Friday, January 24, 2014

Why do good people let bad things happen? The study of denial

You find two sickly looking kittens on the street. Do you a) hope they are owned and walk past? b) check them for a tag or doorknock to see if they are being looked after? c) take them to a vet or shelter to be scanned for a microchip? d) hesitate, convince yourself you're being silly and go to work?
There is sadly little room for venturing into the humanities in the veterinary curriculum, but its an area we shouldn't ignore. Peer-reviewed journal articles on diagnostic and treatment modalities are important reading, but they're highly specific and often fail to ask the bigger questions.

Through the multidisciplinary Human Animal Research Network at Sydney University I was introduced to the work of sociologist Stanley Cohen, who wrote a fascinating book on denial. How is it that people seem to overlook human rights abuses? What exactly IS denial - an uncomfortable recognition of something awful followed by a turning away? Or true ignorance?

Anyone who works in the field of animal welfare knows the importance of this question:
...what do we do with our knowledge about the suffering of others, and what does this knowledge do to us?
Cohen goes on to discuss types of denial: active (rejection, negation) and passive (withdrawal of attention, averting one's gaze).

People living in the midst of political horrors may do some active denying, but mostly they can just ignore and forget, going on with their daily lives...Denial as ‘the need to be innocent of a troubling recognition’ exactly fits the reading of this tragedy: ‘we seem to have access to this reality, but choose to ignore it because it proves convenient to do so’. The phrase ‘turning a blind eye’ also conveys ‘the right degree of ambiguity as to how conscious or unconscious the knowledge is.’(p32-33).
Denial is not inherently terrible. He discusses the possibility that it can be essential to our mental health - obsession with the terrible isn't a permanently functional state. But Cohen's writing on denial is thought-provoking. For example, I find it difficult to listen to or watch stories about animal cruelty. Yet how can we address it if we don't want to see it? And how to animal welfare groups get the right balance between raising awareness and not scaring everyone away?

And then there is the concept of selective denial, of which Cohen - exquisitely sensitive to human suffering - is guilty of himself. He writes:
I know that the treatment of animals in cruel experiments and factory farming is difficult to defend. I can even see the case for becoming a vegetarian. But in the end, much like people throwing away an Amnesty leaflet, my filters go into automatic drive: this is not my responsibility; there are worse problems; there are plenty of other people looking after this. What do you mean, I’m in denial everytime I eat a hamburger? (p289).
It is almost as if, in Cohen’s view, paying attention to animal suffering may detract from attention paid to human suffering – that perhaps these activities are mutually exclusive. Is it the other way around for those who devote their time for caring for animals? Are we less sensitive to the plight of our fellow humans? 

We're all capable of denial on a scary scale, but its not because we intend to cause harm.
The more frightening possibility is that they really saw nothing wrong at the time and behaved, like everyone else, without reflection. This, I believe, is the meaning of Arendt’s much misunderstood concept of ‘the banality of evil’. Far from minimising the evil, she warns that unimaginable evil can result from a constellation of ordinary human qualities: not fully realising the immorality of what you are doing; being as normal as all your peers doing the same things; having motives that are dull, unimaginative and commonplace (going along with others, professional ambission, job security), and retaining long afterwards the fa├žade of pseudo-stupidity, not grasping what the fuss was about. (p100)
So what is the solution? It takes a lot of awareness to override the autopilot and be aware of what we are avoiding or refusing to see - when we change the channel on the news, what we don't read, what we're sick of hearing about. 

It also takes some creative thinking not to be overwhelmed by the tide of suffering in the world. Somewhere between recognition and overthinking is the path to action, but we need to be committed to finding it first.


Stanley Cohen (2001) States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering Polity:Cambridge.