All of us have at one time or another been in denial about something. Denial shields us from painful realities, and although it is often destructive, it serves a psychological purpose of a sort. ‘Denialism’ can be described as a tendency towards denial that comes to shape the whole psyche of an individual or a culture; a pervasive shunning of the truth in various ways. It is no longer content to simply close its eyes to reality but seeks to build a rival reality.
The term has gained traction in recent times as a means of describing various schools of thought that seem determined to go against the grain of historical and scientific knowledge, from flat earth theorists to climate change deniers and even holocaust deniers. Is it useful to paint them all with the brush of ‘denialism’? Keith Kahn-Harris believes that we can indeed speak of a general phenomenon which is moving out of the shadows into the mainstream, aided by the ease with which countless sources of information are available to us in the age of the internet. He writes that “denialism is a mix of corrosive doubt and corrosive credulity”, because once you start mistrusting the established authorities of information, you may be open to believing just about anyone. For denialists, the very attempt to silence or debunk them strengthens their cause—proof that the powers that be are suppressing the truth.
Can we identify an underlying cause? Conspiracy theories have been popular for a long time, but it is only more recently that similar theories have been seen to threaten society. Nor are all conspiracy theories necessarily examples of denialism—many have been proven true, and many still can at the very least not be proven false. It is also likely that people would not scrutinise events and look for alternative explanations if they had complete trust in the authorities; “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” may not have become the rallying cry of sceptics after 9/11 had the Bush administration previously shown itself to be impeccably trustworthy. Similarly, the Flat Earth theory relies heavily on the assumption that NASA and many world governments are simply lying for some reason of their own—difficult to believe, perhaps, but not without historical precedent. So, denialism relies on a mistrust which is already to some extent valid. But in some cases it can be said to feed on mistrust and exploit it rather than being a victim of it. Denial of a genocide, for example, is not a neutral belief born of ignorance and credulity but rather a violent attempt to discredit and re-vilify a marginalised group. Similarly, it is hard to believe that industry executives and politicians who benefit financially from industrial activity are simply naïve in their denial of man-made climate change.
Applicants interested in studying Politics, Philosophy, or Psychology may be interested in the concept of denial and denialism from a psychological or sociological perspective. Are we living in a “post-truth” culture? If so, what has shaped this? Some argue that we are now moving towards “post-denialism” which is anarchic and lazy rather than painstaking and disciplined; do you agree?
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