The Causes of Human Rights Violations (28): Inattentional Blindness

Why do human rights violations endure? Because we don’t see them. Or better, some of them. We often suffer from so-called inattentional blindness, the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things that are in plain sight because we are paying attention to some other details. If we don’t pay attention to an object that is really obvious, we simply will not perceive it, even if we “see” it, and that’s because attention is extremely important for perceiving. The best-known example of inattentional blindness is the invisible gorilla test: observers asked to count the number of passes between basketball players fail to notice a man in a monkey suit walking through the action.

Recently, a policeman was convicted for perjury when he claimed not to have seen a beating that he ran past while in pursuit of someone else. If even a policeman, trained to spot human rights violations, doesn’t notice them under certain circumstances, why should the rest of us?

If the persistence of human rights violations can be explained – in part – by inattentional blindness, than that’s depressing, since we have every reason to believe that inattentional blindness isn’t going away. On the contrary, our lives and societies are become more and more complex, urbanized and technology-based, requiring higher levels of attention to details. If this complexity makes it more likely that we fail to see certain human rights violations, then it’s clearly very difficult to do anything about them. You can’t change what you can’t see.

More posts in this series are here.

Limiting Free Speech (17): Media Attention and the Chilling Effect

Our right to free speech doesn’t imply a duty of other people to listen to us. However, speech in general requires listeners. People speak because they want to be heard. They want to convince other people of their point of view, they want to build communities around issues and causes, and ultimately many acts of speech are intended to change the world. Most people don’t speak because they like the sound of their voice. They want people to listen.

The lack of an obligation to listen doesn’t, in itself, limit free speech. My freedom of speech isn’t limited by the fact that no one listens. However, a lack of an audience or a public, a lack of attention and recognition does make people want to stop speaking. Speaking to a wall gets boring after a while. So we can say that a lack of attention has a chilling effect on speech.

As such, this isn’t a problem. There are good reasons why many utterances don’t receive attention. They are uninteresting and the world isn’t any the poorer without them. So let them chill. But we all know that attention isn’t just. People lack attention for both the good and the bad. Many good things don’t get any attention, and many bad things do. A lack of attention can and does silence people who have truly interesting things to say, and the world is less without them.

Attention would be more just if people were not manipulated towards and away from certain types of speech. And here the culprit is the media. The media are essential in bringing sources of speech to a public. Book publishers make books from someone’s speech, and take these books to people who are willing to pay some attention to them. Television programs, internet sites, magazines etc. basically do the same.

But the media make a choice. Some cases of speech are “mediated”, others aren’t. They would create a just type of attention for cases of speech, if they would make this choice solely on the basis of the value (“the interestingness”) of the cases, but of course they don’t. The media have various reasons to select the speakers that are given an audience. The most important reason isn’t quality but profit. What will create the biggest profit? As a result, the most outrageous and controversial (e.g. Ann Coulter), the most sexually appealing (e.g. Paris Hilton), the most violent (e.g. Bin Laden), the most spectacular (e.g. Harry Potter) etc. receive the most attention.

This is often enough for moderate, thoughtful and nuanced seekers of the truth to simply give up. No one can say that their right to free speech was actually violated by some ominous power. They were simply discouraged to speak by “anonymous market forces” that are just as efficient as the most brutal dictator. And no one knows what the world has lost.