Why We Deny

Article excerpt

States of Denial by Stan Cohen. Polity Press, 2001.

In Yom Kippur, religious Jews recite the ritual prayer of confession. They enumerate the sins of the collective "we"-"We have acted treasonably, aggressively, and slanderously ... perniciously, disdainfully, and erratically." For secular Jews, though, it is probably more meaningful to directly acknowledge political sins of omission and commission. "We have witnessed children starving and dying and done nothing; we have seen murderers, torturers and rapists, if not in action, then at least boasting and defending themselves; we have pretended not to see homeless beggars; we have thrown letters from worthy causes in the recycle bin." In States of Denial Stan Cohen speaks directly to this secular "conscience constituency." His imagined audience is

a nice thirty something couple sitting, with their breakfast coffee and croissants, in New York, London, Paris or Toronto. They pick up the morning newspaper: "Another Thousand Tutsis Massacred in Rwanda." In the mail plop two circular letters, one for Oxfam: "While you are eating your breakfast, ten more children starve to death in Somalia," and one from Amnesty: "While you are eating your lunch, eight streetchildren are killed in Brazil." What does this "news" do to them, and what do they do to the news? What goes through their minds? What do they say to each other?

Cohen's exploration of the individual, social, and cultural dimensions of denial is directed at "mostly the ethnocentric, culturally imperialist 'we'-- educated and comfortable people living in stable societies" ... people like the readers of TIKKUN. Denial is a highly developed skill, deeply embedded in culture and language. We are accustomed to "turning a blind eye" and to accepting "conspiracies of silence"; we allow ourselves to "look the other way" and to live in "wilful ignorance." Denial should be easy to counter. Not only can we recognize it in others, we even have a lexicon to describe the denial mechanisms of governments and officialdom. We know propaganda, whitewash, spin, misinformation, coverup and, of course, Orwell's "double-think" when we see them. Yet, as Stan Cohen makes clear, "denial is a presence that evaporates, the nearer you get to defining it." It is full of paradox.

Our everyday response to denial is sometimes outrage, frequently guilt, and more often helpless indifference-- the problems are too entrenched and "what can we do, anyway?" Cohen's insight is to see precisely these responses as part of the very problem of denial itself. On the one hand, pop psychology tells us that denial is bad, to be gotten rid of as fast as possible (ideally on "Oprah" in the presence of millions). On the other hand, we know that denial is integral to social functioning. Stan Cohen masterfully exposes the intricate matrix of forms of denial. Partial or full denial is practised by individuals, collectives, and states, who can be victims, perpetrators, or bystanders, about matters historical and contemporary. Cohen's sociological analysis explores the diverse scientific literature, including philosophy, cognitive psychology, and psychoanalysis. His most poignant examples draw on the rich research on the Holocaust. In each area, Cohen demonstrates how denial facilitates the "maintenance of social worlds in which an undesirable situation (event, condition, phenomenon) is unrecognized, ignored or made to seem normal."

"Think of the means, conscious and unconscious, 11 Cohen writes, 11 that is used by residents of Jerusalem, Belfast, Beirut, Bogata and Algiers to keep violence out of daily awareness. You cannot allow your knowledge of the risk to govern your routine; nor can you act without this knowledge." Denial protects and can even cure: cancer patients "in denial" do better because they shield themselves from unbearable stress and self-fulfilling fatalism. But there is a fine line: denial may have helped Jews in the Warsaw ghetto to face their daily ordeal, but the same capacity tragically made them oblivious to the reality of the threat until after it was too late. …