We all deny stuff (I know my own list is … robust). Since the days of the broken window and pointing at my little brother, we have done so most of our lives. As Lenny Bruce implied, even if the facts are clear, there’s some small chance you might get away with it. Why? Because, as Bruce said: “They want to believe it!” Or, as Jack Nicholson’s character said in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”
We all (or at least some part of virtually all of us) want to believe a nice story. A simple understanding of the world seems vastly preferable to the stresses of dealing with its complexities; and “truth” takes a back seat to sanity. Sometimes, of course, there’s no self-deception involved; denial is a cynical/dishonest ploy to avoid blame/responsibility (“Tobacco doesn’t cause cancer” worked for some folks for a while). But, sometimes we do it because we can’t tolerate living in a world in which the (denied) fact is true.
This explains a lot of the climate deniers or Covid deniers. A world in which the world (i.e. nature) is actually running the show is scary. Things were easier when just about everybody believed in God. All the weird stuff and problems could be written off to Him and were psychologically manageable via faith in His goodness or his plan/providence from which we would all (sooner or later) benefit.
Science, however, has shrunk the scope of God’s domain. He’s only around the fringes now and faith is harder to come by and seems to have less to do with how the world works than it used to.
Left to our own devices (so to speak) we fabricate coherence.
I’d like to think that this inability to cope is behind some of the well-known phenomenon of Holocaust denial. Certainly there were those who were excessive apologists for Nazi Germany. Certainly there were those who sought the fame/notoriety of controversy. Certainly there were those who had plenty of reason to distrust conventional and governmental information and then ran a bit amok. But, some folks couldn’t handle the truth of man’s inhumanity to man (or, more particularly, the evil of their own country/people/allies). Their weltanschauung (“worldview”) was shattered.
As I have pointed out in previous postings, there are a lot of folks here in the US and elsewhere whose weltanschauung has been pretty well hammered and so, things that don’t fit are labelled “fake news.” There are a bunch of folks who “can’t imagine” that our democracy is at risk/ Russia will invade / Japan would attack the US Fleet in Pearl Harbor/ Britain would leave the EU / … (you get the idea).
The rantings and machinations of the “Stop the Steal” gang following Biden’s victory in November 2020 are a textbook example. Trump couldn’t contemplate a world in which he lost; so he created one in which he didn’t. Millions followed (still follow) this delusion. Perhaps some will wake up and admit to temporary insanity; or they will just hope this incident fades into history and they won’t be asked to take a stance on the question. But, I suspect, too many drank too much Kool-Aid and will never recover. At this stage, it’s hard to imagine that Rudy Giuliani was a respected/feared US prosecutor and (not entirely terrible) Mayor of NYC. What’s left is a sorry knock-off of Batman’s arch-foe “the Penguin” who got suckered into self-parody by Borat.
Whether recent or more dated, in order to offset these imaginings, evidence and rational analysis don’t work so well when dealing with the most ancient parts of the human brain. Those in “fight or flight” mode don’t stop to read statistical tables.
It’s an interesting question as to whether this psychostress is uniquely or even particularly a “modern” phenomenon. I suspect that core bio-psychological human capabilities have been placed, over the past few centuries, in an environment of far more complexity and rapid change than for most of our first 70,000+/- years. The bling of electronic living has not helped, nor have the hormone-stimulating activities of the media and advertising industries. Indeed, it’s ironic that the same drivers of rationalistic modernity: the “Scientific Revolution” and Enlightenment have also led to these anti-rationalist pressures and many brains can’t stand the strain.
Regardless of its historical origins, however, denial remains an apparently useful tool for many. Lenny Bruce would be proud.