Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • In the northwest corner of the United States,

  • right up near the Canadian border,

  • there's a little town called Libby, Montana.

  • And it's surrounded by pine trees and lakes,

  • and just amazing wildlife,

  • and these enormous trees that scream up into the sky.

  • And in there is a little town called Libby,

  • which I visited,

  • which feels kind of lonely, a little isolated.

  • And in Libby, Montana,

  • there's a rather unusual woman named Gayla Benefield.

  • She always felt a little bit of an outsider,

  • although she's been there almost all her life,

  • a woman of Russian extraction.

  • She told me that when she went to school,

  • she was the only girl who ever chose to do mechanical drawing.

  • Later in life, she got a job going house to house

  • reading utility meters, gas meters, electricity meters.

  • And she was doing the work in the middle of the day.

  • And one thing particularly caught her notice, which was,

  • in the middle of the day, she met a lot of men who were at home,

  • middle-aged, late middle-aged,

  • and a lot of them seemed to be on oxygen tanks.

  • Struck her as strange.

  • Then, a few years later, her father died at the age of 59,

  • five days before he was due to receive his pension.

  • "He'd been a miner," she thought,

  • "he must just have been worn out by the work."

  • But then, a few years later,

  • her mother died,

  • and that seemed stranger still,

  • because her mother came from a long line of people

  • who just seemed to live forever.

  • In fact, Gayla's uncle is still alive to this day and learning how to waltz.

  • It didn't make sense

  • that Gayla's mother should die so young.

  • It was an anomaly,

  • and she kept puzzling over those anomalies,

  • and as she did, other ones came to mind.

  • She remembered, for example, when her mother had broken a leg

  • and went in the hospital, and she had a lot of X-rays.

  • Two of them were leg X-rays, which made sense,

  • but six of them were chest X-rays, which didn't.

  • She puzzled and puzzled over every piece of her life and her parent's life,

  • trying to understand what she was seeing.

  • She thought about her town.

  • The town had a vermiculite mine in it.

  • Vermiculite was used for soil conditioners,

  • to make plants grow faster and better.

  • Vermiculite was used to insulate lofts;

  • huge amounts of it, put under the roof

  • to keep houses warm during the long Montana winters.

  • Vermiculite was in the playground,

  • it was in the football ground, it was in the skating rink.

  • What she didn't learn until she started working this problem,

  • is vermiculite is a very toxic form of asbestos.

  • When she figured out the puzzle,

  • she started telling everyone she could.

  • What had happened, what had been done to her parents,

  • and to the people that she saw on oxygen tanks,

  • at home, in the afternoons.

  • But she was really amazed,

  • she thought: "When everybody knows, they will want to do something."

  • But actually, nobody wanted to know.

  • In fact, she became so annoying, as she kept insisting on telling this story

  • to her neighbours, to her friends, to other people in the community,

  • that eventually, a bunch of them got together, and they made a bumper sticker

  • which they proudly displayed on their cars, which said:

  • "Yes, I'm from Libby, Montana, and no, I don't have asbestosis."

  • But Gayla didn't stop.

  • She kept doing research.

  • The advent of the Internet definitely helped her.

  • She talked to anybody she could.

  • She argued and argued, and finally she struck lucky

  • when a researcher came through town studying the history of mines in the area.

  • And she told him her story,

  • and at first, of course, like everyone, he didn't believe her,

  • but he went back to Seattle, and he did his own research,

  • and he realised that she was right.

  • So, now, she had an ally.

  • Nevertheless, people still didn't want to know.

  • They said things like: "Well, if it were really dangerous,

  • someone would have told us."

  • "If that's really why everyone was dying,

  • the doctors would have told us."

  • Some of the guys used to very heavy jobs said:

  • "I don't want to be a victim, I can't possibly be a victim,

  • and anyway, every industry has its accidents."

  • But still, Gayla went on,

  • and finally succeeded in getting a federal agency to come to town

  • and to screen the inhabitants of the town,

  • 15,000 people.

  • And what they discovered

  • was that the town had a mortality rate

  • 80 times higher than anywhere in the United States.

  • That was in 2002,

  • and even at that moment,

  • no one raised their hand to say:

  • "Gayla, look in the playground where your grandchildren are playing.

  • It's lined with vermiculite."

  • This wasn't ignorance.

  • It was willful blindness.

  • Willful blindness is a legal concept,

  • which means if there's information that you could know and you should know,

  • but you somehow manage not to know,

  • the law deems that you are willfully blind,

  • you have chosen not to know.

  • There's a lot of willful blindness around these days.

  • You can see willful blindness in banks,

  • when thousands of people sold mortgages to people who couldn't afford them.

  • You could see them in banks when interest rates were manipulated,

  • and everyone around knew what was going on,

  • but everyone studiously ignored it.

  • You can see willful blindness in the Catholic Church,

  • where decades of child abuse went ignored.

  • You could see willful blindness

  • in the run-up to the Iraq war.

  • Willful blindness exists on epic scales like those,

  • and it also exists on very small scales,

  • in people's families, in people's homes and communities,

  • and particularly, in organizations and institutions.

  • Companies that had been studied for willful blindness,

  • can be asked questions like:

  • "Are there issues at work

  • that people are afraid to raise?"

  • And when academics have done studies like these

  • of corporations in the United States,

  • what they find is 85% of people say yes.

  • 85% of people know there's a problem,

  • but they won't say anything.

  • And when I duplicated the research in Europe,

  • asking all the same questions,

  • I found exactly the same number,

  • 85%.

  • That's a lot of silence.

  • It's a lot of blindness.

  • And what's really interesting

  • is that when I go to companies in Switzerland, they tell me,

  • "This is a uniquely Swiss problem."

  • And when I go to Germany they say,

  • "Oh yes, this is the German disease."

  • And when I go to companies in England, they say:

  • "Oh yeah, the British are really bad at this."

  • And the truth is

  • this is a human problem.

  • We're all,

  • under certain circumstances,

  • willfully blind.

  • What the research shows is that some people are blind out of fear,

  • they're afraid of retaliation,

  • and some people are blind because they think:

  • "Well, seeing anything is just futile, nothing's ever going to change.

  • If we make a protest, if we protest against the Iraq war,

  • nothing changes, so why bother?

  • Better not to see this stuff at all."

  • And the recurrent theme that I encounter all the time is people say:

  • "Well you know, the people who do see, they're whistleblowers,

  • and we all know what happens to them."

  • So there's this profound mythology around whistleblowers,

  • which says, first of all, they're all crazy.

  • But what I've found going around the world and talking to whistleblowers

  • is, actually, they're very loyal

  • and quite often, very conservative people.

  • They're hugely dedicated to the institutions that they work for,

  • and the reason that they speak up, the reason they insist on seeing,

  • is because they care so much about the institution

  • and want to keep it healthy.

  • And the other thing that people often say about whistleblowers

  • is: "Well, there's no point

  • because you see what happens to them,

  • they're crushed, they're destroyed.

  • Nobody would want to go through something like that."

  • And yet, when I talk to whistleblowers,

  • the recurrent tone that I hear, is pride.

  • I think of Joe Darby.

  • We all remember the photographs of Abu Ghraib,

  • which so shocked the world

  • and showed the kind of war that was being fought in Iraq.

  • But I wonder who remembers Joe Darby,

  • the very obedient, good soldier

  • who found those photographs

  • and handed them in.

  • And he said:

  • "You know, I'm not the kind of guy to rat people out,

  • but some things just cross the line.

  • Ignorance is bliss, they say,

  • but you can't put up with things like this."

  • I talked to Steve Bolsin, a British doctor,

  • who fought for five years

  • to draw attention to a dangerous surgeon

  • who was killing babies.

  • And I asked him why he did it, and he said:

  • "Well, it was really my daughter who prompted me to do it.

  • She came up to me one night and she just said:

  • "Dad, you can't let the kids die."

  • Or I think of Cynthia Thomas,

  • a really loyal army daughter and army wife,

  • who, as she saw her friends and relations coming back from the Iraq war,

  • was so shocked by their mental condition,

  • and the refusal of the military to recognise and acknowledge

  • Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome,

  • that she set up a café

  • in the middle of a military town

  • to give them legal, psychological, and medical assistance.

  • And she said to me:

  • "You know Margaret, I always used to say

  • I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grow up,

  • but I found myself in this course

  • and I'll never be the same."

  • We all enjoy so many freedoms today,

  • hard-won freedoms:

  • the freedom to write and publish without fear of censorship,

  • a freedom that wasn't here the last time I came to Hungary.

  • A freedom to vote,

  • which women in particular had to fight so hard for.

  • The freedom for people of different ethnicities,

  • and cultures, and sexual orientation,

  • to live the way that they want.

  • But freedom doesn't exist,

  • if you don't use it.

  • And what whistleblowers do,

  • and what people like Gayla Benefield do,

  • is they use the freedom that they have.

  • And what they're very prepared to do

  • is recognize that "yes, this is going to be an argument,

  • and yes, I'm going to have a lot of rouse

  • with my neighbours and my colleagues and my friends.

  • But I'm going to become very good at this conflict.

  • I'm going to take on the naysayers

  • because they'll make my argument better and stronger.

  • I can collaborate with my opponents

  • to become better at what I do."

  • These are people of immense persistence,

  • incredible patience,

  • and an absolute determination

  • not to be blind

  • and not to be silent.

  • When I went to Libby, Montana,

  • I visited the asbestosis clinic

  • that Gayla Benefield brought into being.

  • A place where, at first,

  • some of the people, who wanted help and needed medical attention,

  • went in the back door,

  • because they didn't want to acknowledge that she'd been right.

  • I sat in a diner, and I watched,

  • as trucks drove up and down the highway,

  • carting away the earth out of gardens,

  • and replacing it

  • with fresh uncontaminated soil.

  • I took my 12-year-old daughter with me

  • because I really wanted her to meet Gayla.

  • And she said, "Why? What's the big deal?"

  • I said: "She's not a movie star, and she's not a celebrity,

  • and she's not an expert,

  • and Gayla's the first person who'd say she's not a saint.