What makes denialists tick? And why has Donald Trump been politically successful in denying facts about climate change, Russian attacks, and even Obama’s birth? Keith Kahn-Harris’s “Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth” in today’s Guardian is about this, and also covers Holocaust deniers, antivaxxers, AIDS denialists, creationists, and other defenders of the wrong. His piece makes the following points (among others):
FIrst, debunking a denialist’s argument typically does not work because denialists are not motivated by the truth: they are motivated to justify a desire that is unacceptable to most people. Kahn-Harris writes:
In the ancient world, you could erect a monument proudly proclaiming the genocide you committed to the world. In the modern world, mass killing … can no longer be publicly legitimated. Yet many humans still want to do the same things humans always did…. So when our desires are rendered unspeakable in the modern world, we are forced to pretend that we do not yearn for things we desire.
Second, because traditional denialists often do not clearly state what they want (as they know it would be unacceptable), it’s hard to know what they’re after. Kahn-Harris writes:
It is hard to tell whether global warming denialists are secretly longing for the chaos and pain that global warming will bring, are simply indifferent to it, or would desperately like it not to be the case but are overwhelmed with the desire to keep things as they are.
Third, modern denialism is increasingly “lazy” in that it no longer attempts to construct a coherent alternative theory, it merely throws out illogical “no”s. (Trump does this a lot.) Kahn-Harris calls this “post-denialism” and says that post-denialists are likely to be more open about their motivations, and that this is particularly common on the far right.
Kahn-Harris hopes that the rise of post-denialism can “pave the way for a politics shorn of illusion and moral masquerade”. I doubt whether these hopes will be fulfilled, as they sound much like the campaign against “political correctness”, a tactic the right wing uses more to obfuscate than to clarify political dialog. Still, it’s a thoughtful piece and well worth reading. We need to understand denialism in order to fight it better, as its fallout can be devastating.