanders’s case, personal and political affiliations. Jennifer Finney Boyton spoke to that topic in her recent commentary published in the New York Times entitled, “When Loyalty Is Overrated:Sometimes What We are Most Devoted to Are Our Biggest Mistakes.”

“It makes me wonder whether loyalty, in fact, is a virtue,” Boyton writes. “True, it frequently takes the form of courage and steadfastness. But isn’t it also another word for inflexibility, an inability to change one’s opinion in the face of new information?”

We all devote time and attention to affiliations, and there is great joy and fulfillment to be experienced that way. By the same token, there are times when it is important to step back, raise questions, and take counter-positions to the prevailing choice—just as Senator Sanders did recently about the situation in the Middle East and America’s role there.

I have found myself in that position as a lifelong Roman Catholic, an experience that illustrates what I call the perplexity of affiliation. How so? The Church was protecting clerics who had assaulted children, and at issue is how I would respond. Sadly, I have faced perplexity in other affiliative environments, including in the workplace.

Over the years, I have discovered a common pattern across cirumstances. Authority figures put organizational self-protection as priority #1, often going to great lengths to engage in shielding behavior, including ‘bobbing and weaving,’ to mitigate blame and minimize culpability. Then, there is what affiliates do and do not do. Many chose not to speak out. Others went on the defense. When silence was the choice, affiliates acted as though nothing had happened. Defenders ‘circled the wagons’ finding fault with anybody who dared criticize and dismissing any source that raised questions.

Does it have to be that way? Boyton says no and cites the work of philosopher Josiah Royce, the founder of American Idealism. “Royce once suggested we should focus our loyalty not on individuals or institutions(emphasis added), but on ideas and causes most likely to increase the common good (emphasis added). In that way, Royce argued, we can be loyal-to-loyalty itself (emphasis added).”

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“But this is harder to do than it sounds,” Boyton concludes. She is right. And that conclusion applies in spades to insiders who chose loyal-to-loyalty over uncompromised loyalty.

Insiders have first-hand experience/knowledge from having “been there.’ The challenge for insiders is that loyalty is expected, often demanded, because of their special standing. Still, history is replete with insiders who have chosen to disaffiliate from their role as acolytes ‘in service to the cause.’

But make no mistake: not all insiders who speak up/reverse roles are loyal-to-loyalty per Royce. Michael Cohen, Trump’s consigliere, is a contemporary example of turning a blind eye. But many are, and they are easy to spot.

Siobhan O’Connor is an example. O’Conner served as administrative assistant to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Buffalo NY—a role that would ordinarily not make national news. But in O’Conner’s case it did. She leaked materials to the FBI regarding clergy protections propagated by her boss, Buffalo’s RC bishop. "There was a greater good to consider," O’Conner replied when asked why she handed over materials. Lauded for her actions, O’Connor was featured on 60-Minutes.

Jeffrey Wigand is another example. The former tobacco industry VP came to prominence in the mid-1990s when he offered inside knowledge of the extent to which tobacco companies were manipulating information about the impact of nicotine on health. The industry protested, including suing Wigand. But Wigand’s revelations ultimately led to a landmark court settlement (nearly $400 billion) between Attorneys General in 40 states and the tobacco industry. 

O’Conner and Wigand are two among many. “The world is full of people pinned between their allegiance to flawed individuals (and institutions) and their dedication to higher ideals,” Boyton writes. The challenge point is when the demands of loyalty are taken too far. That is when uncompromised loyalty has serious and negative consequences. Among other things, it seals what should breathe, making it difficult (sometimes impossible) to decipher the propagated version of ‘what is’ from the way things really are. ‘Living a lie’ is a common outcome.

Even when there is abundant evidence that something is seriously wrong, I have seen affiliates choose myth over discernment and passivity over action. And those who step forward often pay a steep price—marginalized, if not ostracized, with lives changed, sometimes substantially, and frequently not for the better. Thankfully, others pivot with identity and integrity intact.

And there is another truth in this mix. ‘Turning a blind eye’ can be personally rewarding—even if it produces disruptive results for others. “It may be mischievous for those whom the cause assails,” Royce wrote.

And what about Horatio Nelson, the naval officer I mentioned earlier? ‘Turning a blind eye’ resulted in Nelson being promoted to commander-in-chief, replacing the commander who had given the order he disregarded. Of course, there was nothing noble or honorable about the path he chose. Nelson’s ‘loyalty’ was primarily to self, but he benefited, nonetheless.

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That says choosing to be loyal-to-loyalty is right because it is the right thing to do. The decision, and the act that follows, is the reward.

You can listen to this essay on my podcast channel, Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear.

Frank Fear