“I didn’t do it!” is one of the first sentences I can remember hearing. From my earliest years I never understood why there was so much denial all around me. Denial then was about silly things like eating chocolates, hiding coins, or feeding the dog. The famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim had a greater insight than I had into the very first stages of denial:
“The small child who denies his misbehavior does not simply lie to fool us; he is at least as anxious, or more so, to fool himself. Afraid of punishment, and convinced we will learn the truth sooner or later, what he is after is not to fool us but to convince himself that his crime never happened. Only then can he feel safe, both now and in the future.”1
Today, examining denial in this fast changing world is most challenging. Denial is extremely complex: Its scope ranges from manifestations at a personal level and extends to broad social denials. At the basic personal level not only is it a way of concealing our acts, but also our feelings and desires. It can be a way of protecting ourselves. It can enable us to cope with illness because denial allows optimism for the patient.
Being “in denial” can be a form of self-deception or a refusal to recognize different aspects of our lives, like dying. Death is just one of the life-threatening illnesses which we find difficult to confront and prefer not to recognize. In this vast field of options, denial is one easy way of avoiding a challenge. However, we seldom ask ourselves how or why we face up to such denial and putting aside the very thing we do not want to deal with.
There are indeed aspects of our personal realities that we human beings are not able to confront. Many overweight and anorexic people cannot accept how they look naked in the mirror. Their minds deny what their eyes tell them: “That’s not me!” Denial is so fundamental to their psyche because self-protection is built into the ego. Denial is thus one way we try to deceive ourselves and others because we cannot accept aspects of our desires or situations which we find threatening.
Every day denial is partially based on our response to a social climate in which mistakes, obfuscation and lies have become commonly accepted because people want to hide desires which they cannot openly acknowledge, writes sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris.2 However, there are some people who practice personal denial simply because they are fatigued trying to meet the unending demands of the truth.
Most often denial is a way of directly addressing a situation which is too difficult, unpleasant or frightening for us to face up to. Indeed, the truth may be hard to accept particularly when it comes to our desires. The fear of the exposure of our sexual mores has for centuries led to the denial of sexual violations in the Catholic Church. “Denial is a more ‘natural’ human function than reason” propose the authors in their book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us.3 Let’s face it: denial has for centuries become a simple way to avoid facing the facts of life!
Denial can involve active avoidance. The challenges presented by Lyme Disease, a tick-borne illness, were dramatically outlined by Kim Lewis, a professor of molecular microbiology, who said: “When doctors are faced with a problem they cannot solve, it is human nature to sweep it under the rug, to argue it away, to say the problem does not exist.” Lewis continued: “Because doctors have a simple choice, to tell the patient we have no treatment for your condition or to say you don’t have any condition.”4
Thus denial can dismiss situations with finality. Freud, however, also came to regard convenient forgetting as a form of denial. Such interpretation can incorporate denying with the inner significance of experience such as hatred or depression. Other psychologists have come to view delay as one of the deadliest forms of denial. Melanie Klein held that “Denial may stifle feelings of love and guilt, undermine sympathy and consideration and disturb the capacity for judgment and the sense of reality. As we know denial is a ubiquitous mechanism and is also very much used for the justification of destructiveness.”5
Despite all these perspectives on denial, there also is an unspoken expectation that the expression of denial be respected. Denial can be personal or public, but numbers of deniers have become engaged over the past few decades into a socially collective response which is now being called “denialism.” Although we can see their different aspects socially, what these denialists have in common is their conviction that the truth is being crushed by their enemies: the prejudiced media, the hated social experts, the wide range of protected academics, and the scientists whose conclusions are so often disputed by others. We see these denialists in the collective response of Donald Trump’s followers much as it was for the majority of Germans who accepted the follies of Adolph Hitler in the 1930s.
Such denialists may have begun as personal deniers but have extended to become a public phenomenon. They are driven by the desire to make the electorate as well as the masses doubt in generally accepted ‘myths’ (as the denialists describe it) such as climate change, evolution and the Holocaust. As this denialism is so different from the personal denial on which I have focused so far, I must treat this ‘new phenomenon’ separately.
Denialism describes the preference of individuals and groups to deny reality as a way to avoid an unacceptable truth. This includes denying certain historical events and the existence of consensus arising in some fields. Keith Kahn-Harris in his book on the subject suggests that “Denialism offers a dystopian vision of a world unmoored, in which nothing can be taken for granted and no one can be trusted.”6 As a social force denialism is driven by the desire for some specific aspects to be disproved.
Although deniers are not outspoken liars, dumb or ignorant, they are pathologically stubborn and not always coherent. They depend on a public loss of faith in capitalist economics, on social and scientific advances and in progress itself. They insist on “the inescapable indeterminacy of figures and statistics.”7 Deniers float conspiracy theories which dismiss data or observations by suggesting that the experts or scientists are involved in a deep conspiracy to suppress the truth. Writer Mark Hoofnagle suggests that denialists employ “rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none.” It is amusing to note that “expert” denialists are not specialists in the field being examined. Astonishingly this is often not held as a negative factor by sectors of the media.
Denialists are obsessed with using details to create the impression that there may be multiple uncertainties in an overall proposition when doubts may have been raised in one minute aspect. Such focus on the smallest of details may not only inject doubts but may also suggest that any larger theory being disputed could be suspect.
Denialists count on public ignorance and capitalize on their ability to produce ideological obfuscation on already complex issues like global warming and governmental regulation. Their denialism is a barrier to acknowledging moral as well as ideological differences. For example, the prospects of an intolerably polluted world is so frightening that it has largely been denied (or covered up) for several decades not only by the media but even by the deniers!
I am still bewildered how Trump — who cannot really differentiate between truth and fiction — can dismiss the warnings of scientists on the environment. The evidence is that Trump simply is not interested in mankind’s future. That itself is a powerful form of denial. He is entirely focused on his own status. He tries to remake the truth for himself. Trump’s denial is not based on any careful examination of the facts. He is hooked on interpreting events according to his own desires. This is so impulsive and impetuous that psychiatrists stamp it as “wacky!” But what about all those people around the world who are liberated from coherence and still deny aspects of the Holocaust, evolution, or even our spherical planet?
Deniers seek the public validation that science delivers. They do not deny the value of scientific or scholarly methods. Indeed, they are eager to be acknowledged by scientists and university scholars. Denialists have used the money of wealthy admirers to promote research centers, internet sites, think-tanks such as the Institute for Historical Review, as well as publishing journals and promoting conferences to cast historical doubts on everything from the Holocaust to global warming. Disputes between academics as well as experts are used as ways to cast further doubts on contentious issues.
Deniers produce impressive quantities of dubious promotions on the internet, articles, books, lectures and even videos. These focus on spreading popular doubts with purported “facts” which may ultimately be uncovered as false, fake or untrue. There is an unwillingness to face up to the consequences of the denialist’s hopes, aims or desires. Global warming denialists want to preserve the world as it is. Sociologist Kahn-Harris observes that in their desire to maintain carbon-based capitalism, they refuse to acknowledge the suffering that denying action would entail.8 Denialism’s social direction is based on efforts to prevent change or to face the truth. Deniers, personal or societal, do not want to be confronted with harsh reality. They are fully aware that few of us want to face up to the impact of the dismal prospects of high levels of poisonous carbon dioxide.
Despite their bluster, deniers are often dependent on erroneous assumptions which are deeply held. Denialism cannot be breached by rational arguments. Even excluding them from academic journals and conferences does not bring reform. We are reshaping our world at such a high tech speed that it is also affecting our minds. If denialism were suddenly exposed, it soon would be replaced by “revisionism,” or some other similarly distracting expression. France has prohibited Holocaust denial by introducing strict legislation. It is not yet clear if this will drive the French deniers underground.
Denial, is a social form which could be transcended. Kari Marie Norgaard believes personal denial should be understood as a “testament to our human capacity for empathy, compassion, and an underlying sense of moral imperative to respond, even as we fail to do so.”9 Denialism, as opposed to individual denial, could be seen as an obstacle to progress which must gradually be reviewed and examined. However, even from such a generous perspective little advance can be made until the deniers themselves recognize the damaging extent of their efforts and gradually work towards a more open approach to the truth.
Alas, western societies have been all too reluctant to recognize and face up to the vast extent to which denial in its varied forms now consumes us.
1Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart (1960 ) p.281
2Keith Kahn-Harris, Denial:The Unspeakable Truth (2018) p.4
3S. E. Gormans and J.M. Gorman, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us ( 2016) p.13
4David Cox, “Lyme Disease,” The Observer, July 21, 2019
5Melanie Klein, Our Adult World, (1963) p.47
6Keith Kahn-Harris, Denial: The Unspeakable Truth(2018) p.7
9Kari Marie Norgaard, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (2011) p.61