Denial is everywhere.
We deny our mortality, our illness, our addictions, our desires, our deep longings and our fears. Some personal denials are also collective phenomena. Although the denials of sexual abuse, of a migration crisis, of facts and of climate change, are current phenomena that have grave consequences, surely the Holocaust is the paradigm exemplar of a collective denial. I recently went to see the film Denial somewhat nervous of what it might show. This short blog is a reflection on the many faces of denial evoked by that trip.
Deborah Lipstadt, the American historian whose legal battle with Holocaust denier David Irving has been made into a film based of David Hare’s screen play, writes in Atlantic magazine.
“Hardcore denial is the kind of thing I encountered in the courtroom. In an outright and forceful fashion, Irving denied the facts of the Holocaust.” She distinguishes this from soft denial, writing, “Softcore denial uses different tactics but has the same end-goal ... It does not deny the facts, but it minimises them, arguing that Jews use the Holocaust to draw attention away from criticism of Israel. Softcore denial also makes all sorts of false comparisons to the Holocaust.”
This is remarkably similar to what David Hoexter describes as ‘soft climate denial’ in his Pocket Handbook of Soft Climate Denial, which he contrast with the hard denial of the Heartland think tank and climate lobbies.
The film holds a strange dissonance. While passionately making the case for defending the truth whatever the costs – emotional and financial – it parallels the courtroom insistence of not giving space to the emotions. There are many parallels with Climate Change. Climate science, because of the inevitable uncertainties built into the scientific inquiry of natural phenomena, has been subject to unscrupulous distortions and the spreading of exaggerated doubts. Similarly David Irving, as played by Timothy Spall, ambushes Lipstadt in her academic lecture, daring anyone to produce proof of Hitler’s involvement in the Holocaust while knowing full well that she will refuse to debate with him.
Given the success of the actual court case – Irving was found to be a conscious falsifier of evidence and a racist – we can not argue with the legal strategy for not using the testament of holocaust survivors. In the film, Lipstadt is shown struggling with her own feisty activist self who was desperate to give survivors a voice. This was deemed unwise by her legal team because of how Irving might exploit this dramatic situation by sowing doubts about the accuracy of emotional testament. Similarly the emotional advocacy of climate change has been shown to often alienate rather than persuade. An excellent example of this is George Marshall’s warning about enemy narratives such as demonising oil companies and right-wing exploiters. It is easy for the hostility evoked to backfire and for environmentalist to become the enemy. Writing in the Guardian (November 2016), Marshall says, “The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible. We are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome.”
This can be difficult where the denial is flagrant, insulting, outrageous and hence infuriating, which is often the intention of the outright deniers in their desire to stoke up the binary nature of an enemy narrative that makes thinking so difficult and defensive retaliation so easy. As well as in politics, such attacks are common in the therapeutic setting. The therapist job is not only to survive the attack (although that is a necessary start) but to try to make sense of how s/he is being used in this encounter. Here, in contrast to the courtroom, emotions are the medium of exchange. Often something that has been felt unbearably toxic is split off and projected onto the therapist. If they can avoid the retaliation, bear what feels intolerable, then the client may be able to join them in a joint healing venture that dissolves denial. As Winnicott imagined a baby saying,’ I love you because you have survived my destruction of you.’ (D.W Winnicott, Winnicott on the Child).
But how can this delicate process survive outside the safe container of the consulting room? It cannot - at least not in my experience. There needs to be other containers and other methods that are congruent with a wider social and cultural environment. But it does show that some strong emotions can have a vital place and while anxiety and fear can be dangerous disablers, shame and outrage can become the very means of bearing what has felt to be unbearable. The social psychology of shame is well developed (N Elias, The Civilizing Process) in studying the devastating effects of shaming in the family, groups and society. A public shaming is not only humiliating but it also accrues a stigma for those shamed that is a terrible but effective means of socialisation. While outrage is also a reaction to social conditions, such as injustice, abuse and torture – the very things that can also lead to shame – it is a centrifugal force that leads to social action whereas shame is centripetal, leading towards a silent retreat inside.
How different societies shame and permit or deny outrage is dependent on many layers of acculturation and tribal memory that develop over time. Our Western culture specialises in escaping from painful experiences – it is avoidant, seeking pleasure and celebrity. Shame is clearly in the collective shadow and hence carries the potent charge of a complex. Thomas Singer (The Cultural Complex: Contemporary Jungian Perspectives on Psyche and Society) has described the formation of Cultural Complexes that help understand how the collective psyche of a culture activates reaction to conflict situations such as in racial prejudice. Whereas public scapegoating is often used socially to project a cultural shame onto a minority, the willing exposure of a painful truth, a confession that we may fear to be shaming, can be liberating and create an ethical imperative for others to speak up. Recognition of collusion in our society’s destructive habits can bring an existential shame that leads to radical change in behaviour.
Deborah Lipstadt was outraged by David Irving’s flagrant misrepresentations of the Holocaust and his prejudice in supporting Hitler. He seemed shameless and continued to boast even after his court defeat – demonstrating his capacity to deny the reality/truth of the legal judgement. From an ethical perspective, the court ruling had made no impact. There was no confession or contrition for Irving. Yet a truth was upheld and a shameful episode in Western society exposed even though many persons attempted to persuade Lipsadt not risk such a public court hearing and settle out of court.
In this short blog I hope to have outlined both how denial is a complex phenomena touching on strong emotions that we may want to avoid but giving them a place can bring truth. Denial is not simply an individual issue but often stems from cultural complexes. Not surprisingly I also consider that climate change denial is bound up with our cultural complexes. There is something about the uncertainties of climate that runs against the whole industrial complex that seeks to bring ‘Nature’ under control. It is not a matter of simply clarifying the science, offering ways for individuals to change without sacrificing too much comfort, nor even of persuading us to look into the future for our children or grandchildren. There is a profoundly unconscious dynamic at work in our culture that binds us to denial – as if our lives depended on it. And they do for even if the planet can continue without humans, our ‘cultural life’ is dependent on our unbinding.