Denial Runs Deep

March 8, 2011 //

March 8, 2011

By Les Adler

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” – Mark Twain

“How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.” – Frank Herbert

I want to expand on a point made in CJ Callen’s excellent post last month about the powerful effect language can have in promoting, or in many cases, preventing effective dialogue. Given the state of unreason infecting public discussion about virtually any of the great issues we are facing today, I would add that while our choice of words is certainly important, we may need to penetrate beyond language and even rationality to explain the degree of the angry paralysis and paranoia that characterizes our age.

Not only is it difficult to find a shared linguistic and value-based foundation on which to operate, but as CJ rightly comments, “the illogical and human heart and soul” likewise gets in the way. The ease with which manufactured debates about Obama’s birth records, the motives of climate scientists, or the validity of scientific theories like evolution or global warming are able to cloud, discourage or distort discourse while derailing or delaying effective public action on important topics is a frightening corrective to the usual assumptions we share about the effectiveness of reasoned dialogue in a democratic context.

Such expressions reflect unconscious social and cultural anxieties on much deeper levels, fears and feelings not easily touched by logic, reason, facts or even language. Confronting challenges to traditional and established assumptions governing cultural behavior and individual identity, groups tend to identify and target acceptable agents on which to project the causes of their felt discontent.

Until the mid-to-late twentieth century, for example, the idea that human action could permanently threaten the existence of all life on earth or, even more remarkably, irreversibly alter the behavior of entire planetary systems, was as unthinkable to us as the heliocentric model of the solar system must have been to Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo’s contemporaries. And with comparable responses, since their new theories undermined not just belief systems and religious structures that had persisted since antiquity, but threatened each individual’s foundational identity system relating to his or her own place in the larger cosmic scheme.

At least we are no longer burning heretics at the stake—just vilifying them in the media and before congressional committees– but it is also hardly surprising that the dawning conception that human action could be responsible for climate change on a planetary level has had difficulty gaining traction in the minds of a great many otherwise rational and well-meaning people. Not merely does it fly in the face of centuries of historical experience in which the arrow of scientific and technological progress pointed inevitably upward and in which economic growth and increased consumption were seen as the defining qualities of all modern and modernizing societies, but it undermines a set of unconscious assumptions we share about ourselves and our relationship to the natural world.

My point here is certainly not to question the importance of reasoned dialogue in seeking solutions to pressing social, political or technological problems—that, after all, is what my career in education has been about. It is to reinforce the insight expressed by one psychoanalyst at a recent conference focusing on such topics as “Climate change denial in a Perverse Culture” and “Unconscious Obstacles to Caring for the Planet.” Commenting on “how difficult humans find it to change their behavior on the basis of sensible advice or of learning from experience,” he concluded, “Facts are troublesome—stories and ideologies are easier.”

What will we become if a carbon-based economy in its multiple manifestations is phased out? What will be left of our identity if sustainability rather than expansion, conquest and mastery become our defining characteristics? What does it mean to be part of the web of life rather than standing outside and manipulating it? More than just an ‘inconvenient truth’ as Al Gore called it, the fact of human-driven climate change not only threatens the dominance of deeply rooted and interrelated economic and political interests, but the psychic structures and societal self-images which sustain them as well.

Certainly our work to enhance effective dialogue and deliberation should and will continue, and certainly careful linguistic framing should be included, but, attention also must be paid to the slow and careful psychological work of bringing unconscious fears and feelings to consciousness in ord
er to promote creative change.


  1. The Whitman Institute on March 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Les. It reminded me of how important it is for "reasoned" dialogue to create opportunities to explore deeply held feelings and frameworks. The challenge is how to build safe, trusting spaces where we can be vulnerable and explore psychological territory in a meaningful way — without getting into places that are best left to therapy.