Above: the classic illustration by John Tenniel from Alice in Wonderland.
The word denial conjures up many images in our minds. Besides its association with Twelve Step philosophy, which is not the subject of this article, it usually refers to the refusal to believe in certain events or phenomena, such as the Holocaust or climate change. The latter is not my subject either, as it refers primarily to the future. I am talking about the delusional rabbit hole of historical denialism, of which Holocaust denial is just one example.
Although I agree that Holocaust denial is offensive, I oppose all laws that criminalize such speech. It’s better to counter a lie with truth, rather than to censor speech, which the crazies will spin as proof of the “worldwide Jewish conspiracy.” Holocaust denial is wrong, and not just for its anti-semitic implications. Hitler’s regime also murdered gypsies, gays, and the handicapped by the millions. Denial is cruel because it is because it fails to recognize the suffering and death of the victims, and marks the survivors as liars, adding insult to injury.
Here in America, denialism was a fringe form of lunacy until after 9/11. Then, along with the more mainstream conspiracy theories about possible government foreknowledge of the attacks, there were rumors that the passengers of some or all of the doomed planes didn’t die. Supposedly they were whisked away an unknown location. Or perhaps the planes themselves were holograms, projected on the Twin Towers to draw attention away from the explosives planted within.
These ideas were so loopy, they didn’t get much traction, but they gave support to politicians who claimed the 9/11 Truth Movement was disrespectful to the families of the victims. This claim is, of course, false, since it was victims’ families who pushed the government into doing an investigation. Truthers do not deny the attacks happened. Rather, they question the official story, which has some pretty improbable elements of its own. See James Corbett’s brilliant short video, “911, a Conspiracy Theory.”
Denialism reared its ugly head again after the Sandy Hook school shootings. People began claiming that the whole event had been faked by the government as an excuse to carry out gun confiscation. Not only is this argument delusional, it is needlessly cruel to the parents of the victims. Furthermore, it gives the false impression that Second Amendment advocates have no valid arguments against gun control.
What about the possible role of psychiatric medications, which have been a factor in so many recent mass shootings? The media, which receives millions in advertising revenue from pharmaceutical companies, is loath to raise this issue. By embracing the lunatic notion of denial, Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists let them off the hook. Another interesting story says that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was diagnosed at Yale University as “profoundly autistic” with “isolationist and anti-social tendencies.” This begs the question of whether Lanza’s mother, knowing that her son was mentally ill, was irresponsible to keep guns in her home. These are difficult questions, not cut and dried like the mindless claim that “it didn’t happen.”
More recently, I’ve heard these same denialist notions raised in relation to the mass murders at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. “Where were the bodies?” say the on-line trolls. There’s a simple explanation for this: the media holds back pictures of victims, out of respect for the feelings of the families. Again, the allegations of fakery side-step more important issues. Was the shooter, Omar Mateen, taking psychiatric drugs? Why did the FBI, who interviewed him twice about extremist statements, conclude he was harmless? Did his parents’ Islamist ideology cause him to attack fellow gays out of self-hatred?
The problems with the denialist mindset are not just cruelty and misdirection from real issues. It’s irrational as well. Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is usually the best. Yet elaborate theories about events being faked are much more complex than the more straightforward conclusion that “it happened, let’s find out why.”
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of denialist theories is that they deny evil. Are we to believe that Hitler, a brutal dictator who invaded his neighbors without provocation, was actually a nice guy who would shrink from mass murder? Were the 9/11 terrorists (or the US government, take your pick) too ethical to kill four plane loads of people? Was Adam Lanza just a mixed-up kid set up as a patsy? Was Omar Mateen the innocent victim of Islamophobic prejudice? None of these alternate explanations make any sense. If the powers behind these conspiracies are so bad, why stop at deception? Any government that has ever gone to war has killed civilians or allowed innocents to die for the cause. Furthermore, companies have knowingly put out dangerous products that have killed people. Could the irrational theories of denial be the work of trolls and their innocent dupes, to make conspiracy theorists look foolish, or to draw attention away from the holes in the official stories of these tragedies?
Denialism is not just cruel to the victims of the denied events, it’s foolish and counter-productive of the denialists’ professed anti-government ideology. As always, truth is the answer, not censorship. Those of us who research conspiracy theories must expose these denialist narratives as the toxic nonsense they are. The rest of the public, who may not agree with our interpretations of recent history, must understand that these people do not represent us. As always, the events in question are far more complex than they appear.