The seductions of denial

14 09 2007
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Keith Kahn-Harris in Open Democracy

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?

More here.

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