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The seductions of denial

About the author
Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum July 2010). His website is here

A British comedian tells the following story:

"I was in a taxi early on a Sunday and the cab-driver started talking about how homosexuality was immoral. I was fed up with this and so I said I didn't know how useful hard and fast concepts of morality were in discussing this kind of issue. I then elaborated on societies, such as the ancient Greeks or the Zunis, where, far from being subhuman, homosexuality was actually viewed as a higher, more profound form of love, so all our ideas about its degeneracy may actually be bound-up in our own cultural context. The cab driver then said: ‘Well, you can prove anything with facts, can't you?'"

Keith Kahn-Harris is a research associate at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His website is here

The cab-driver's views might be thought abhorrent, and his retort to Stewart Lee absurd. But he also had a point. You can prove anything with facts.

What are facts? Philosophers have disagreed markedly on this question. Some see facts as referring to immutable truths and others see them as social constructs. But however one views them, it is clear that, in the modern world, facts are persuasive. A key idea of the Enlightenment was that through a search for facts, the ultimate truths about our world will be revealed and in the process we will come to improve it. The Enlightenment's achievement has been to accord science and scholarship a central place in modernity. The modern world has seen a massive growth in the institutions of scholarship - universities, think-tanks, publishing houses and journals. Anyone who wants to persuade people about the rightness of their ideas has to use the language of science, facts and scholarship.

But has the explosion of knowledge in the last couple of centuries led us to to a better world? Certainly we have seen staggering advances in medicine and in our understanding of our environment, to name but two areas of knowledge. But the modern world has also seen the despoiling of the earth; repeated genocidal slaughters; global starvation and pandemics; the destruction of communities and families; the pitiless stress caused by the submission of human values to the values of the market. Where was science and scholarship in all of this?

Some would argue that science is the problem. It is certainly true that Enlightenment ideas engendered a view of the natural world that treated it as subservient to humanity. It is certainly true that modernity's "bureaucratic rationality" has, as sociologists have argued, treated humans as "things" to be controlled. Clearly, science gives us the tools to damage the human condition as much as it does to improve it. But it is also true that, after over two centuries of concerted study of the natural world and of the human condition, we know enough about the world for it to be reasonably hoped that we could have improved the human condition more radically. It is not unreasonable to think that the advances in medicine, for example, could have been extended to reach the entire world, rather than just the richer parts of it.

A great refusal

A central reason why the condition of the world and of human beings has not improved more, is that the tools of science and scholarship have been turned against themselves. The problem is one of denial. Denial is a process in which systematic attempts are made to overturn an overwhelming consensus against overwhelming evidence, using pseudo-scholarly tools, for dangerous ends.

openDemocracy writers explore questions of belief, Enlightenment and modernity in current political contexts:

Ian Christie, "Three visions of politics: Europe in the millennial world" (30 May 2002)

Roger Scruton, "Immanuel Kant and the Iraq war" (19 February 2004)

Colin MacCabe, "Mumbo-jumbo's survival instinct" (1 February 2005)

Salman Rushdie, "Defend the right to be offended" (7 February 2005)

Michael Edwards, "Love, reason and the future of civil society" (22 December 2005)

Tony Curzon Price, "Making up minds" (23 July 2007)

Debora MacKenzie, "A prescription for terror" (30 July 2007)

Denial is a response to the darker sides of modernity. Every potential breakthrough in our understanding of the environment has been contested by deniers with vested interests. The negative effects of pesticides exposed in 1962 by Rachel Carson in her bestselling Silent Spring, were denied by the pesticide industry. For a long time the tobacco industry denied the harmful nature of cigarettes. Today the scientific breakthroughs that resulted in the discovery of man-made global warming are hotly denied. HIV is denied as a cause of Aids and it is denied that condoms are an effective prophylactic against infection. More generally, evolution and the manifold breakthoughs in our understanding of nature that it has engendered is denied by "creation scientists".

Denial is not confined to the natural sciences. Every modern genocide, for example, has been denied at the time and after the event - from the Nazi slaughter of the Jews and the Ottoman empire's slaughter of the Armenians, to contemporary events in Darfur. Israelis deny that Palestinians were expelled from their homes and Palestinians deny ancient Jewish links to Jerusalem. Nor is denial confined to the political right. Sections of the left have denied that genocide occurred in Cambodia or Bosnia (both of them positions of which Noam Chomsky has been accused).

The published products of "denial scholarship" look like conventional scholarship - and therein lies denial's potency. Denial works because very few of us are experts in any field of scholarship. Given a credible, scholarly-looking argument, given a carefully marshalled set of statistics and facts, how can anyone other than an expert argue with a denier?

True, experts have done tireless and valuable work in debunking the deniers' arguments, but those who confrontdenial often misunderstand the phenomenon. Denial is often dismissed as an "anti-Enlightenment" phenomenon, as "supersitition", as "pseudo-scientific", as "mumbo-jumbo". Yet deniers usually claim that they are the true upholders of the values of Enlightenment, the true seekers of truth.

Further, those who seek to debunk denial often overestimate the power of scholarship to convince deniers of their folly. Deniers are so wedded to their views that they will not revise them no matter what. Denial scholarship is based on a continuous search to find new ways to cast doubt on scientific truths, to find infinitesimal errors and inconsistencies in legitimate scholarship.

Such is the touching faith in science and progress of many experts, that they often end up being simultaneously ineffectual and bullying in their confrontations with deniers. Richard Dawkins has demolished creation science on countless occasions, and in his anger at its persistence has gone on to rage at religion and superstition as the principle cause of evil in the world. In doing so he fails to appreciate how those who deny evolution are themselves wedded to scientific language.

There is a limit to how far denial can be combatted by scholarly and scientific means alone. Rather, we need to look at why denial happens in order to prevent it. It is clear that denial is frequently used to protect vested interests. It is hardly surprising that sections of the petrochemical industry have funded studies denying global warming, as a cut in fossil-fuel consumption would threaten them. It is hardly surprising that fundamentalist Christians have denied evolution given that it threatens their literal understanding of the bible. It is hardly surprising that neo-Nazis have denied the Shoah as it makes their cause look evil.

A mental chloroform

But denial is not just about the protection of vested interests; it has deeper psychological roots. Psychologists and philosophers have shown that denial is a crucial part of human survival. In psychoanalysis, denial is a process in which human beings protect themselves against unbearable (self-) knowledge. In Ernest Becker's classic The Denial of Death, it is knowledge of mortality that is unbearable, and against which belief systems such as religions attempt to protect humanity.

Humanity's search for comfort and security against a cruel, mortal world can often lead us into embracing ideologies that are not only based on fear, prejudice and authoritarianism, but that also deny their own ultimate cruelty. What is interesting is that even those who embrace such ideologies frequently do so using language of care, love and human betterment. One legacy of the Enlightenment is that everyone claims to be on the side of progress and human betterment.

In the modern world it is inconceivable that a person might stand up and celebrate ignorance, pain and suffering, even if this is an inevitable consequence of his or her actions and views. Rather, the person is driven to deny that ignorance, pain and suffering is occurring or has occurred. That is why deniers cannot be persuaded by facts alone - they cannot back down, as to do so would result in the collapse of their entire worldview, their sense of self-worth.

The perversion of scholarship by denial can only be eradicated if there is no need for people to deny what they truly believe. People deny genocide because genocide is socially unacceptable in the modern world; they deny global warming because pollution is socially unacceptable; they deny evolution because fundamentalist ignorance is socially unacceptable. One way of eradicating denial would be to create the conditions for the affirmation of genocide, pollution and ignorance. If supporters of these evils would affirm rather than deny them, then we could have a proper debate with them.

Unpalatable? Of course. Impractical? Of course. But consider how endless debates about "the facts" impede proper discussion of values in society. All too often, crucial arguments degenerate into endless squabbling about some detail or other. For example, rather than addressing important questions regarding humanity's relationship to the earth, the global-warming debate often ends up as a to-and-fro about the meaning of a particular graph.

A return to source

What are our desires? How should we live? How should we relate to the earth? These are the questions that really matter, but we are still trapped in the Enlightenment assumption that such questions can be resolved through science and rational scholarship. This will not happen. Another legacy of Enlightenment has been the impoverishment of the language of values and meaning, or their relegation to discrete areas such as academic philosophy and theology.

In the political realm, talk about values and meaning is usually just windy rhetoric, without substance. But discussions of values and meaning need not only to be complex, far-reaching and difficult. They also need to be a part of all of our lives. In the end, there is no substitute for free and open debate about our desires and our visions of a better world. Denial is a pathological symptom of modernity's suppression of such debates.

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