|What’s the first thing you do when you hear, or think you are about to hear, bad news? You go into denial mode. “It can’t be. You must be mistaken. I don’t want to listen to this. Change the channel. Why are you (the messenger) doing this to me?”
It’s human nature to react this way. We are programmed to change s-l-o-w-l-y.
Prior to the collapse of Enron (and any of the other spectacular recent corporate frauds) there was a ton of hints that something was very wrong. The auditors, Arthur Andersen, must have been virtually tripping over it. But this was an American icon, the golden boy of the new economy, so they ignored the clues. They didn’t want to believe them. Neither did the directors or the analysts who went on bragging about and recommending the company to the bitter end. There’s now a new law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, that prescribes exactly what auditors must do to try to unearth evidence of this type and follow up when they find it. Will it prevent more Enrons? Maybe. If the evidence is overwhelming enough to counter human nature to deny and discount bad news. I wouldn’t bet on it.
AIDS, Mad Cow, the Avian Flu virus, and other epidemics of our time all caught hold largely because of our reticence to believe there was a problem. We didn’t want to know. In some African countries AIDS continues to spiral out of control because governments refuse to believe the causes of it could be happening in their country. “Not happening here.”
When we began to realize that our pollution was threatening the ecological stability of our planet and threatening Earth with catastrophic global warming, we were just waiting for the deniers* to show up and tell us not to worry, everything was all right. Opportunists like Bjorn Lomborg** jumped into the fray, with the support of and later in the pay of the corporations causing much of the pollution, to provide ‘evidence’ that if we just go on doing what we’re doing and think good thoughts, the problem, if there is one, will go away by itself. The overwhelming evidence that Lomborg is dead wrong has been largely ignored, notably by the US Presnit whose news is ‘filtered’ so he only hears what he wants to hear, but as well by the corporate establishment and their media handmaidens like the WSJ and the Economist. We just don’t want to hear the ‘bad news’. “Make it go away!”
There is a long tradition for this kind of ostrich behaviour. During World War II both the British, initially, and for even longer the Americans, simply refused to believe that Hitler planned to conquer the whole world militarily. And throughout the war and to this very day millions, perhaps billions, still refuse to believe the atrocities and death toll of the Nazi concentration camps. “It couldn’t have happened. Not that many. Not like that”. We just don’t want to believe humans could treat other humans that way. Likewise, we refused to believe the treatment by Stalin and Mao of their own people could have caused tens of millions of deaths and suffering unprecedented in human history. And as recently as 1994 we refused to believe that humans could be so deranged in one of the world’s worst ecological disaster zones, Rwanda, that in a few short days 800,000 of them would be massacred by their neighbours, with machetes. It just couldn’t happen. So we denied the evidence and stood by and let it happen.
Canada has just reported its third case of Mad Cow. The reactions were swift and immediate: Denial that there was any kind of systemic problem. “It’s an isolated incident. One guy got sloppy”. But it turns out the conditions were and still are ripe for a full blown epidemic of Mad Cow in Canada, because, unlike Europe, which learned its lesson the hard way, Canada still allows farmed animals to be fed the entrails and waste products of other farmed animals susceptible to the prions that cause BSE (Mad Cow). When this came out, the immediate response was predictable: An expert in animal epidemiology said that US standards are the same as Canada’s, sources of stock are the same, and inspection standards there are even lower, so it’s “virtually certain” that “isolated” cases of BSE are present in US herds as well, just not detected. An American farmer interviewed said “No, it couldn’t happen here.” So if the Americans are ignoring a ticking time bomb (and conveniently using the Canadian cases as a means to protect their domestic cattle industry from Canadian competition) why shouldn’t Canadians?
Surveys indicate that on average about one in ten women and children is routinely physically or sexually abused, one in five suffers such abuse at some point in their lives, and many more suffer psychological abuse, a subtler but just as damaging form of torture, with lasting traumatic effects. But most of us simply refuse to believe it is so widespread, or that it is going on in our own neighbourhoods. “I don’t believe it! I would never have thought him capable of that. He always struck me as such a nice person”. So we don’t clamp down on, or try to treat, any except the most extreme abusers. We don’t have animal anti-cruelty laws that prevent and allow prosecution of the staggering horrors perpetrated by some farmers and most factory farms. We don’t even have legislation that will force many deadbeat parents to provide for children they bore. Why not? Because if we passed laws on these things, we’d have to admit there was a problem. And in all of these areas, there’s always a couple of deniers to allow us to keep our head buried in the sand, where we can’t hear the screams.
Many of us flinch when we see the fundraising ads for children living in poverty and destitution in the third world. We change the channel. We know this happens but we don’t want to know, we don’t want to see the gory details. Then we’d be sick. Then we’d have to do something. Learned helplessness. There is a reason why you haven’t seen many of the dead bodies, most of them civilians, in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Darfur, or in any of a hundred countries living with perpetual desperation, crisis, and interminable suffering. It’s not because it’s illegal, or too expensive, to get the photos. It’s because we, the customers, don’t want to see them. Someone told me the other day that the most successful charity fundraising campaigns show children laughing. The ‘after’ pictures we can bear. Just don’t show us any of the ‘before’ shots.
In America, and in many third world countries, there is a move afoot to teach creationism in schools. It doesn’t matter that it’s junk science, that it’s not only implausible, it’s factually impossible, and contrary to mountains of evidence. People want to believe in it. They don’t want to learn that we’re evolved from, undifferentiable from, every other species on the planet and every bit as inextricably a part of the ecosystem as the birds and the bees. Because if they believe that then that means they’re responsible for all these creatures, and for the mess of our planet, and it means they aren’t God’s chosen, separate, able to be forgiven and saved. And it means there will be no second coming, no Rapture, no being swept up by some higher power who can get us out of this mess. We don’t want to hear that. Bad news. “La, la, la, la, la, la I can’t heeear you!”
The term ‘plausible deniability’ stems from the Reagan era. It means allowing executives/presidents to be able to deny knowledge of illegal and immoral acts by deliberately blocking communication of troubling information from reaching them. The CIA used it so Reagan could deny knowledge of Iran/Contra. Bush and his lieutenants have been similarly, deliberately, protected from hearing about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and now probably the intelligence-gathering to support the invasion of Iran, so they can plausibly deny knowledge of them. This practice is so effective that it has allowed confirmation of an Attorney General who has expressed contempt for the Geneva Convention and indirectly authorized its violation in the torture of prisoners, because although he made it possible, he was not told how the lower-downs acted upon it. He has, thinly, plausible deniability. “I didn’t mean that they should so that! No one told me about that happening! It must be an isolated incident”. And we go along, because we don’t want to hear the really bad news.
I used to bridle when activists told me that my passivity, my lack of effort to find out the gruesome truth, made me complicit in all the crimes and catastrophes listed above. My reply was always to say that there’s no point in dwelling on bad news if there’s nothing I can do about it. It would only make me upset. I still respect that point of view, and for that reason I very rarely do write-ups or show pictures of atrocities against people or animals on these pages (some readers have told me, in fact, that they would stop reading if I did), and I try to temper my whining with some practical, easy steps we can all take to make things better. What’s the harm in being seduced by false comforts if it has no impact on our, or anyone else’s, lives?
Well, exactly. That’s the ultimate bad news we don’t want to hear: That if we were willing to give up everything, risk everything, drop everything we’re doing, radically and immediately change our life style, agree not to do some things we really want to do (have another child, or buy that house we’ve been saving for) it would have an impact. We could, if we all acted fast, collectively, now, change the world, end poverty and suffering and global warming and crime and restore biodiversity and create a sustainable and harmonious world. But we don’t want to hear that news either. Like the Ten Years After Lyrics say: “I’d love to change the world but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you”. So we find solace in the belief that it’s all bigger than us, that it would be impossible to coordinate such an effort, that most people don’t know and don’t care and so wouldn’t participate so it wouldn’t work, that the powers that be wouldn’t allow it, and mostly that it’s really not that bad, is it?
I’m sorry, dear reader. You didn’t want to hear that. Who the fuck am I sitting here in my easy chair doing nothing more than anyone else and telling people that they should be doing something drastic? What kind of hypocrite am I to be trying to deprive you of your plausible deniability that your inaction and your unawareness of how bad it really is, is complicit in all the horrors going on in this world, and the much worse horrors that our inaction will doom our children and our children’s children to? This idiot Chicken Little Pollard is running around telling us the sky is falling, but we’ve read the fable, and everything turns out just fine. Somebody shut that guy up.
I’m no leader. I learned that long ago. I haven’t the charisma, or the articulateness for that job. I’m a coward, with insufficient courage to go with my convictions. GI Gurdjieff said that civilized man lives in a dream, and needs to learn, through a very difficult process, how to awaken and live in the real world. You know that state when you first wake up in the morning, especially if it’s really cold outside, and you know you have to get up but you don’t want to, you kind of go into denial, pretending it must be Saturday, or that you’re still dreaming and when you really wake up everything will be warm and beautiful and peaceful? Well I think that’s where I am. I’m just awake enough to know I have to get up and do something, something important, but not yet awake enough to know what that is, or who I need to do it with, and I’m still kinda hoping someone else will call and say “Don’t worry, it’s done, go back to sleep.” But now I’m a little more awake than I was, enough to be aware of the fact that something must be done, and I can’t depend on others to do it for me. And, for the first time, my denials of that imperative, that need for action, have become implausible. And those of us who care enough to have to do something are calling each other up, in our half-awake state, making their denials implausible too.
But wait. It’s really not that bad, is it? Just let me lie here another five minutes, OK?
* The words ‘deniability’ and ‘denier’ do not appear in most dictionaries (in fact ‘denier’ does appear, but only as a measure of the thickness of cloth). And while there is only one reasonable spelling for ‘deniability’, I have occasionally used ‘denyer’ rather than the confusing ‘denier’, and that spelling is consistent with other extensions of English root words (e.g. fryer, flyer). But the ultimate arbiter of new spellings is the people, and through Google they have spoken, and voted for ‘denier’ as the spelling of one who denies.
Cartoon from the latest Tom Terrific strip This Modern World.
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Dying of Despair
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What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
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A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
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CoVid-19: Go for Zero
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A Better Way to Work
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May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
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Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
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We Make Zero
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Against Hope (Video)
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Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
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The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
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The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
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Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
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Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
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The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
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