Margaret Heffernan: What Does Everyday Courage Look Like? Margaret Heffernan talks about the danger of "willful blindness" and praises ordinary people who are willing to speak up.

Margaret Heffernan: What Does Everyday Courage Look Like?

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, stories of courage and justice, ideas about why people sometimes risk everything to do the right thing. So, in the late 1980s, Gayla Benefield had a job reading utility meters. She was one of those people who'd go house to house for the gas or the electric company. This was in a small town in Montana, and Gayla did most of her work in the middle of the day. And after a couple of months on the job, she started to notice this weird thing - that a lot of people were actually home in the middle of the day. And a lot of them had oxygen tanks.

MARGARET HEFFERNAN: She saw all these people at home on oxygen tanks and thought, that doesn't make sense, what could it be?

RAZ: This is Margaret Heffernan. In a past life, she ran a bunch of tech companies. Now she's a writer, and she's written about Gayla and what was happening to the people in that town in Montana. These were people who were not old enough, normally, to be on oxygen tanks.

HEFFERNAN: That's right. I mean, they were kind of late 40s, early 50s. And she thought, they shouldn't be retired, they shouldn't be on oxygen tanks. And then her father died and her mother died. And, as she said to me, you know, her mother came from a stock that, you know, was still doing ballroom dancing in their 90s. So none of this made sense.

RAZ: The town in Montana where Gayla Benefield lived was called Libby. Margaret Heffernan told her story on the TED stage. And, as Margaret tells it, Gayla became convinced that something was wrong there and that she needed to figure it out so she could warn people.


HEFFERNAN: She puzzled and puzzled over every piece of her town. The town had a vermiculite mine in it. Vermiculite was used for soil conditioner - just 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, actually, nobody wanted to know. In fact, she became so annoying, as she kept insisting on telling this story to her neighbors, to her friends, to other people in the community, that eventually a bunch of them got together and they made a bumper sticker 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 realized that she was right.

RAZ: The company that owned the mine offered Gayla a bunch of money to keep quiet, but she refused. And she kept thinking about her own two granddaughters who had watched Gayla's mom die of asbestosis.


GAYLA BENEFIELD: They were there when she died. They watched her slowly suffocate for a year and a half until she couldn't breathe anymore.

RAZ: This is Gayla. She spoke to NPR back in 2002.

BENEFIELD: A year later, their grandparents on their father's side were both diagnosed. And here was these little girls, they were 8 and 10 years old, and they were completely panic stricken. And they would come to me, and they'd say, are we going to die of this, too? Well, this really set up a question in my mind. Could I honestly say, no, you're not going to?


HEFFERNAN: 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. But still, Gayla went on, and finally she succeeded in getting a federal agency to come to town and to screen 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.

RAZ: A government cleanup was ordered. The company that owned the mine eventually went bankrupt. An asbestosis clinic was opened, and, to this day, new patients are being treated there. And what she did by speaking out took so much courage. But do you think that it was extraordinary, or do you think that it's something anyone would have done?

HEFFERNAN: Well, that's a great question because Gayla doesn't think she's extraordinary. And I've had the privilege of knowing and interviewing a number of people who do this, and I think what makes their courage even more impressive is that they somehow have a capacity to see what the world or life or a particular circumstance looks like to the powerless, and that's really what drives them.

RAZ: The question is - where does that courage come from and what does it actually mean to be courageous? We'll explore these ideas throughout the show today with TED speakers who have all had to face difficult choices about whether to shine a light on injustice or whether to keep silent.

There's one pretty common hurdle to speaking out, and it's the same one that Gayla Benefield came up against in Montana.


HEFFERNAN: Willful blindness.

RAZ: Here's Margaret Heffernan again on the TED stage.


HEFFERNAN: 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 can 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. Companies that have 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 this of corporations in the United States, what they find is 85 percent of people say yes. Eighty-five percent 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. 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.

RAZ: So when you come across the people who aren't in that 85 percent - the 15 percent who have the courage to speak up - are they different from the rest of us, or are they the same?

HEFFERNAN: Well, they're very ordinary. And this is what I love about them. You know, a couple of weeks ago, I met a nurse who felt that there was some very bad care in the hospital she worked. And she just spoke up and spoke up and wouldn't stop. And she's now creating a culture where that's getting easier and easier for everyone, which is, of course, what makes this a safe hospital. So creating the conditions in which people can speak freely is central to building businesses that are sustainably creative and safe.

RAZ: It starts at the top, though.

HEFFERNAN: Actually, I think it starts everywhere. I've been thinking about this a lot because when I say, well, why don't people speak up? What I get is, oh, it's the culture. And I think, well, what is the culture? The culture is the accumulation of everybody's actions. And in many of the organizations I work with, change starts in very unexpected places because people just decide, I want to do this or I want to try this. And then they discover they don't get shot. And then they discover that, actually, now, they've got a really exciting project. You know, I think the most dangerous thing in organizations is silence. It's all those brains whizzing around full of observations and insight and ideas that are not being articulated.


HEFFERNAN: Freedom doesn't exist if you don't use it, 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 rows with my neighbors 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. When I went to Libby, Montana, I visited the asbestosis clinic that Gayla Benefield brought into being. 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. The real important thing about Gayla is she's like you and she's like me. She had freedom, and she was ready to use it. Thank you very much.


RAZ: You know, Margaret, what I love about what you do and what you say is that I think a big part of it is also aspirational. I think that you want people to think this way because it's good for everybody. But you understand that the reality is very few people do these kinds of things. Very few people choose to speak up.

HEFFERNAN: Well, it also, I think - you know, I think you're right. And I think what's really important to remember, you know, if any of us find ourselves in these situations, is that both choices are dreadful. The choice to say something is risky and the choice of saying nothing is risky. And so I think courage is having the clarity to see the two bad choices. There is no safe path. But what you do know is, if you don't speak up, everything will stay the same.

RAZ: Margaret Heffernan - she has two great talks. You can see both of them at More ideas about courage in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.