Denialism and its Discontents
How to Dialogue With Those Holding Opposing Views
A century ago, Sigmund Freud published one his most influential books, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The key concept was that primitive human desires were necessarily at odds with the demands of civilization aimed at the well-being of the entire community. This civilizing influence gives rise to a perpetual discontent as our personal desires are held in check. Yet those personal desires, even when hidden, influence the way we think. Rationalization, bias and denial are examples of such influence. In the public sphere today we are seeing something far more extreme, a practice of thought some refer to as denialism.
The Desire That Things Be Different
In a recent Long Read article for the Guardian, Keith Kahn-Harris lays out the case that the tendency for people to deny what they do not want to hear has taken a decided turn for the worse. In the past, most deniers, such as flat-earthers or biblical literalists, tended to be marginalized. Their writing made few inroads in mainstream thinking and they were accorded neither respect nor material reward for espousing those positions. This is no longer the case. Denials and conspiracy theories are much more widely held and expressed, and are being promoted more vigorously, to a public that seems far more willing to entertain them.
I believe there are two interrelated trends that have radically changed the social environment for deniers. The first is a continuing increase in skepticism about both scientific findings and claims of moral authority. This skepticism is partly due to the competing accusations of religious and scientific partisans, and partly due to increasing complexity and uncertainty and the accelerating pace of change. The second is the explosive growth of open, non-selective publishing platforms (social media) for the dissemination of fact, opinion, comedy and entertainment regardless of merit. Indeed, these platforms offer significant profits for those who accumulate large numbers of followers, no matter how outrageous the content.
There is now enough generalized doubt in the public mind that someone can express skepticism for anything – from vaccines, to the holocaust, to climate change, to the terror attack on 9/11 – and not be hooted off the stage. Moreover, when such statements are challenged and “debunked” by those with mainstream views, that counterattack can be used by the skeptic as evidence of a conspiracy. The denial of any such conspiracy by the debunkers is then taken as confirmation that a conspiracy exists, in a vicious and self-reinforcing spiral of impermeable illogic. The famous Holocaust denier David Irving went to jail in Austria for his views, but he remains a hero to his defenders. They see him as a truthsayer who survived Jewish-led attempts to silence him.
What drives this behavior? According to Kahn-Harris, it begins with the desire for things to be different than they are. Underneath a person’s denial of any given fact, narrative explanation or moral conclusion is a desire — they would like it to be otherwise. This fits nicely with Freud’s thesis. Skepticism and disbelief reflect a discontent with the way things are. It’s a natural response for all humans in the face of bad news or negative feedback. Denial resolves this discontent by affirming the person’s desire and rejecting the conflicting information. That rejection can solidify into elaborate countering thoughts, rationalizations and conspiracies, all designed, even if unconsciously, to validate the individual’s desire that sits at the heart of this process.
Denial becomes denialism when someone makes a choice to believe the unbelievable and adopt the conspiracy explanation, because they want it to be true. One of the best examples is President Trump’s claim that his inauguration crowd in January 2017 was the biggest in history. The claim was ludicrous, as shown in photographs, yet the President did not back down. Instead, he claimed the photos had been doctored by the media, and he berated them for producing fake news. In an interesting twist, it was recently reported that the official government photos were actually the ones that were doctored, in an attempt to make the crowd look bigger than it was. Yet the President has never backed down from his claims and, apparently, has never paid a price for it among his supporters.
Given the President’s desire to be seen favorably, we can understand his motivation for denial and his subsequent choices to double down on the claims, however much we might detest it. From a public communications and political perspective he has been masterful in maintaining a strong base of support among those who, like him, want to believe what he is saying, in spite of how unbelievable it really is.
The Structure of Thinking
Julia Galef in a recent SALT talk, “Soldiers and Scouts: Why our minds weren’t built for truth”, identifies the mode of thinking that is operating in the denial process as “soldier thinking”. Soldiers take orders, and their primary function is defense. When a person is in the soldier mode of thinking, the rational mind takes orders from the internal motivations and intentions, the desires of that person. Scout thinking, in contrast, has the goal of acquiring and gathering knowledge and information. A scout is curious and alert, paying attention to things on the horizon that may be unclear or uncertain. Rather than taking something as a given, the scout is cognizant of the possibility, and the risk, of being wrong.
Soldier thinking will seek to protect a person’s internal motivations and desires, particularly when challenged or threatened. Anger and fear are both very potent stimulants for soldier thinking, leading to denial of things a person does not want to hear. According to Galef, we have far too much soldier thinking going on in our culture. We need more scouts.
In the current public sphere, including politics and media as a whole, what gets attention is conflict or controversy. I once heard a top national reporter a few years ago say that her job was to explore areas of controversy by finding the most articulate commenters on the two opposing ends of the spectrum. She admitted this probably contributed to polarization. It also gives equal credibility to both sides of any argument. It is admirable for journalists to seek fairness, but giving equal time to extreme views is not in the public interest. Under the illogic of denialism, it has become “unfair” and a symptom of “fake news” to deny equal time and equal credibility to conspiracy theories, absurd claims and outright falsities.
If Denialism is the Disease, What is the Cure?
One thing is clear. Conventional debunking does not work. The confrontation is actually counterproductive in the face of denialist thinking. It just feeds the cycle.
Two years ago I wrote an article on the Post-Truth era for Peace News highlighting the problem faced by activists in their efforts to educate the public. Based on research by Dan Kahan of the Yale Cultural Cognition Lab, it was clear that educational efforts in climate change and on the science religion debate had failed. More data and more facts do not change opinions. Moreover, the research indicated that both sides of these debates could be equally guilty of rationalization and moralizing arguments grounded on ideology. I suggested then that activists needed to change their communication strategy from fact-based arguments and confrontation to conversations sensitive to the identity concerns that seemed to be driving that ideology.
This is incredibly difficult to do, particularly since activists and progressives are guilty of the same soldier thinking as right-wing conservatives. What the two groups want to believe is just different.
Julia Galef brings another dimension to the problem. We tend to be dominant in soldier thinking, approaching a dialogue like a confrontation between pugilists on opposite sides of the ring. What we need is more scout thinking, more curiosity, a more inquiring approach. Critically, this means being curious about our own motivations and intentions as well as those with whom we may disagree. This point echoes the wisdom in the famous verse from Matthew 7:5, “First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
I’ve also made the case previously that some of the decline in the credibility of science has been self-inflicted. The radical increase in specialization and complexity may be a testament to advance in the sciences, but it has made science less accessible, less comprehensible and more uncertain to the public. Some scientists and science advocates have also waged war against religion, not just creationists or extremists, but all religion. Some have also made a habit of making metaphysical claims as if they were science. It should not be a surprise that many find this to be arrogant and demeaning. Greater humility, on the part of scientists and advocates of science, would be very helpful in improving the image of science.
Curiosity, self-reflection, and humility are the antidote, if not the cure, for denialism.
Resolving the Discontents
Earlier this year I was seated next to a retired military veteran from New Hampshire on a cross-country flight. During the flight we began to chat, and the conversation drifted into the topic of guns and gun control. I am strongly in favor of stronger gun control and find the arguments of the pro-gun advocates both illogical and morally offensive. He was a skilled marksman, a hunter and a member of the NRA. In an attempt to take my own advice, I opened up the conversation with questions about his experiences and his current occupation as rural policeman. He was very interesting, and very courteous, and, like me, interested in the future welfare of his children in a rapidly changing world. I then began to ask his views on the gun control debate, and he reiterated his belief in the second amendment and the right to bear arms. I asked what his views were on individuals owning military style weapons, which he thought was OK. I posed a question wondering whether such weapons would really be very useful in the face of a “government over-reach”, given the kind of arsenal the US military could employ. He was unsure. I asked in a curious tone whether the right to bear arms meant that an individual should be able to own a tank. He paused, and then said maybe that was not such a good idea. He would have to think about it. We parted as friends, neither of us having raised our voice. But something had shifted.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, direct confrontation of hard-core denialists is the worst strategy. That strategy is grounded in soldier thinking, and the response is going to be in-kind. The best approach is probably just to ignore their denials. We should, in contrast, seek to engage with them in a way that encourages scout thinking. This involves curious, honest inquiry and dialogue. Such encounters may help them to hold their convictions a bit more loosely in the future. At the same time, we have to be prepared to evaluate our own convictions, and be willing to change them in the face of reliable facts and sound arguments to the contrary.
This is challenging but, in my opinion, need not be a source of perpetual discontent. Freud was too pessimistic. Holding ourselves to a standard of respect, civility, curiosity and humility is not a continual frustration of our personal desires. Most of us truly want the world to be a better place, and to see all of humanity thrive. The willingness to admit we could be wrong, and the courage to explore and potentially embrace other possibilities, should be affirming to our self-esteem and sense of personal satisfaction. And, at a personal level, will our lives not be better with more friends and fewer enemies?