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See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil -No more

Updated on September 28, 2015
Cute coconut carvings of the 3 mystic monkeys in Hanoi, Vietnam. The apes which symbolizes the phrase 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' are a common sight in many Asian countries.
Cute coconut carvings of the 3 mystic monkeys in Hanoi, Vietnam. The apes which symbolizes the phrase 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' are a common sight in many Asian countries.


The popular phrase traces back its origins to the "Sambiki Saru" which is Japanese for 'The three mystic apes". One of the explanations that relates the three monkeys to the commonly quoted phrase lies in the Japanese words 'mizaru, kikizaru and iwazaru' which translates to 'don't see, don't hear and don't speak' in English with a wordplay on the suffix 'zaru' that sounds like 'saru' meaning monkeys. (Hannagan, 2008)

The phrase has 2 main interpretations. Firstly, it is meant as a reminder for people to avoid evil thoughts and actions. The other more common application of the phrase is when it is used to suggest that ignorance is bliss and that it is fine to look the other way after noticing an indiscretion. This piece of writing intends to convince the readers that the latter interpretation and application of the phrase "See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil" is no longer valid and should not hold in today's context.

In reality, feigning ignorance does not help reduce or tackle any of the problems at hand. In actual fact, it actually exacerbates the problems. When one chooses to acknowledge impropriety and does not do anything to counter the problem or improve the situation, one allows the problem to breed and cause more suffering to others in the long run. This is detrimental in the increasingly globalized world we live in where everyone is more interconnected as transnational boundaries and borders are broken down gradually. Thus, in the following paragraphs I will share why seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil are not the best way to live as we progress forward and move towards the 2nd decade in the 21st century.

Evil eyes on display in the Grand Bazaar at Istanbul, Turkey. It supposedly wards off evil but is it really effective?
Evil eyes on display in the Grand Bazaar at Istanbul, Turkey. It supposedly wards off evil but is it really effective?

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil No More

See no evil

When one chooses to see no evil, one puts on rose tinted glasses and tends to put in blind faith and trust in the system that one is in. Although an optimist might argue that looking at things positively is good for the soul, he or she must be aware that choosing to see only the pleasant and nice things in life limits one's exposure to the real world. This restricts one's knowledge of matters concerning reality where theory and ideals may not necessarily work. A scoped and protected view therefore adds on to status quo bias and may lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations that could end up in conflicts.

People who choose to 'see no evil' include those who turn a blind eye to violence. (Gross, 1987) These people may vary from observers of domestic violence and abuse in households, witnesses of bullying and harassment at workplaces or even those who have encountered victims and innocent civilians trapped in between warring factions or countries. The common factor that unites all of them together is their unwillingness to intervene or contribute to improve the situation for fear of their own safety or the disregard of others' happiness. (Holmes et al, 1997 and Ferris, 2004)

Hear no evil

This section is particularly more important for people with authority and power. There are those who are actually able to make changes to the system from within but fail to do so mainly because they do not listen and find out what can be improved on. They apply selective perception and filter out what they do not want to hear. Choosing to only hear the good stuffs, these people actually limit the chances for positive change through feedback.

However, populist actions which follow and accede to requests and demands of subordinates or those under one's charge is not good too. At the end of the day a balance has to be kept. For example, a supervisor leading a team to complete a project with a tight deadline may be more selective in allowing and following suggestions as time is short. When granted another project which is due later, the supervisor needs to be flexible and be more receptive of subordinates' ideas as sometimes such ideas are worth their weight in gold. Hence, being versatile and keeping an open mind promotes two-way communication and it really brings about numerous benefits that would have been lost if one decides to block off all negative comments in order to 'hear no evil'.

Speak no evil

Last but not least, there are several necessary evils in life that needs to be spoken of. Sometimes, we may need to voice out our dissent and dissatisfaction, given that it's done in the best and most appropriate/suitable way possible. Keeping mum about issues or taboos may actually lead to far worse consequences when the situation escalates. In times like these, 'speaking no evil' becomes worthless because sugarcoated words that hide their true meaning can and tend to be misinterpreted.

Some societies have a high level of censorship and they limit their freedom of expression in order to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts. However, in today's technologically advanced world, such attempts to forcefully limit access to specific resources or materials can actually backfire. There is always a workaround or a loophole. Such an oppression of freedom could also lead to a stronger and revolutionary voice that overpowers those who set the rules in the first place. Therefore, 'speaking no evil' is no longer a valid option and has become irrelevant with time.

Island off Venice, Italy which will be submerged underwater in time to come as water levels rise if we do not change the way we live.
Island off Venice, Italy which will be submerged underwater in time to come as water levels rise if we do not change the way we live.


No man is an island. Even if you are living on an island, like me in the tropical city of Singapore, things we say or do have consequences and they do affect others around us be it directly or indirectly. Keeping that in mind, we could and should also make use of that power to influence those around us to change for the better. We could pressure international bodies or empower non governmental organisations to make the world a better place to live in.

In conclusion, it is high time for us to scrape the mentality of only caring about ourselves and start thinking and behaving as a global citizen with care and concern for all our fellow human beings as well as other inhabitants of planet Earth. When we stop being self-centred and start empathizing others more, we are one step closer to self actualization where we could possibly find the meaning of life and live a meaningful life.

4 stars for Cuteness of figurines

Which of the three do you think is hardest to address? The responses from this question will come in handy in a continuation write-up on potential solutions to address the problem of a wrong mindset.

See results


Gross, D. R., & Robinson, S. E. (1987). Ethics, violence, and counseling: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil?. Journal of Counseling & Development, 65(7), 340-344.

Holmes, G. R., Offen, L., & Waller, G. (1997). See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil: Why do relatively few male victims of childhood sexual abuse receive help for abuse-related issues in adulthood?. Clinical Psychology Review, 17(1), 69-88.

Ferris, P. (2004). A preliminary typology of organisational response to allegations of workplace bullying: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 32(3), 389-395.

Hannagan, C. (2008). See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. PACEsetterS, 5(1), 6-8.

Wood, G. (2008). Thresholds and criteria for evaluating and communicating impact significance in environmental statements:‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’?. Environmental impact assessment review, 28(1), 22-38.

© 2015 Suhaimi Zainal Shah


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    • Suhaimizs profile imageAUTHOR

      Suhaimi Zainal Shah 

      3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Syazwan!

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Excellent read. Thanks for the article!


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