Understanding Denial

25 Apr



The concepts of cultural relativism and an emic perspective are basic to cultural anthropology. There are plenty of subtly different definitions of these terms. Here are two I particularly like:


Cultural relativism: Understanding another culture in its own terms sympathetically enough that the culture appears to be a coherent and meaningful design for living (Schultz and Lavenda 2014).

Emic: An approach to gathering data that investigates how local people think and how they understand the world (Guest 2014).


Both require understanding and are essential skills for any human in the 21st Century. These skills come to some of us more naturally than others. I’m fairly open-minded by nature, and have had plenty of training, but had occasionally overwhelming culture shock when working in the Central African Republic. I had to consciously practice cultural relativism – and still do sometimes. A great way to practice is by intentionally exposing yourself to beliefs and behaviors that seem inexplicable or nonsensical. And there are plenty to choose from.


What’s most surprising is that some of the behaviors I have the hardest time wrapping my head around occur within my own culture! Maybe this is because we expect far away cultures to be strange and those close-to-home to be familiar. Maybe the “weirdness” is more notable when it occurs in our own backyards.


All anthropologists have weak points in their relativistic armor. Mine are 1) a strong sense of morality, which makes it especially hard for me to objectively interpret practices that conflict with it and 2) what can be loosely lumped together as denialism: clinging to widely-discredited, counter-factual beliefs or opinions in the face of “beyond the shadow of a doubt” evidence. (Of course, if I was suffering from severe denial, I wouldn’t know it!).


Well-documented perspectives that can classified as denialism are: creationism, climate change denial, people who think the moon landing was a hoax, flat earthers, “birthers,” anti-vaxxers, people who doubt links between smoking and cancer or HIV and AIDS, holocaust deniers, 9/11 truthers, etc. We’ve all met people who are dogmatic about absurdities and seemingly impervious to contradictory evidence. And it’s very easy to come up with rational explanations for their irrationality. Still, I’ve never felt like I really understood where they’re coming from.


Irrationality in response to emotional trauma is easy to understand. In his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, author Michael Specter notes: “We have all been in denial at some point in our lives; faced with truths too painful to accept, rejection often seems the only way to cope. Under those circumstances, facts, no matter how detailed or irrefutable, rarely make a difference” (2009:3). Yet some forms of denial, like “moon landing skeptics,” aren’t particularly tied to strong negative emotions or personal suffering.


Undoubtedly, tons of psychological and sociological studies have been conducted on this phenomenon, and I’m simply unaware of them. I would speculate that a denialist’s personal identity gets inseparably intertwined with his or her “strange” beliefs; to abandon the belief would be to lose his or her sense of purpose or self – but I’m way beyond my field of expertise with this speculation.


Donald Prothero’s Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future is an excellent overview of the many forms of American denialism. Michael Shermer’s foreword to Prothero’s book includes the best explanation of the process of denialist reasoning I know of:

“Denialism is typically driven by ideology, politics, or religious beliefs, in which the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence for or against it. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to assure that the belief is always supported” (Prothero 2013:xiii).


Shermer describes a pretty sophisticated and self-reinforcing system of denial. As someone who values empirical evidence above all else, it’s hard to accept this perversion of the scientific method. For me, reliable facts are the objective – even if they only lead to an ambiguous or tentative conclusion. For a denialist, sustaining a preconceived “conclusion” is the objective – even if evidence must be ignored or forced through the narrow funnel of belief. I guess I can understand that, even as I fervently disagree with it.


Interestingly, both books cited above include “Threaten” in their titles. Do you see denialism as a threat or harmless oddity?

One Response to “Understanding Denial”

  1. JollyBlog 04/25/2014 at 8:16 pm #

    American denialism is so odd! Sometimes I think powerless people find something contradictory to say to the “elite” scientists and cling to that contradictory information as they would a limb. The way that power structures work, many people equate science with “power” and they are really trying to stick it to the man. I hope that made sense…a little tired.

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