The other day I read in the next-to-latest edition of BBC History about how the BBC was swamped with complaints about a program that depicted a Roman Legion Commander as dark-skinned. The facts – lots of them – prove that while the Romans were imperialist bastards, they didn’t give a damn about skin color. Their upper class, all across the empire, had various skin tones. So did their slaves. Power and wealth mattered, not skin color.

Yet, to this day, people deny this, along with scores of other matters that go against what they want to believe, and in this time of “pick your own news” and pick only your own facts, this trend of denialism is worsening, certainly in the United States, and apparently in at least some of Europe.

So why do intelligent people believe things that are not so? It’s not primarily a matter of intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that intelligent and well-informed people, whether conservative or liberal politically, are often more likely to use their knowledge in support of matters that are not accurate or true than are less informed individuals.

In psychological terms, denialism is a person’s choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth.

In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively straight-forward. Present strong evidence, or evidence of a strong expert consensus. Unfortunately, when scientific advice presents a picture that threatens someone’s perceived interests or ideological worldview, large numbers of people will reject those facts. The strength of rejection turns out to be related to someone’s political, religious or ethnic identity, and the strength of those identities.

In short, denial is notoriously resistant to facts because it isn’t about facts in the first place. Political or scientific denial, as well as other forms of denial, are an expression of identity – usually in the face of perceived threats to that identity.

And, unfortunately, right now, a great number of facts threaten a great number of personal identities, and many of those facts don’t appear to be going away.

5 thoughts on “Denial”

  1. Hanneke says:

    I wonder what makes some things become part of one’s religious or political identity, but not others.
    I read about the campaign to raise abortion from something most didn’t care too much about, to a crucial point for evangelical Christians, to leverage them as a single large voting block. You can see other issues being whipped up now, from things not many people thought or cared about to huge flashpoints, by the amount of time thought-leaders spend on talking about them, like transgender bathroom rights and ‘critical race theory taught in schools’.

    But how does the way the Roman legions had a habit of recruiting troops from their outlying provinces and sending them to guard the borders very far from their home province, and promote people on a meritocratic basis, have any impact on a present-day English person’s identity?
    Did they learn in school that Romans built a great empire and were able administrators, and Britain did the same, so tgey admire them and identify with them, and this causes them to expect the Romans to think like them? It seems a tenuous link, considering the distance in time and space, and the acknowledged other differences in their thinking (i.e. a very different pantheon, daily life etcerera) to suddenly get so attached to this one element of the difference between these modern people and the ancient Roman Empire that it cannot be accepted.

    And that makes me wonder how such an element, once people have decided it’s part of tgeir identity, can be detached from that identity again. It can be done, if you look at how public sentiment about some things has changed within people’s lives – a lot of tge people who were vehemently opposed or casually cruel to ‘people being gay’ forty years ago have changed their minds once it became more visible and acceptable.

    Other new ideas just slid into place in people’s worldview, replacing older ideas, without becoming an identity focus, e.g. the present US helicopter-parenting view of kids needing to be under constant adult supervision until well into their teens, instead of being allowed to explore their neighborhoods with their friends. What makes the difference?

    And can any of that help to wean people away from accepting dangerous reality-denying ideas as part of their core identities?

  2. Tom says:

    As I understand it the Roman Republic and then the Empire to a greater degree used mostly local males to guard their portion of borders once they were stable. This being one way that Rome politics was successful until the Emperors arrived and became concerned with their “sovereignty”.

    For the British, who mostly did the same thing, Rome was a great example. The change in the English present-day personality is something else.

    It seems that this is world-wide and it has to do with what appears to be our change in attitude to our nation – we seem to wish a nation of different people to be the same colorless mob of sovereign individuals (since we are all quite different from each other this is an impossibility overcome only with cooperation).

    This article is interesting from such a point of view:

    Part of which states: “It’s that in a world where all countries collectively face the planetary emergency of global warming, sovereignty is simply no longer a tenable concept.”

    As to “And can any of that help to wean people away from accepting dangerous reality-denying ideas as part of their core identities?” I have yet to find a psychological and practical based answer!

    1. Tom says:

      In today’s Atlantic, a sort of follow-up on both sovereignty and denial:

  3. Hanneke says:

    Off topic but important for non-NZ authors who’s books are in the New Zealand national library, so I’m copying this to all the author blogs I visit.
    The NZ government has decided to donate its overseas collection to the Internet Archive and put the onus on authors whose work is still under copyright to opt out. We have until 1 December to opt out. This is the page with the list and with what to do to opt out:

    If you go to this page, there’s a spreadsheet with the titles in question that you can download. Suggest sharing this with any authors you know who need to be concerned. The original poster passed this on to their literary agent and you might do the same.

  4. Bill says:

    Most people have multiple components to their identify. I know have a personal identity, several professional identities, several hobby identities, several educational identities, and a few sports identities. I am sure there are more.
    Changing someone’s identity is not an easy task. I am not sure it can be done. It is similar to undergoing psychological therapy. The patient has to want to change. It is easier to drop one of the minor identities over time. I have less allegiance to my high school now that it has been 40 years and not much reinforcement. It will be harder if the identity is based on denigrating another group. It often takes a conversion type experience.
    It is likely easier to get people to substitute a new identify or to elevate an existing one. But I worry that it is only as new generations come up without those identities do things change. The legalization of same sex marriage more likely came about because the people strongly opposed have gotten too old to care or died off rather than having a change of heart. I still remember painfully racist attitudes of one of my grandparents.
    The real importance of desegregation is that it means the children’s identities aren’t based on their friends being in the “other” group.

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