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out of darkness
on 31 January 2011
The past decade has, perhaps, seen more than its fair share of failures, from the investors left penniless and destitute by the collapse of Enron or the exposure of the Madoff fraud, or the gross irresponsibility and greed of banks, though the disaster of the Iraq war and its aftermath to the egregious mishandling of the New Orleans hurricane or the gigantic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Margaret Heffernan's thesis is that these and many other examples are the consequence of wilful blindness; the inability of knowing subjects to see what was clearly manifest before them.
The book is an engrossing tour de force describing these and many other examples, often augmented by revealing interviews with those who were closest to the action. This in itself makes riveting reading, but Heffernan does far more than this; she adds rich and perceptive commentary supplemented, in many cases, by results from psychological and medical research papers, including recent intriguing data from fMRI scans that reveal, in some cases, that we are driven by the limbic brain (the amygdala) which is so tenuously linked to the cortex where our higher mental processes are carried out. The theme is reminiscent of a long-forgotten book by Arthur Koestler (The Ghost in the Machine), written well before fMRI scanning was invented, in which he discusses consequences for humanity of this uncertain communication channel.
In her penultimate chapter, Heffernan discusses some cases of whistle blowers, the truly courageous and invariably persecuted people who are driven by higher moral instincts to take a stand when they have seen that misdemeanour must be exposed. The final chapter `See Better' is a masterly discussion of the wider philosophical and psychological themes that are exemplified by the earlier material.
In recent years, Margaret Heffernan has written extensively on business matters, and it is especially interesting to see that smaller organisations, where internal discussion and criticism is facilitated, can avoid the pitfalls that have wreaked havoc in large complex and hierarchical corporations like BP, where the top down edict of `reduce costs by 25%' have, in the end, led to hugely expensive and fatal catastrophe.
This is a book that no serious business person can afford to ignore. Likewise, it will surely have significant impact for students of psychology and sociology whilst being readable and accessible in a way that will appeal to the general public.