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UMNews: Tuning out

A University of Minnesota professor’s new book highlights “shared obliviousness” within families. FROM UMNews


As individuals and family members, we go about our business each day ignoring much of the information available to us. But while we tune out, University of Minnesota family social science professor Paul Rosenblatt pays close attention.

In “Shared Obliviousness in Family Systems,” a theoretical book that explores the intriguing topic in the title, Rosenblatt defines “shared obliviousness” as the state of being unmindful or unaware of something, and in a family setting, it means that all family members distance themselves from information they could — and maybe should — be conscious of. These could be family issues or things of importance outside the family.

“I think we have to be oblivious to most that goes on in the world,” Rosenblatt says. “You just can’t pay attention to all the news or all the events in your neighborhood or the dust balls under the bed or the dust balls under your neighbor’s bed. … We have to be oblivious to 99.9999 percent of what’s out there.

“What I argue in the book is a lot of our obliviousness comes out of shared dynamics in the family and also in the larger world we live in. We’re not on our own in becoming oblivious. And we’re oblivious to lots of things in our own families. Sometimes that’s great, and sometimes it’s terrible because something really awful is going on.”

The most obvious example is a family that ignores an incident of sexual abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse, extramarital affairs, and stealing are other topics that families conveniently ignore.

But families are also oblivious to much national and world news — news that is or may become relevant to their lives. Global warming shines as a prime example. “What global warming is predicting is a sea rise that will make parts of this country unlivable,” Rosenblatt says.

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“There’ll be more flooding inland as well as the coasts, so if you’re living on low land, you’re in trouble. And it’s striking to me that when we talk about global warming, it’s kind of an abstract issue. As far as I know we don’t have people moving in from the coasts, and we don’t have a fire sale or a flood sale on coastal property.”

He theorizes that mainstream media, corporations, the government, and even educational institutions shape some families’ ideas about who they are, how they should be, and what they should be oblivious to.

“The forces that gain from us being oblivious to things are much more powerful,” he says. “I think there’s more news control now than in the past. And corporate control of what Congress pays attention to is much more pronounced, maybe, than in the past. There’s more going on to control our information processing, as well all of our own reasons to be oblivious.”

What to tune in to
Rosenblatt refrains from offering any easy solutions to shared obliviousness. “This is not a self-help or family help book,” he writes. “I don’t know enough about family obliviousness, let alone about any specific family, to offer confidently helpful ideas.”

But he wants other researchers, educators, and therapists to be aware of the phenomenon of shared obliviousness — “to pay attention to what people aren’t paying attention to” — to lessen the fallout from what might be missed.

One thing families can do is simplify their intake of information, he suggests. “Just being able to record a program and run by the commercials gives you 10 or 20 more minutes in an hour, and maybe that’s time you could do something else with,” he says.

It’s also important to evaluate what’s truly important. “For ordinary families, I’d really like them to pay attention to what’s in the news that’s relevant to their lives, and what’s going on in their families that involves somebody’s health or safety,” he says. “[And] for them not to be shutting other people up or stopping other people from whistle blowing, or scoffing at other people who have concerns.

“We do live in a time where the potential for learning more is great,” he adds. “The World Wide Web has vast amounts of information, and if you have access to the Web, don’t look at the same nine things every week or every day. … There’s a potential there to learn a lot more, and I hope people will.”