In and Out of Denial

Denial Is the Heartbeat of America - The Atlantic

Part of the political polarization which characterizes our era is the weaponizing of language. Where once we had indifference, now we have hate. Where once we had freedom of conscience, now we have -phobia. In such cases, the open exchange of ideas is reduced to a binary right-wrong, heads-I-win, tails-you-lose, Do-you-still-beat-your-wife paradigm that discredits one half of a dialogue before the dialogue begins. Another example: where once we had disagreement, now we have denial.

As a specialized term, denial has roots in psychology, describing a subject’s clinical inability to admit some aspect of his or her personal reality. “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt,” countless pop therapists have chided on talk shows and in self-help books. Denial is also posited as a stage experienced by individuals facing terminal illness, made famous in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 book On Death and Dying. No well-adjusted human, goes the implication, should ever be in denial. The word took a darker turn when used to label the incendiary views of far-right figures like David Irving and Ernst Zundel: Holocaust denial. Given abundant evidence demonstrating that the Nazis murdered about 6 million people between 1933 and 1945, most of them Jewish, Irving and Zundel’s (and others’) rejection of accepted history was too pointed to be called merely “revisionism.” They literally denied that a documented event had indeed occurred, even though they conceded the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich and the existence of concentration camps. Yet the notoriety of Holocaust denial has allowed the general concept to be stretched and distorted into a range of other applications, whereby supposedly settled fact is said to be up against wild delusion or deliberate falsehood. For all its inflammatory posturing, not even Holocaust denial was ever written off so glibly.

Today we hear of climate change denial, Native residential school denial, gender dysphoria denial, white supremacy denial, voter suppression denial, and notably vaccine (against COVID-19) denial. In each instance, particular opinions on current issues – sincerely misinformed, stubbornly skeptical, or just contrary to someone else’s assurance – are classed as both mental affliction and political heresy. Note that it’s not specific incidents allegedly being denied, but ideas. By these standards, Charles Darwin advocated creation denial, James “the Amazing” Randi was a supernatural magic denier, and Oliver Stone is a lone-gunman denier. For that matter, Liberal voters could be accused of denying Conservativism, and vegans could be mocked as meat denialists. The point is, there is something more complicated in the positions of such people than “denial” alone – their stances may be right or wrong, they may be supported or undermined by objective data and rational debate, but they are not simply emotional hangups or intentional deceit. Abused this way, the d-word allows us to instantly discount others’ refusals to conform to our own ideologies, without engaging with the refusals themselves.

Some will say that matters of public health, environmental protection, or democratic procedure are too urgent to waste time convincing a few holdouts who aren’t going with the program. Really, though, no hard science or social principle should be so obvious that it can’t be succinctly and persuasively explained to a doubter, and no doubt should be so preposterous that it’s not worth concisely refuting. “There are no stupid questions,” runs the aphorism, “only stupid answers.” Otherwise, scorned, maligned, and ignored suspicions will spread beyond the obstinate to the independent, the original, and then the influential; repeated too often, offhand dismissals themselves start to sound suspicious. Sure, there will always be cranks and crackpots who live and believe immune to all logical argument. But reducing people’s stated convictions to sanity (when we agree) or pathology (when we don’t) is not the way toward public compromise, much less public consensus. The surfeit of conjecture, criticism and controversy we are slogging through today will not become more manageable by sorting all of it as either acceptance or denial.

2 thoughts on “In and Out of Denial

  1. While I completely agree that separating people into one of two camps on major issues like those you discuss here which most of the time have a lot of room for stops in the middle between extremes, a sort of “sane” vs. “insane” (or “saved” vs. “heathen” if you will), I do wonder how best to describe that camp of folks who adamantly, belligerently oppose any and all consideration of facts or mostly verifiable truths that go against their wishes or preferences (particularly when they seem to be mostly dictated by political affiliation and community norms). I’m thinking of the folks who made the news near me recently for shouting at other parents who entered the school wearing masks (“we know where you live!”) due to their belief that the COVID19 vaccine and masks are in some way a “mark of the beast”. We consistently read that facts are no longer able to persuade anyone (or most anyone) of anything and maybe they never were.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Like I said in the piece, there are always those who can never be persuaded of anything (that Obama was born in the US, that Trump lost the 2020 election fair and square, that 9/11 wasn’t an inside job, etc.) no matter how much evidence is presented, but these days it’s become a little too easy to write off any and all dissenters from a given position as “deniers.” I think there’s a difference between conspiracy theories about specific events or facts, and contrary opinions about broad topics that should be open to many interpretations. I’ve heard a lot of commentary lately about the modern “epistemic crisis” – our inability to truly know or agree on anything, when just about everything seems to be in dispute from some faction or another. These are strange times…but have a good weekend.

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