We occupy a meme saturated world, much of it a result of the information explosion that accompanied the ignition of fossil fuels. Denial – the opposite of belief has become an important strategy in preserving a clear head from the pollution of toxic information swilling around us. We all operate within particular resources of time and space and must filter the information that comes our way. Much of this happens without any conscious effort and we navigate our days essentially guided by punishment and reward instincts which have stood us and our ancestors in good stead. We share this guidance system with many in the animal kingdom and for the most part it works exceptionally well. Humans however get a very wide spectrum of information directly from the world and some of this includes information received from others either directly or indirectly through one of the many media of information exchanges.
The ability to transmit information through abstract symbols, verbal and visual languages, and traditions has enabled humans to exploit the world around them and to become biologically successful. Language enabled groups of individuals to become organized to acquire and accumulate knowledge and to pass it on to others. This knowledge included basic facts about the world; [this is what barley looks like], as well as higher forms of knowledge - traditions and values; [this is when and where is it best to plant barley]. Belief in what one’s elders said about material resources had its obvious advantages. This was fine when the information matched the world and was sufficiently detailed to be useful.
However information is not always accurate, up to date or clearly passed on and can be corrupted accidentally or deliberately. Humans also discovered the advantages of with-holding or pitching information intended to deceive those they competed against. So the utility of information needed to be weighed against the disadvantages of mis-information or dis-information. The ability to discern the difference between beneficial, neutral and damaging information is therefore of critical importance for individuals and groups in a competition for resources.
Belief and denial are alternative conclusion points in the process of determining what course of action is best in the circumstances. An element of choice is involved in assessing information and feeling whether it fits with the world one has experienced. (If the information does fit one’s experience there is a greater chance that the information will be believed and where necessary acted upon, including the option to seek further information). Information that conflicts with experience will be pondered, and is more likely to be denied and put to one side. Such mis-matching information may even give cause for concern to the receiver’s relationship with the sender.
Over time we learn to trust certain sources of information more than others, [our best friend telling us we have bad breath is more troublesome than a snide adversary]. Some information is more important than others [you have received an email from realplayer vs. you have received an email from an old flame] and the knowledge is tagged with an emotional marker which indicates its significance. This tagging (or message amplification) has two sub-conscious effects: firstly it makes the event register on our memory; secondly it forces important information through the mental filters that guard our precious mental space – our consciousness. When the news is of life changing significance; [I’m sorry but you have cancer], it can set off a cascade of feelings that quickly overwhelm us. In this situation denial can be recruited as a strategy to mitigate the paralyzing affects of bad news. This is particularly so when the consequences of the bad news are at some point in the future, and we can go on living, avoiding an awful truth.
Denial takes a number of forms and expressions depending on the attitude of the person and the scariness of the issue that confronts them.
The most obvious denial devices are ridicule and “argumendum ad hominem” attacks on the messenger. The denier engages with the issue only long enough to determine that a response to shut down the issue is warranted. This could be driven by an exaggerated feeling of anger or fear and might include physical attack as well as emotional/verbal abuse. Ad hominem attacks need not be overt nor emotional and are highly effective when kept carefully neutral. [“Well they would say that, wouldn’t they!”], is essentially an attack on the messenger strongly implying bias. This shifts the focus from the point at issue to another which the denier is less threatened by. This tactic has been termed replacement, evasion or displacement.
A variant of ad hominem attack is to call into question the perspective of the messenger – in particular whether they are a pessimist or an optimist. Such labeling is a giveaway that an attempt is being made to avoid engagement with the issue. This can be taken a step further by the denier stating that he/she is an optimist, and the messenger by implication must therefore be a pessimist. This switches the focus from the point at issue to one which the denier is probably happier to focus on – himself. If the messenger buys into the counter-argument offered it leaves them struggling on vague subjective territory.
Similar appeals to bias of perspective have been used with devastating effect by those with politically correct agendas who attempt to silence debate on issues because those who oppose them may not be black/gay/female/disabled/whatever. Rhetoric such as “what could you possibly know about such and such because you’re a white anglo-saxon middle-class so and so” is an emotional blunderbuss that should be seen for the contemptible attitude it reveals and perhaps parodied to underline the bankruptcy of the argument.
Inappropriate analogies can be used to refute or accept issues. One classic analogy is that “truth is like an elephant in a darkened room. One person feels the trunk, another the ears, and they all come to different conclusions about what truth is.” It is amazing how many people actually swallow this analogy and fail to consider why truth might be more like a candle that illuminates - than an elephant, (that does what elephants do). Analogies are powerful levers in debates where an element of subjectivity is present, so must be treated with care.
Parallel with elephantine analogies are post-modern arguments which attempt to equate experience with reality. Po-mo “discourses” (as ideas are called in the rapidly fading philosophy of post-modernism), quickly lead one down “disrupted” unsustainable paths into nebulous pseudo-intellectualism. [What we know about the world is “mediated” through our senses, reality is just a construct of the mind, my reality is not your reality etc] ad nauseum. [There is no truth except for the truth that there is no truth, therefore we can all do whatever we want]. One logical extension of this is that Hitler was essentially a good man because he was true to himself. – Really?
Euphemistic language intended to minimize the affects of an issue is another form of denial. Describing civilians killed by bombs as collateral damage, or an aborted foetus as a product of conception are two that readily come to mind. We are deluged by such language whose primary purpose is to frame debates so that a particular mindset is adopted. The framing of issues is a powerful tool of propaganda that is beyond the scope of this short essay, but it is worth noting if only as a bullet-point. Advocates of any issue, including peak oil use this tool of rhetoric as much as anybody, but they can also be on the receiving end also and should be able to recognize it. Just as safe sex is more acceptable to an individualistic society than abstinence, in the minds of the majority a carbon credit system is probably the condom equivalent that people will find more acceptable than curtailment of their desire to travel. After 2 or more generations the freedom to travel is now a deeply embedded freedom that will not be given away without a fight.
The trivial end of denial is an unconscious habit used to insulate sensitive personalities from all manner of unpleasant truths. Many of us practice self-deception whether in the form of false belief or false denial with such skill that we surprise ourselves when we come to understand what motives we have been operating under. The clever dark parts of our minds, the parts that arrange the stage scenery around our fragile vanities, utilize a number of devices from the property departments of our experience to ensure that the pretence is believable firstly and most importantly to ourselves and secondly to others.
More seriously though are circumstances where denial of serious issues places other people in jeopardy. A “she’ll be right” attitude to the maintenance of vital infrastructure is never going to come across well in an enquiry after something has gone tragically wrong. The words “duty of care” or “failure to perform” will be applied like branding irons to those who brushed issues aside casually or avoided proper engagement with them. In such situations, denial of an issue will have similar consequences as the failure of an antibody to recognize a foreign bacterium colonizing it.
And what about those responsible for governing a territory and organising its future development who overlook reasonably foreseeable issues ahead such as peak oil or climate change? What will they say when they are asked, as they surely shall be – “and what did you do about peak oil/climate change?” Will they run through a list of evasion, rationalization, minimization, or will they plump for a bald faced denial that they knew what was coming?
Many who have engaged with the information about Peak Oil and Climate Change are compelled to believe that these are the issues of the present time which will subordinate all other issues. Peak Oil and Climate Change is the double star with the gravity that makes all other concerns orbit around them. The duty of those who have been radicalized by the information is to become catalysts which radicalize others. Those who understand catalytic reactions in chemistry know that a true catalyst does not take part in the reaction itself – it is just a tool that “reduces the activation energy” required for a chemical reaction to take place. This is pictured as being a substance or a reagent that affects the geometry or electronic charge of the initial ingredients so that the reaction proceeds with reduced energy inputs. A true catalyst remains unchanged after the conversion and able to go on to catalyze others.
Advocates should bear this in mind lest they take on more than simply presenting the information and end up being burnt out. This is much easier said than done, but the ability to develop a thick skin in the face of denial is probably a peak oil survival skill all in itself. This does not mean being rude. That will help nobody - least of all oneself. What is needed is the respect of one’s audience and this must be earned. It does mean we need to remember that the issues we confront people with are deeply threatening, and our message must be delivered to maintain engagement. A certain amount of sharp (or blunt) denial responses is to be seen as par for the course, but we must sustain our campaign - and sustainability must start at home.