As a psychiatrist commenting on the political situation in our world, I have written numerous times about the rampant psychological denial that has characterized the behavior of many people in the U.S. and around the world since September 11, 2001. This denial is one of the most significant factors that impede America's (and the world's) ability to respond appropriately and effectively to the threat that radical Islam poses to western civilization.
In recent days, this denial has been even more obvious. The release of a brief movie trailer for United 93 has stimulated some discussion and even resentment in some--just because it forces them to have to relive that awful day; and they would rather pretend that it never happened.
The Moussaoui trial is also opening up the painful wounds of 9/11 as we relive the horrors that the victims faced, and are reminded again what is at stake in the ongong war on terror.
Some people need to only to be gently nudged into remembering. It is natural and quite human to want to avoid unpleasant memories, so that one can go on an live one's life.
But denial is not just simple avoidence of unpleasant memories. It is not a natural method of coping for a mature adult (except possibly as a brief interlude to allow the psyche time to assimilate reality). Denial is a break from reality itself; and as such, it can have serious--even deadly consequences.
The pervasive denial of the reality of 9/11 and what it exposed is most evident in the political left; but it is certainly not confined to that side of the political spectrum. However, the left has many, ready-made ideological tools to facilitate psychological denial about terrorism and the treat of radical Islam; in large part because they have been utilizing the same denial strategy and tactics since the end of the cold war and the 20th century.
The rise of politically correct speech; the dogma of multiculturalism; the homogeneity of ideas and lack of intellectual diversity in academia; as well as the distortions and rationalizations that are currently the hallmark of intellectual debate within our institutions of higher learning and politics-- have all combined to accentuate the failure to assimilate and analyze the reality of the terrorist threat.
Two earlier posts summarize psychological denial in some detail:
IN DENIAL and IN DENIAL - The Bill Is In The Mail ***UPDATED***
Denial may be conceptualized as an attempt to reject unacceptable feelings, needs, thoughts, wishes--or even a painful external reality that alters the perception of ourselves. This psychological defense mechanism protects us temporarily from:
-Knowledge (things we don’t want to know)
-Insight or awareness that threatens our self-esteem; or our mental or physical health; or our security (things we don't want to think about)
-Unacceptable feelings (things we don’t want to feel)
The unacceptable knowledge is that we are in the midst of a terrible global war that we neither wanted nor provoked; and that there are evil people who want to destroy our civilization and kill or enslave all of us.
The insight that threatens to overwhelm them is that all of their political correctness; all of their multicultural BS; in fact, all of the shibboleths and platitudes of the the left that have been the glue holding together the house of cards of their ideology since the end of the last century, are no longer capable of preventing the collapse and disintegration of that ideology. If they think about it long and hard enough, they might even begin to realize the horrible truth: that in order for their ideology to survive, they must bet--all or nothing--on a win by the Islamic fanatics who want to destroy us all (including them).
The unacceptable feelings are a combination of impotent rage and burning hatred that threaten a deluded self concept. For decades now, they have told themselves that they are peaceful, loving, compassionate and just; that they stand for freedom and the empowerment of the little guy-- and now they cannot avoid looking in the mirror to see what their delusions have wrought.
The only way to avoid being submerged by all this reality is to embrace the denial ever more tightly and descend deeper into delusion and paranoia.
We see that many people--particularly on the left-- are doing exactly all those things, rather than to face the truth; re-evaluate their premises and come to grips with an unpleasant reality that must be avoided at all costs. There are even those who have been willing to betray their own country and their fellow citizens for a few extra moments of supercilious self-righteousness and the ability to feel smug and superior. They appear to have no awareness of the extensive damage they are doing; the precedents they are setting; and the carnage they are enabling.
The thing about denial is that it requires a considerable amount of self-delusion to be able to maintain it; and the longer it is maintained, the more hysterical and desperate become the attempts to preserve it.
So, what is a rational person to do when faced with this kind of intractable denial on the part of their fellow citizens? How can one reach them? As one commenter stated, "If 9/11 doesn't shake them out of their complacency, then what will?"
That is what I hope to address in this three-part series.
In this first part I will address the many faces of psychological denial.
Part II will focus on psychological denial and the logical fallacies used by deniers to rationalize their denial.
Part III will discuss strategies for dealing with denial in one's self and in others.
There are a wide variety of ways that psychological denial can be expressed by a person who is unconsciously defending or protecting themselves from unwanted knowledge, thoughts, or feelings. What follows is a partial list of denial strategies. Human ingenuity being what it is, I couldn't possibly list all the possible strategies.
The most obvious strategy is simple, or outright, denial. This is the basic technique of maintaining that something is true/not true despite all evidence to the contrary. It is usually encapsulated in slick slogans that can be mindlessly repeated until they take on the characteristics of some fundamental "truth". They are in fact, the kind of "big lie" that distorts reality and oozes its way into human consciousness effortlessly.
EXAMPLE: "Islam is a Religion of Peace."
EXAMPLE: "Bush Lied, People Died!"
This technique is characterized by making excuses or alibis for inapproriate behavior by creating "logical" explanations for what is basically illogical.
EXAMPLE: "Poverty is the 'root-cause' of Terrorism."
Minimizing or Discounting
In this type of denial, a person may actually admit to denial or acknowledge the problem; but his attitude is basically, "what's the big deal?"
EXAMPLE: "Why should we be concerned if Iran has nuclear weapons?"
EXAMPLE: "Europe has nothing to fear from its immigrant Muslim population"
Evasion and Displacement
In this strategy, the fundamental or essential issue is ignored by focusing on a "red herring" issue that may be quite similar to the real problem; but strikingly misses the real point.
EXAMPLE: "We should be worried about the imminent imposition of a Christian theocracy in the U.S."
EXAMPLE: "Bush is more of a threat than Bin Laden" (Better known as BDS)
"Affect Storm" or Exaggerated Emotional Responses
This is a hyperemotional response to anything that threatens the veneer of denial or that questions the motivations of the denier. It is described in detail by ShrinkWrapped in this post.
EXAMPLE: Take your pick among the usual ad hominem attacks leveled at anyone who has the audacity to disagree with the person in denial or to question his denial.
Aggression and Attack
This is the physical counterpart of the affect storm; and as the title suggests, it is physical aggression directed at anyone who threatens the continuation of denial.
EXAMPLE: Violent demonstrations, ostensibly for "peace"
Projection or Blaming
Denying responsibility for one's own behavior and projecting responsibility onto someone else. The behavior itself is not denied, but someone else is to "blame" for causing it--not the person who acted .
EXAMPLE: "The U.S. deserved (or, is to blame for) the events of 9/11" or, "The Jews (or Israel) were behind the attacks".
This strategy is particularly fascinating because it is an attempt to use reason and logic to justify the denial and to support the rationalizations that underlie it. This will be more throroughly discussed in Part II; as will the next denial strategy.
Postmodern Rhetoric and Contradictory Discourses
In history of denial, the philosophy of postmodernism which burst on the human scene about half a century ago, is probably the most recently developed denial strategy. It is usually resorted to when "intellectualization" and "rationalization" fail to convince others that one is "reality-based". It is at that point in the discussion that reality (and truth) are then abandoned with alacrity for the typical rhetorical tactics of postmodernism.
I have discussed postmodern rhetoric and contradictory discourses here , here and here. But the best source for understanding the full implications of postmodernism , and which I highly recommend is Stephen Hicks' book.
It is important to reiterate that the use of postmodern rhetoric is usually a desperate attempt on the part of the denier when he recognizes that logic, reason, and reality actually argue against his beliefs or purposes. This strategy can often take the form of redefining or distorting language and ideas so that they conform to ones pre-existing attitudes and emotions.
EXAMPLE: "Everything is relative anyway."
EXAMPLE: "Objective truth does not exist"
EXAMPLE: "Truth is relative and my feelings are just as important as your facts."
EXAMPLE: "My reality is just as significant as yours"
EXAMPLE: "Reality is an illusion."
The many examples of this kind of rhetoric go on and on and we have all heard them thrown at us--usually at the end of an argument that someone has lost.
One of more humorous aspects of the widespread psychological denial since 9/11 is that those who are wallowing in the deepest sort of denial have taken to referring to themselves as "the reality-based community". They like to think of themselves as objective and scientific; devoted to truth and completely and totally in touch with reality. Sadly for them, however, it takes more than being anti-Christian to be "scientific"; more than devotion to their own secular ideology to be able to appreciate the "truth;" and more than shouting at each other in a reverberating echo chamber to be "in touch with reality".
In Part II, I will look at some of the logical fallacies that are regularly used by the members of this community in debate; as as an attempt to "prove" that they, and they alone are in possession of the "ultimate truth"--even as they simultaneously claim that truth is relative.
Understanding the pseudo-intellectual pose assumed by those in denial is necessary to understand how to most effectively deal with them.