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September 3rd, 2019
This idiom arose when Haratio Nelson -who was blind in one eye- willfully pretended to look through a telescope with his blind eye to look for a signal from his superior. The act itself is somewhat ridiculous unless it’s to underscore to those around him that ‘yes, he knows what he’s supposed to do, but that’s still not what he’s going to do.’
He was later promoted due to this irresponsibility and disregard of authority. And this origin, if we take the story at face value, communicates a wonderfully inverted message:
Don’t blindly follow someone else when you have a better idea.
Nelson invoked his blindness as an excuse to follow a better path that only he could see.
This brings us to an even more nuanced point: Nelson recognized an opportunity. He saw something that his superior could not.
Recognition generates responsibility.
Or rather, recognizing what’s going on generates an ability to respond.
Deconstructing this further, we can parse the word recognize.
It means -quite literally- to have cognizance about a phenomenon.. again.
Cognizance means simply awareness or knowledge, and the initial time we make sense of something, we can say that we have cognizance of it. But to recognize something means that we are in familiar territory because we have seen something very similar before and understand it almost instantly through the blessing of memory and the time spent figuring out what was going on the first time when we were gaining cognizance.
Nelson clearly recognized a combination of circumstantial factors during his sea battle that he had the ability to respond to.
Again, recognition generates responsibility.
Strangely enough, the idiom ‘turn a blind eye’ actually means quite the opposite in common speech today.
We turn a blind eye when we see something we should respond to, but don’t want to for fear of involvement.
It’s the opposite of the origin story.
While turning a blind eye today is more inline with a timid person who simply doesn’t want to get involved, what it originally meant was to follow your own vision of things. To be a bit of a black sheep. To go against the grain of authority in order to succeed and make things better.
What it really means is turn a blind eye to stupidity, mediocrity and the direction of cowards.
It means go your own way, because you see a better way.
This episode references Episode 101: Responsibility