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Beyond the pandemic: an interpretation of denialism

In this last year, the word “denialism” has become dominant at a global level, in relation to the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic, so much so that by now we do not even have to specify what it is about. Yet, the phenomenon of denialism already existed before, and it did not only concern the scientific world, but also some historical events that should be essential for our common memory – think of the wave of denial against the crimes of Nazi-fascism.

The pandemic has brought denialism back into the limelight, whether condemned or claimed. However, there is often no clarity on this term. It is often confused with the conspiracy theories, which can certainly be a parallel phenomenon: these have a significant role in the social and political context, and can be used both by rulers and by the governed to attack the other side; unlike denialism, however, they have a different echo in the imagination – think of all the films that have conspiracy plots at the centre. Neither denialism nor conspiracy theories coincide with fake news: building false news is a voluntary act aimed at creating confusion, if not panic, and those who build fake news know they are saying something that is not true; an element that characterizes the first two phenomena, namely the fact of believing in what is said, is missing.

But how can we look, then, at the phenomenon of negationism?

In an article in The Guardian, Keith Kahn-Harris wonders why we cannot understand various denials, linked not only to the medical world, but also to climate change and genocide. If, at certain times, we can all experience a phase of denial, towards others or ourselves, when can we say that private self-deception becomes harmful? According to Kahn-Harris, when it becomes public dogma:

Denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and themselves. […] Denialism […] represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth.

So, if denialism is rooted in human tendencies that are not in themselves dangerous, in its evolution it becomes dangerous. Kahn-Harris cites the case of Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa between 1999 and 2008, who – influenced by the then AIDS deniers – was very reluctant to implement national treatment programmes; it is estimated that this reluctance cost the lives of 330,000 people. However, we could mention many other cases, up to those Heads of State who have denied – or continue to deny – the dangerousness of Sars-Cov-2.

Commonly, however, denialism has had less direct but more insidious effects. This is the case of those who deny climate change, which are hindering the road to an already not simple radical action to tackle the problem. Denialism can also create an environment of suspicion, if not hatred: think how much the descendants of those who have experienced genocide on their own skin are still accused of exaggeration, victimism, falsehood. And even denials that often make one smile – for example, those who claim that the Earth is flat, or who deny evolution – contribute to creating an environment in which reality breaks down on the suspicion that nothing is what it seems: a suspicion that, in the age of the web, can only amplify, all the more so as it is increasingly tortuous to check the truthfulness of the sources.

So, how can we fight denialism? The (understandable) anger of genocide survivors and attempts to dispel denialism, whether respectful or contemptuous, have not always worked.

I do not believe that, if only one could find the key to “make them understand”, denialists would think just like me. A global warming denialist is not an environmentalist who cannot accept that he or she is really an environmentalist; a Holocaust denier is not someone who cannot face the inescapable obligation to commemorate the Holocaust; an Aids denialist is not an Aids activist who won’t acknowledge the necessity for western medicine in combating the disease; and so on. If denialists were to stop denying, we cannot assume that we would then have a shared moral foundation on which we could make progress as a species. […] Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly. But we need to start preparing for that eventuality, because denialism is starting to break down – and not in a good way.

Statements like Donald Trump’s on climate change, or the extreme right’s on the Holocaust, suggest a new phase of denialism, less “disciplined”, in which there is no alternative truth at stake, but the claim to see the world as you want to see it – and the internet has certainly fostered this change:

Post-denialism represents a freeing of the repressed desires that drive denialism. While it still based on the denial of an established truth, its methods liberate a deeper kind of desire: to remake truth itself, to remake the world, to unleash the power to reorder reality itself and stamp one’s mark on the planet. What matters in post-denialism is not the establishment of an alternative scholarly credibility, so much as giving yourself blanket permission to see the world however you like.

This evolution of denialism shows us that we can no longer avoid dealing with it:

Maybe we have been putting this test off for too long. The liberation of desire we are beginning to witness is forcing us all to confront some very difficult questions: who are we as a species? Do we all (the odd sociopath aside) share a common moral foundation? How do we relate to people whose desires are starkly different from our own? Perhaps, if we can face up to the challenge presented by these new revelations, it might pave the way for a politics shorn of illusion and moral masquerade, where different visions of what it is to be human can openly contend. This might be a firmer foundation on which to rekindle some hope for human progress – based not on illusions of what we would like to be, but on an accounting of what we are.

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