Wednesday, April 21, 2010

High in denial

As I wrote in a previous post, harsh child rearing practiced in the U.S. and around the world, combined with child sexual and physical abuse, leads to denied feelings of shame, helplessness and rage that are played out over the lifetime of the abused. These denied feelings lead to authoritarian personalities and punitive politics, which in the US is associated with conservative political views.

Milburn and Conrad, writing in The Politics of Denial, point out that politically authoritarians are essentially  a subset of conservatives:
“The majority of authoritarians fall on the conservative end of the political spectrum…virtually all authoritarians are politically conservative, but not all political conservatives are authoritarians."
Might some people high in denial, along with the politicians and media that exploit that denial play a part in the low level of public discourse in the US?

Denial is a legitimate and needed psychological defense. However, it can often be taken to unhealthy levels - some so extreme that it can prevent its practitioners from making even the simplest logical or perceptual conclusions.

This is not to say that denial is a psychological trick only practiced by conservatives -  the prevalence of denial is as you might expect is spread over the entire population. Research has shown, however, that authoritarians are more likely to describe themselves as conservative in the US. The reason is that, as I described above, abused children have hidden negative feelings that punitive conservatives tap for electoral purposes by projecting them onto selected out-groups such as blacks, gays, communists, immigrants, etc. As Milburn and Conrad write
"We have seen that authoritarians' denial of the pain of childhood abuse leads to glorification of the punitive parents and uncritical adoration of other authority figures. It is also likely to produce over-reliance on external controls on behavior."
Adding up the denial involved in today's conservative movement involves a long and varied list of issues, and includes not just outright denial of facts, but also the minimization of realities which impose on those denials. Because of the nature of deep conservative ideology it is sometimes difficult to parse out where actual lying and deception are taking place, and when conservatives are in denial. Certainly there is overlap.

One of the most important conservative ideologists of the 20th century - Leo Strauss - believed that any level of lying and deception was justified to keep the populace in line with his authoritarian vision, specifically endorsing religion as a technique of control, even though he and his fellow political philosophers personally didn't believe in it. Nevertheless in order to use religion and lies to control the population followers - and many leaders - had and have to have high levels of denial to keep their narrative afloat.

Denial of racism

Perhaps the most consistent and pernicious of these is the conservative denial and minimization of racism. Attitudes in the south where slavery was practiced have been passed through the generations of both blacks and whites, leaving us with a legacy of negative emotion.

Slavery required southern whites to accustom themselves to a punitive and abusive treatment of blacks. Part of the socialization of a young slave owner was to initiate him into the authoritarian culture of righteously physically abusing blacks, a culture which required him to treat people like property, to deny any feelings of compassion and empathy he might feel for his victims,  and to despise those who sought to upset this favorable economic order.

With the abolition of slavery during the civil war southerners had to find new ways to continue the structure of race relations through legal and illegal means, including Jim Crow laws and institutionally violent organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.  Lynchings occurred in northern cities as well, as late as 1919 in Duluth Minnesota.

It wasn't until the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate but equal that outward talk about race changed. Throughout the 1950s the tone of racial discourse morphed from one of outward racism to one of coded language. The new dog whistle of the old racists was "state's rights," a rallying cry to overturn federal civil rights laws and allow them to return to the Jim Crow era.

Ronald Reagan exploited this practice when he chose to start his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. In his speech that day, Reagan gave a "ringing endorsement" to states' rights - the ideology of the southern whites who had killed the civil rights workers - and a pursuit popular among Republicans to this day.

Fast-forward to 1994, when Charles Murray, working for various conservative think tanks, published his error-laden tome "The Bell Curve," which claimed to scientifically prove that blacks are genetically intellectually inferior to whites.

As I wrote on
"...[the book] is filled with mathematical errors, logical errors, and the misuse of statistics (i.e. the purported "IQ" test actually has questions on subjects as involved as Trigonometry, thus measuring educational attainment, not innate intelligence).
Stephen Jay Gould, author of the 1981 bestseller "The Mismeasure of Man," added a chapter in the 1996 reprinting of his book, specifically dedicated to critiquing The Bell Curve.  Gould described the book in terms of "dis-ingenuousness" - it was disingenuous in its content, argument and program. The proper perspective for understanding The Bell Curve, Gould wrote, is as its role as but one new venture in a long line of attempts by whites of European descent trying to find a genetic basis for their supposed superiority over other races and peoples.

In other words, Murray was a crass racist who wrote a book dressed up as science to justify a moral belief that is was only rational and right that blacks would occupy a lower level of our society. Think about it: What Murray was effectively denying is that blacks are full human beings, that they are capable of the same kind of intellectual fulfillment as whites. He wasn't saying this with the authority of science, as he pretended, but with lying bullshit.

It was and is a truly reprehensible, ignorant and stupid position and argument, but because by 1994 the conservative think tanks had gained a strong foothold in the US traditional media, and because we had embarked into an era of truthiness, Murray's book got wide and much favorable treatment.

The American Enterprise Institute, which paid for Murray to write the book (with a $90,000 grant from the Bradley Foundation), stage-managed its introduction by providing copies of it to friendly reviewers long before the public release, then flying friendly opinion leaders to Washington for a private sit-down with the authors.

When the book finally arrived on bookshelves the only people who had actually seen it were the conservative flexians previously privy to it, so media critics were left to speculate about what the book actually said. It wasn't until later that social scientists began to find the deep flaws in the book's thesis. But by then the damage had been done and a certain part of the public had their racist views reconfirmed in a powerful ideological way.

People - opinion leaders, no less - still believe that Murray was right. When I interviewed Mitch Pearlstein, proprietor of the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, for an article I was writing in 2000, I asked him about Murray, because he had lectured and written for the Center many times. I pointed out to Pearlstein the monumental errors and mal-intent inherent in Murray's writing, but he would have none of it. "But isn't it interesting!" he exclaimed while handing me copies of Murray's own response to his critics.

Blacks, conversely, understand which political party contains the racists and is most invested in denying racism in this country: 96 percent of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In fact, blacks have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats ever since the advent of the Republican southern strategy in 1964.

Denial of deserving poor

Conservatives are also quick to deny that the modern capitalist state creates deserving economic victims who become poor not because they are indolent or unskilled, but because laissez-faire economic and political policies have devalued them. They deny that high unemployment and rising personal costs have pushed the vaunted "freedom" proclaimed by conservatives into the realm of myth. If the poor are poor, so goes the denial, it is purely their own fault.

The denial must be all the greater when it is learned that college graduates saw their actual wages fall during the aughts. The denial has reached astronomical heights recently as the real unemployment rate approaches 20 percent, yet congressional Republicans stymie efforts to extend relief to the unemployed, and Republican politicians startlingly proclaim that unemployment benefits cause further unemployment.

To Ronald Reagan the poor were particularly undeserving of government help. He repeatedly pointed to so-called "welfare queens" who were allegedly living a life on luxury on the government's dime, yet he and his administration could never point to one. During the 1980s Murray wrote another book, Losing Ground, which argued that since the government had spent billions on welfare, and there were still poor people, the programs had failed, and that welfare programs actually hurt the people they were trying to help. By that argument's lights, modern medicine is a complete failure after the expenditure of trillions of dollars, since EVERY patient ever treated eventually dies.

Other conservative denial

Parts of the conservative coalition vehemently deny that Barack Obama is a rightful US citizen; many parts of the coalition routinely call him a socialist or communist; they deride his policies as government takeovers when they are in reality corporatist.

They deny their movement is racist, yet the roots of Republican and conservative power rest in making alliance with southern racists - the so-called "Southern Strategy." Members of the conservative coalition called him a terrorist during the presidential campaign. They sing the praises of the so-called "free market," denying that over the past century laissez-faire economics have led to repeated economic collapses.

Up to this date Republicans deny that George W. Bush and his administration lied the country into war on Iraq. Bush policies had Orwellian names loaded with the denial of their true purposes - "clear skies" meant letting polluters do what they wished; "healthy forests" meant clear-cutting.

They claim to be the party of law and order, but every time they get into power they pretend there is no law. Richard Nixon went so far as to say that when the president does it, it isn't illegal.  When Ronald Reagan got caught trading arms for hostages, he insisted he did no such thing. Even when he had to admit it was true his explanations were so thick in denial that he seemed flabbergasted by their revelations. Dick Cheney told the country that "there was no doubt" that Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction.

In some important aspects it seems that the very core of the nation's politics over the past 70 years have been filled with denial. After World War Two we became obsessed with communism, even though there only a few thousand communists left in the country. We denied that communism was dead as a political movement in the US.

We became obsessed with denying that the Soviets were primarily concerned with protecting their own country after two devastating wars left tens of millions dead. Instead, we chose to believe a self-serving lie that the USSR was bent on global domination. This denial about the true nature of the Soviet Union and communism in general would cost us deeply in Vietnam, where we mistook a nationalist movement for a communist one.

Even as the Soviet Union was fading in power - by some accounts its economy was shrinking by the mid 60s - we denied its actual decline. In the 70s the CIA was estimating that the USSR was in economic decline, as was its military. But the Neocons were in full denial of those facts because it didn't fit their narrative or political needs.

Instead they created their own intelligence network, culminating in the creation of "Team B," which declared that precisely because it could not be shown that the USSR was creating new weapons that proved they were! We were just too inept or weak to prove it. Those denials led to the Carter and Reagan military buildup (and concomitant budget deficits) of the 1980s, and the foolish surprise expressed by policy makers and pundits when the USSR finally flew apart in 1991.

Denial in the George W. Bush era

In the George W. Bush era Republican denial reached even new heights. Perhaps the best statement of this mindset was the statement made by a Bush aide to reporter Ron Suskind in 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'' 
Richard Wirthlin, pollster and strategist for the Reagan campaign in 1980, had written something very similar in a memo, declaring,
"People act on the basis of their perception of reality; there is, in fact, no political reality beyond what is perceived by the voters."
The Bush administration only pushed this very idea to an extreme, believing they could advocate any vision of reality they wanted,  and deny any reality that conflicted with their version, regardless of actual facts. This denial led to any number of disasters, such as the prediction that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or that we would be greeted as liberators in  Baghdad, or that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the US. Denial of the unsustainability of forever rising housing prices helped lead to a real estate crash, and denial that financial markets needed regulation ironically led some its adherents to be deregulated out of existence, and the biggest economic setback since the Great Depression. Authors argued that Republicans were waging a"war on science."

Denial and impairment of thinking

In their book authors Milburn and Conrad show how the use of denial leads to an impairment of thinking:, linking it to a "psychic numbing," or, constricted emotion:
"...when individuals deny the emotional component of an experience - for example, the fear, pain, and anger of childhood punishment - the meaning of the concept abuse is lost and the person has great difficult accepting or understanding information relating to such abuse."
In the most extreme of cases where a person cannot experience any emotion, "...then all concepts lose their meaning." Milburn and Conrad cite this type of denial as being a common condition
"...among individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, whether resulting from combat, childhood abuse, natural disaster, or some other very frightening event. Denial of emotions - denial that one has any emotional reactions at all - is one way to avoid being overwhelmed by terrible experiences."
People high in denial are especially susceptible to a corrupt news media that plays to their subliminal feelings in a way that both exploits and enhances their denial.  When television news is dramatized, fragmented, and personalized, report Milburn and Conrad,  it is essentially turned into "melodrama," " ...[requiring] figures of good and evil, the hero and the villain," a method that essentially "operates as a kind of thought suppressor."

Worse, in the melodrama that is US TV news, the emotions evoked are often "simplistic and false." As if describing Fox News, the authors write that "In television news myth is perpetuated by the careful selection of stories that fit within a culturally defined world view." In the case of Fox, that world view  is the one of Roger Ailes, who cut his teeth as a media guru for Richard Nixon.

Needless to say, as many polls have shown, Fox viewers are the highest in denial involving any number of important issues. A 2003 study by The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found Fox news viewers to be three times more likely than consumers of other traditional news to believe false versions of three important issues concerning the war on Iraq: Whether or not weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq (they were not); whether the US had "clear evidence" that Saddam Hussein had been "working closely with al Qaeda (we didn't); and whether there was international support for the US invasion of Iraq (there wasn't).

Implications of denial

What does it mean to a nation's discourse when one of the two political parties contains within it a sizable proportion of people who are high in denial, and when that denial is used to politically manipulate them?

In short - it gives certain politicians license to say virtually anything, as demonstrated by the hubris of the Bush aide who spoke with Suskind. Milburn and Conrad write that liberals may engage is some denial, but  it is usually the type that denies the aggression in others. Indeed, the ideas of the traditional liberal, based on the principles of the Enlightenment, posit a world where  "reason [is] advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority," NOT the activation of hidden negative emotions.

Recently in the press and on the Internet we've seen a lot of writers try to come to grips with something that's been called "confirmation bias," a  hypothesis that holds there "is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true." And there is evidence to suggest the functioning of confirmation bias, but, curiously, the notion that certain populations might experience more of it than others - depending upon psychological and other factors - is rarely discussed. Reason would suggest that people high in denial would be more prone to confirmation bias, since they would more easily discard competing versions of the truth merely by denying them. In this construction it would be conservatives and Republicans who would express more confirmation bias in our discourse.

Anecdotal evidence bears this out. Recent polls of so-called "Tea Party" people - really older, white, hardcore anti-government Republicans, confirms the notion that conservatives contain a sizable minority capable of, and in, deep denial. Something like 80 percent of them believe president Obama is a socialist, when in reality he is a corporatist - caving to the agendas of the war, drug insurance and financial industries.

They are known as an ant-tax movement, yet 52 percent believe their own tax burden is fair, and that taxes are at their lowest level since World War Two. People have been quoted at their rallies saying things like "Keep your government hands off my medicare," a statement in deep denial about the true nature of medicare and indeed the government itself. They are a movement that thinks they are populists, yet they are manipulated and funded by billionaire industrialists. Many of them watch Fox News, which aids and abets their denial with their sexed-up, melodramatic presentations that leaves false impressions.

This analysis of the role of denial in conservative politics and general discourse in the US should not be taken to mean that all conservatives are in denial, or that denial is the only reason for the polarized and false politics in this country. It does suggest, however, that denial, fed by the abuse of children and the exploitation of repressed feelings by unscrupulous politicians plays a role in the inability to have rational discourse. It also points to a possible new understanding of the notion of "confirmation bias" discussed by various pundits and commentators, given that denial may be more pronounced in conservative than in liberal discourse and politics.

UPDATE: Here's a good interview with Michael Milburn, one of the authors of The Politics of Denial, where he talks about the American soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Graib.


Anonymous said...

And don't forget denial of same-sex attraction. It seems to figure in a lot of the anti-gay crap coming out of the right wing.

Freedem said...

Many "leaders" on the right are well aware of the effects of such abuse but see it as a good thing and spend considerable effort and resources to increase its occurrence. James Dobson being perhaps foremost in such efforts.

I wrote a considerable post on this after I first saw the depths of the problem some years ago.