Monday, September 15, 2014

The Peak of Sanity - 9

Denial Castle high on the Hill
One of the dynamics of our mind which we can observe in action from time to time is the "defense mechanism" we call "denial."

Probably one of the strangest aspects of sanity and insanity is that there are times when insanity is the more comfortable state of mind.

We embrace sanity because we think it is more comfortable, but we embrace insanity for the same reason - a type of mental "comfort."

This is readily apparent when we delve into the dynamics of denial, a known dynamic of the part of cognition that we call "dementia" even though it is a daily phenomenon in our lives:
I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most news stories. I told myself the science was too complicated and the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my "elite" frequent-flyer status.

A great many of us engage in this kind of denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or maybe we do really look, but then we forget. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything.

And we are right. If we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, major cities will drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas; our children will spend much of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts. Yet we continue all the same.
(Naomi Klein - Denial, emphasis added). This mixes the activity of individuals in with the activity of society  or civilization.

In some ways civilization does have some characteristics of individuals. especially when we take a famous historian's observation into consideration:
"In other words, a society does not ever die 'from natural causes', but always dies from suicide or murder --- and nearly always from the former, as this chapter has shown."
(Civilization Is Now On Suicide Watch, quoting Toynbee, emphasis added). Suicide and murder are prevalent in our society, so, both individuals and society face those threats.

This Dredd Blog series has dealt with those twin threats to current civilization, in the sense of the threat of nuclear war ("War Is Madness" - Pope Francis) and the threats due to the damaged global climate system.

We examined how we got to where we are as well (see e.g. Agnotology: The Surge, The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science).

When a society "gets something in its head" it tends to stubbornly refuse to entertain facts that conflict with that belief:
In spite of the experimental evidence of infant pain, the psychological and medical communities were slow to accept and integrate these findings into daily practices and protocols--mainly because of the earlier dogma that the immaturity of the brain made it impossible for babies to experience, comprehend, or remember pain.
Hospitalized newborns, from premies of 26 weeks upward, have routinely faced surgery without benefit of pain-killing anesthetics. Although surgery without anesthetic was standard practice for a century, it was unknown to the general public until 1985 when a few parents discovered their seriously ill premature babies had suffered through major surgery with no anesthetic. Instead of anesthetic, the babies had typically been given a form of curare to paralyze their muscles for surgery, making it impossible for them to lift a finger or make a sound in protest!
(Infant Pain, Birth Psychology). Our innocent little ones suffer because of our denialism, then they tend to grow up and do the same.

The irony is that denial is perceived as a "defense" mechanism too:
Denial is probably one of the best known defense mechanisms, used often to describe situations in which people seem unable to face reality or admit an obvious truth (i.e. "He's in denial."). Denial is an outright refusal to admit or recognize that something has occurred or is currently occurring. Drug addicts or alcoholics often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred.

Denial functions to protect the ego from things that the individual cannot cope with. While this may save us from anxiety or pain, denial also requires a substantial investment of energy. Because of this, other defenses are also used to keep these unacceptable feelings from consciousness.
(Psychology, About Denial, emphasis added). At the fundamental levels of cognition in our subconscious, fear of death sponsors episodes of denial:
Humankind has, since time immemorial, struggled with the awareness and fear of mortality. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, building upon—and synthesizing—the work of psychiatrists and psychologists, existential philosophers and others, conceives a pervasive self-protective system at the core of human behavior generated by individuals to buffer themselves against the terror of death. Much of personal and social behavior in this context is an attempt symbolically to validate human worth and meaning, notwithstanding the ephemeral nature of human existence. Indeed, death anxiety is conceived as a prime mover of humankind.
(Psychology of Denial, emphasis added). The history of civilization or society that Toynbee pointed out, is the observation that human society most often commits suicide.

That is, any society or culture is far, far less likely to be murdered by another culture (e.g. by war) than it is to commit suicide.

It seems to me, then, that denial is not the "defense" it is cracked up to be.

So, there is an opportunity to find better way of looking at the real problems which both individuals and civilizations face, or there isn't.

The next post in this series is here, the previous post in this series is here.

Bill Moyers on one prominent source of denial:

1 comment:

  1. The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” -H.P. Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulhu, page 1).