Denial is a refusal to recognize the truth of a statement; it’s a contradiction, a rejection of what is. Although denial, as a coping mechanism, is part and parcel of almost all other coping mechanisms, it’s also an entity unto itself. Think, for example, of your mind as the honeycomb in a beehive, and visualize the feelings you don’t want to deal with as the honey put into the comb.
If you stuff your feelings into an empty comb and seal it shut with wax so you don’t have to deal with them (out of sight, out of mind, much as a bee stores honey), you’re now effectively in denial of the uncomfortable event. The rest of your mind seems to be cleared of your suffering. You’re free to live, but only so long as you can continually mend the already full comb, and continually create more empty comb cells to accommodate future discomfort.
I think denial is one of the most pervasive coping mechanisms in the world. The following is a typical example: A young woman explains that she has been sexually abused by a relative from the time she was five years old until she was fourteen. Although she had two miscarriages, her parents still refused to believe her.
We isolate ourselves when we do not accept change. We become defensive, fearful, and increasingly rigid in our thinking; we harden and close our minds. If I become defensive about anything, if I start to form a rebuttal before someone is finished speaking, if I filter what is said to hear only what I want to hear, I’m in denial of what is.
And then there is “informed denial,” which means that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whatever the issue is, you deny it. For example, some years ago a neighbor of mine was stirring the rotting vegetation in the bottom of his composer, when he slipped and fell headfirst into the container. His wife and I laughed so hard that our knees grew weak, whereupon my friend extracted himself from the composer, look at us, and denied that the incident had even happened. When I pointed out that some compose debris was clinging to him, the intensity of his denial grew exponentially. Consequently, his wife and I just about laughed ourselves into oblivion.
The oldest argument of denial I encountered while working with the US Government and in court with the timber interests was “informed denial.” To wit, despite all the scientific data at hand, the usual mantra of both US corporations and our government is: It’s inappropriate to do anything until we have all the data. What we have to-date, is inconclusive—which, of course, data always are. In other words, deny there’s a problem until someone dies or there is an environmental catastrophe, and then it’s too late, which prompted Winston Churchill to say:
When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. … It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind.
This quotation is part of Winston Churchill’s speech to the British Parliament in 1935, as he saw with clear foreboding the onrushing threat of Nazi Germany to international peace.
A contemporary case in point is:
India’s slow response to years of medical warnings now threatens to turn the country into an incubator for a mutant strain of tuberculosis that is proving resistant to all known treatments, raising alarms of a new global health hazard. “We finally have ended up with a virtually untreatable strain” of tuberculosis in India, said Dr. Zarir Udwadia, one of the country’s leading TB authorities. In December, Dr. Udwadia reported in a medical journal that he had four tuberculosis patients resistant to all treatment. By January, he had a dozen cases, then 15. A government backlash began immediately. Anonymous health-ministry officials denied the reports through media outlets. They accused Dr. Udwadia and his colleagues of starting a panic.2
Now consider a chronic U.S. scenario: When the tobacco industry denied the validity of the data when it was confronted by 50,000 published articles on the dangers of smoking. The president of Reynolds Tobacco Co., for one, is reported to have said, “Honestly, I have not seen one piece of medical evidence presented by anybody, anywhere that absolutely, totally said that smoking caused disease or created it.”3
I’ve often wondered why anyone would preface a sentence with “honestly,” or “to tell you the absolute truth,” or “to tell you the honest truth” if the person habitually told the truth. It always comes across as if the person is doing me a special favor by assuring me that, because I’m special, the person is willing to be honest with me. The question is: who’s being convinced?
Series on Resistance to Change:
1. Winston Churchill. In: T.A. Warren. Leaders Need Followers. The Rotarian, 1945 (October):10-12.
3. White, L.C. 1988. Merchants of Death: The American Tobacco Industry. Beech Tree Books, Wm. Morrow and Co., Inc., New York, NY.
Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1994 book, Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL. 373 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.