The Use and Abuse of Blindness (2)

This is the second in a series of posts.

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“Defining Blindness,” First Sense: Blindness Defining

“Defining blindness” can mean the enterprise of defining the word blindness, giving the definition of that word, that is, it can mean to say what blindness is—to say, for example, that blindness is being without vision or sight, that is, without the capacity to see. On the other hand, it can mean having blindness as an attribute, state, or condition that defines what or who has it—as someone might speak, for example, of “the blind” as the class of all those who are deprived of or lack the capacity to see. 

In the first case blindness is what gets defined, whereas in the second case blindness is what does the defining.

In my preceding post I considered an instance of “defining blindness” in the second sense, in which it is the blindness that does the defining, an instance drawn from the experience of Germans during the Nazi years.

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At least from 1933 to 1945, the German people as a rule—which means that there were, of course, exceptions to that rule, sometimes of the most estimable and profound sort—were defined by their blindness. They were blind to many things, from the often brutal silencing of all public opposition to the ruling coercive power of the Nazi State, to the unprincipled aggressive wars that State launched against neighboring states, to the barbarous slaughter of six million Jews and an approximately equal number of other victims in the death camps and killing fields with which that same State dotted the map of Europe. 

In being blind to the crimes their State perpetrated against others, they were also blind to their own bondage—their own lack of all real freedom. That blindness to their own bondage is captured well by the title of the book I cited in my first post, a book by Milton Mayer that was originally published in 1955, and only last year reissued in a new edition: They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Mayer’s book is a telling account of ten ordinary non-Jewish residents of Marburg (which Mayer disguises thinly under the invented name “Kronenberg) who were among the millions of Germans defined by the blindness at issue, including especially blindness about just how un-free they really were themselvs, encircled as they were by many chains, not the least of which was their blindness itself. That blindness was of immense use to the Nazi apparatus.

Nor is such blindness, a blindness of great service to the continuing and deepening of the exercise of coercive power, confined to Germans, whether of the Nazi period or any other. It is in no sense peculiar to the Germans as a people, a nation. It is a blindness that does not discriminate on the basis of national origin.

Thus, Mayer himself, as American in this regard as our proverbial apple pie, honestly confesses to such blindness in his own character and life. “I am not God,” he writes well into his book (on page 185). “I myself am a national, myself guilty of many national hypocrisies whose only justification is that the Germans were so much worse”--which, of course, is no "justification" at all.  Mayer immediately adds that very note himself, in going on to write: "My being less bestial, in my laws and practices, than they were does not make me more Godly than they, for difference in degree is not difference in kind.” He then points to some of what so many masses of ordinary Americans in the past and very much still today have been and still are blind to: “My own country’s racist legislation and practices, against both foreigners and citizens, is a whole web of hypocrisies.”

In considering such matters, a distinction should be drawn between such motivated blindness, as it is aptly to be called, and simple, involuntary, un-motivated blindness—an unmotivated failure to see what is right in front of one. A common example of such unmotivated blindness would be searching in vain for one’s glasses, only to discover that one could not see them precisely because one had already been wearing them all along. 

Indeed, as one common saying has it, one of the most effective ways of hiding something is often to hide it “in plain sight.” It is what’s perfectly obvious that we most often overlook, so long as it does nothing special to call attention to itself--the way, for instance, the Grand Canyon calls attention to itself, such that we are unlikely just to stumble into it, whereas the little wrinkle in the carpet at our feet can easily trip us up. Such unmotivated blindness is perfectly innocent, no cause for shame.

 Related but different are cases when we are struck by a moment of new, transfiguring insight in which what has long been familiar to us and taken for granted is suddenly revealed to us anew. The scales fall from our eyes and we are for the first time able truly to see what has been there all along. At such moments, suddenly “in the usual everyday, the unusually great appears,” as Heidegger puts it in a fine short essay about Adalbert Stifter’s “Eisgeschichte,” a little gem of a short story about a simple ice storm.*

Of course, there are other, very different ways in which blindness can be a definitive trait of that which is blind. There is the blindness, as mentioned in my preceding post, that is a sheer absence of the physical organs of sight. Such blindness may even characterize entire species of living beings or classes of unliving ones, from germs and flowers to pebbles and cumulus clouds. 

However, the sort of definitive blindness with which I will concern myself in this series of posts is not of that sort. That is, it is not the blindness of the any of the last three cases mentioned above: the sort of involuntary blindness from which we suffer in cases such as that of looking all over for the glasses we are already wearing; the blindness that is lifted from us in moments of transfiguring insight; or the blindness that defines a species or class of beings. Rather, the definitive blindness that concerns me here is that of the first two sorts I mentioned above: the sort of blindness from which all too many ordinary Germans suffered during their nation’s Nazi period in face of the horrors being perpetrated around and even on them, the same sort of blindness from which all too many American’s continue to suffer in the face, for example, of our long national history, and continuing national reality, of racism.

When such blindness is motivated by self-centered concerns, no matter how common or understandable such concerns may be, it is a shameful blindness, as it shamed Mayer’s confidant in the story I recounted in my preceding post. However, it can also sometimes be motivated by concerns that are not self-centered, and then it is no longer shame that the dawning awareness of one’s blindnesss calls forth, but some other response. I will consider a case of such non-self-centered motivation for blindness in a later post in this series, but first, in my next post, I will consider another case of self-centered motivation for blindness, a case that exemplifies a blindness even more common than does Mayer’s confidant’s case.

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To be continued.


*Heidegger’s short essay can be found in Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens, the title given to the collection of various of his short pieces in volume 13 of his Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2nd ed. 2002).