Guy Crouchback: Hijacking denial for sinister ends

24 Sep 2008

By The Record

Guy Crouchback: can we save the word "denial" from being corrupted?


By Guy Crouchback

It came into present-day political polemic as “Holocaust denial” – that is, the behaviour of a small number of people who denied the Nazi holocaust ever occurred.
“Denial” is also used, apart from its ordinary meaning, as a quasi-psychological term to denote a state of mind where certain facts are simply not accepted because the mind does not have the mental strength to accept them. While people in such a state may not be dishonest – they may have simply closed their minds in the face of some horrible trauma – they are plainly not reliable witnesses to truth.
Holocaust denial is not, of course, an intellectually respectable or tenable position. The term has come to mean, when used in this sense, perversely, irrationally or dishonestly refusing to accept something which is obviously true and against which no real or rational case can be mounted.
That the Holocaust occurred is beyond rational dispute. Holocaust deniers are either wacko, invincibly ignorant or deliberate liars with some disreputable agenda of their own.
Holocaust denial has not enlisted the support of a single competent scholar (I once found a magazine to whose first issue I had contributed an article had also published a piece of holocaust-denialism and immediately terminated my association with it). However, it looks as if there is a risk of this fact – the deserved disreputability of holocaust denialism – coming to be used to blacken, by verbal gymnastics, any sort of dissent.
Robert Manne, a prominent Melbourne public intellectual, has, for example, used the term about disagreement over the extent of the Aboriginal “stolen generation” allegations, and, though an associate professor of politics, not a natural scientist, has recently in a magazine column used it about people with doubts over some versions of global warming, including, at least by inference, Cardinal George Pell.
Now global warming is not like the Nazi Holocaust. Absolutely no reputable political scientist or historian has any doubt whatsoever about the reality of the Holocaust, though they might legitimately disagree on marginal details. Thousands of scientists, on the other hand, hold views differing very much from one another about global warming – whether it is happening at all, whether it is a short-term blip on a graph, whether it is long-term, whether it has stopped, whether the real menace is not actually global cooling and an eventual Ice-Age, and, if global warming exists, whether human activity such as carbon emissions has anything to do with it, or whether it is caused by solar activity or variations in the distance between Earth and Sun.
Holocaust denial is not an intellectual process and is not related to rationality or to any kind of science (if there are one or two Holocaust deniers with university degrees they are almost always in esoteric and irrelevant subjects). People with various kinds of doubts about global warming, however, include large numbers of highly-credentialed scientists in relevant fields.
Not all of them are going to turn out to be correct, and some may have dishonest agendas, but I think that most of them can be credited with being genuine seekers for truth, and their motives treated with ordinary respect.
If we are not careful, we may find the word “denialist” used to simply silence argument and intimidate opponents in any argument by linking their mental processes with those who deny the Nazi holocaust or with those who cannot face reality. That would not be a good thing.