Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
The term “denial” originally described a psychological defense in which aspects of reality were kept out of a subject’s consciousness. In the strict sense, the person who denies something acts as if it does not exist. For example, a person with cancer looks in the mirror at a large facial tumor, blandly claims to see nothing there, does not seek medical care, and does not attend to the wound.
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Types of Denial (Psychology and Mental Health)
Over time, the term has been broadened and refined, and related terms have been introduced. “Disavowal” is essentially a synonym, translated from Sigmund Freud’s use of the German word Verleugnung. Denial and disavowal include internal emotions; for example, unacceptable anger toward a parent who died. There is also denial of the emotional meaning of external events, such as the failure by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to recognize the relevance to them posed by Nazi genocide in other areas, even as they recognized the facts of what was happening. One can deny personal relevance, urgency, danger, emotion, or information. In each example, the subject has an unconscious emotional motivation for not allowing something into awareness.
To some degree, all defenses help a person avoid awareness of some part of the self or external reality. To this extent, denial is the cornerstone of the ego’s defensive functions. In denial, however, the excluded idea or feeling is not available to the subject in any form. In contrast, related ego defenses allow greater conscious and preconscious awareness of the avoided elements.
“Repression” is a related term for a psychological defense in which an emotionally charged fact is temporarily ignored and held out of consciousness but can emerge easily. For example, a student who knows he has bad grades on a report card may “forget” to bring home his school backpack...
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Neurology of Denial (Psychology and Mental Health)
Denial can also result from neurological impairment. Anosognosia is a phenomenon common to patients with right hemispheric stroke in which they fail to recognize (neglect) or seem indifferent to anything located to their left. This can be visual—objects held up, words, or their own body parts—as well as tactile or auditory. For example, they will not shave the left side of the face, will forget to wear a left shoe, or will read only “girl” if shown the word “schoolgirl.” Alienation is an extreme version of this, in which patients fail to recognize their own body parts. Shown their left arm, they may say, “Yes, it is attached to my left shoulder, but it is not mine,” or “That is your arm, doctor.” They maintain this view even when confronted. For example, when asked, “Is this not your wedding ring on this hand?” they may answer, “Yes, doctor. Why are you wearing my ring?” Anosodiaphoria is a related syndrome in which the patient recognizes he or she is paralyzed but denies the emotional significance of the inability to move.
Denial and neglect of this type are most often associated with lesions of the right inferior parietal lobule, a brain area thought important in the circuitry of the general arousal response that allows people to attend to stimuli from the opposite side. The cingulate gyrus and right thalamus have also been associated with this deficit. That these lesions are part of more...
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History of Denial (Psychology and Mental Health)
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first described the concept of disavowal, or Verleugnung, in 1923, in developing his notions of infantile sexuality. He said that children see a little girl’s lack of a penis but “disavow” this fact and believe they see one anyway. He believed children later accept that the girl lacks a penis but are traumatized by this awareness, which Freud linked to female penis envy and male castration anxiety. Freud described a similar disavowal in writing about the fetishist in 1927. He believed fetishists choose a fetishistic object to replace a penis and thereby deny female castration in external reality but also experience anxiety if the object is not available, showing internal awareness of castration.
Freud believed that all human capacity to say “no” was fueled by the death instinct. He linked denial to three other types of “saying no”: projection, negation, and repression. Because disavowal most rejects external reality, however, he thought that it “split the ego” and was the first step toward psychosis. It was also the most extreme form of negation.
Anna Freud also wrote about denial as a basic defense that was normal in children but not in adults. René Spitz described a developmental course to the infant’s ability to say no. He took the infant who closes his eyes or falls asleep in an intensely stimulating or upsetting environment as the prototype for later...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Edelstein, E. L., D. L. Nathanson, and A. M. Stone, eds. Denial: A Clarification of Concepts and Research. New York: Plenum, 1989. This collation of articles presented by psychoanalysts, neurologists, and oncologists at an international conference is a comprehensive evaluation of denial from a variety of theoretical and historical perspectives. Suitable for the graduate and postgraduate student.
Freud, Anna. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International University Press, 1974. A classic work on psychoanalytic views of defense mechanisms including a chapter on denial. Suitable for the levels of undergraduate student and above.
Gillick, Muriel R. The Denial of Aging: Perpetual Youth, Eternal Life, and Other Dangerous Fantasies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. A Harvard Medical School professor shows how Americans are in denial about the aging process, spending billions of dollars on excessive medical care they hope will ward off death.
Kreitler, S. “Denial in Cancer Patients.” Cancer Investigation 17, no. 7 (1999): 514-534. An extensive review of denial in cancer patients and empirical studies of the health consequences of denial.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. A professor of sociology analyzes how denial and silence affect...
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Denial (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders)
Denial is the refusal to acknowledge the existence or severity of unpleasant external realities or internal thoughts and feelings.
Theory of denial
In psychology, denial is a concept originating with the psychodynamic theories of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, three mental dynamics, or motivating forces, influence human behavior: the id, ego, and superego. The id consists of basic survival instincts and what Freud believed to be the two dominant human drives: sex and aggression. If the id were the only influence on behavior, humans would exclusively seek to increase pleasure, decrease pain, and achieve immediate gratification of desires. The ego consists of logical and rational thinking. It enables humans to analyze the realistic risks and benefits of a situation, to tolerate some pain for future profit, and to consider alternatives to the impulse-driven behavior of the id. The superego consists of moralistic standards and forms the basis of the conscience. Although the superego is essential to a sense of right and wrong, it can also include extreme, unrealistic ideas about what one should and should not do.
These three forces all have different goals (id, pleasure; ego, reality; superego, morality) and continually...
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Denial (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Deniers of genocide and other massive human rights violations are engaged in obsessive quests to demonstrate, via fallacious arguments, erroneous facts, and historical distortions, that the events never occurred or are grossly exaggerated. The denial speech, notwithstanding its effort to be perceived as an historical debate, is about contemporary political motivation, racism, and anti-Semitism. It is an ideology, not an historical endeavor. Deniers' conclusions precede their research and analyses. They aim, not to destroy the truth, which is indestructible, but to eradicate the awareness of the truth that prevents the resurgence of past criminal ideologies.
Denial of the Armenian Genocide
Denial of the Armenian genocide is the most patent example of a state's denial of its past. In this case, the state of Turkey officially denies the genocide committed against its Armenian population. Turkey has tried for decades to deny the burden of guilt that the genocide represents for an emerging nation trying to build itself a different past. The debate created by the Turkish state centers on the definition of genocide and its application to the crimes committed against the Armenians, rather than on whether the massacres ever actually occurred. Thus, the spurious debate about the Armenian genocide is more political than the one invoked in Holocaust denial, which is racially motivated. The international community, for the most part, acknowledges the existence of the Armenian genocide, but Turkey still threatens other states with diplomatic reprisals when the question of such recognition is debated.
Denial of Japan's Atrocities
Historical revisionism controversies are becoming frequent in Japan. Radicals from the Japanese political right reject historical accounts in which Japan is portrayed as guilty of crimes against the Chinese population. They deny or outrageously minimize the aggression and atrocities committed by the Imperial Army in the first half of the twentieth century. An example of the massive human rights abuses that the Japanese right minimizes or denies is the Rape of Nanking, during which Chinese women were held in confinement to be used as sex slaves and tortured. Similar to Turkey in its intent, the Japanese denial movement aims, not at perpetuating discriminatory behavior toward Chinese, but to exonerate Japan for atrocities committed on behalf of the state. Denial of events such as the Rape of Nanking has recently even found its way into schoolbooks. The books were later withdrawn, however. South Korea and China protested the introduction of the books in the classrooms, and most public schools rejected them. Denial also recently found its way into Japanese comic-book novels called manga.
Denial of the Rwandan Genocide
The denial movement of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda is still limited in size and influence. The proximity in time of the killings of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus makes it more difficult for deniers to claim that Tutsis were not targeted and killed. In this context, deniers focus more on the notion of "double genocide" than on the nonexistence per se of the genocide of the Tutsis. Extremist Hutus, both from the diaspora and within Rwanda, plead that a genocide was committed against them by Tutsis and the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR). By doing so, they put the two eventshe genocidal violence against Tutsis and the killing of Hutusn an equal footing. The difference between the concepts of genocide and killings, or even slaughter, is not only etymological, however. By assimilating the concepts, Hutu deniers downplay the importance of the crime and the intent behind the genocide. It removes the stigma of killers from the Hutu extremists. It suggests that, since genocide was committed on both sides, there are no victims and no perpetrators; and that all are equal in the scale of crimes. Some Rwandans, working primarily through survivors' associations, are lobbying for legislation in the Rwanda legal corpus prohibiting the denial and the minimization of the 1994 genocide.
Denial of the Holocaust
Holocaust denial has, over the last couple of decades, become an important and active anti-Semitic movement. It consists of the denial or minimization of all aspects of the Nazi genocidal enterprisets intent, its means, as well as its results. It aims at reshaping history in order to rehabilitate the reputation of the Nazis. The movement focuses on denying the existence of the gas chambers and challenging the validity of the claim that six million Jews were killed, because these are the Holocaust's most vivid and most frequently used symbols. It is mainly active in Canada, in the United States, and in Western Europe. Deniers are also becoming active in some Arab countries.
France is considered the cradle of the movement. Maurice Bardèche and, even more so, Paul Rasinnier are considered by many to be the fathers of the movement, but Robert Faurisson, a literature professor at the University of Lyons, has been its true leader. La Vieille Taupe, a publishing house, has played a significant role throughout the years in the promotion and distribution of Holocaust denial materials. Henri Roques, Roger Garaudy, and Jean-Marie LePen, who brought Holocaust denial into politics, are other prominent members of the movement.
The origin of a structured Holocaust denial movement in the United States goes back to the creation of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), a so-called academic organization, in the late seventies. The IHR uses its Journal of Historical Review and conferences to disseminate its propaganda. Contrary to what its name seems to suggest, the IHR is not engaged in good-faith historical research, but serves instead as a platform for racist publications and speeches. Members of the IHR include anti-Semite propagandists such as Ernst Zündel, David Irving, Roques, Faurisson, and Bradley Smith. They can also count on the support of self-proclaimed scholars such as Arthur Butz. Bradley Smith, under the guise of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, was active in the 1990s, placing paid advertisements in college newspapers inviting students to engage in "open debate" on the Holocaust, thereby implying that its very occurrence is subject to legitimate controversy.
Holocaust deniers question what is indisputable, volunteer false evidence while denying historical evidence detrimental to their thesis, dwell on details to reject all testimonies of survivors, and hide behind claims of scientific or scholarly status without having any relevant scholarly background. Deniers plead the absence of specific written orders emanating from Hitler proving the genocidal intent. For deniers, the gas chamber is a myth. On that point, they rely heavily on a false report produced by Arthur Butz, who claims to prove that the Nazis lacked the technical capability to build the chambers. Having dismissed the technical feasibility of the killing centers, deniers move on to claim that places such as Treblinka, Chelmo, and Sobidor, but even more importantly for deniers, Auschwitz-Birkenau, are propagandist fantasies created by Jews. From this, they argue that the figure of six million Jewish victims also cannot be true. Finally, they claim that the International Military Tribunal was a fraud, set up by the Allies to make Germans feel guilty in order to obtain financial compensation for Jews.
By denying the Holocaust's most outstanding features, deniers achieve three goals. First, they remove the status and significance of the Holocaust as a point of reference. The deniers want to erase the teaching of the event, its prophylactic role. In other words, by eliminating the event from conscience and history, deniers hope to influence the present. This is why they disavow the existence of the gas chambers and the genocidal function of Auschwitz. Their agenda is the rehabilitation of the reputation of the Nazis: If such a crime was never committed, then there is nothing wrong with pursuing Nazi policies again. Finally, if the Holocaust is itself a propagandist fraud, deniers can confirm the basis of their racist rationale, which is that the Jews manipulated the world before World War II and still do. The evidence of this ongoing manipulation, claim the deniers, is their ability to impose a lie of such magnitudehe Holocaust, in other wordsor so long. In all cases, Jews are the targets.
When they do not simply deny that it occurred, deniers argue the Holocaust was only one event in a long list of similar crimes committed in the past. By putting aside the unique aspects of the Shoah and by minimizing the suffering of the Jews, deniers disavow the specific racist intent of the Nazis. But it is pointless to indulge in claims of comparative pain suffering, nor is it useful to enter into a competition over the head count of victims. To attempt to say, as deniers do, that all crimes are equivalent is to engage in historical distortion. For example, the use of the gas chambers is not just a different kind of technology employed in wart has wider implications. The chambers were built with the specific intent of killing a mass of people, and were used with the goal of total annihilation of a group. When deniers seek to expunge the gas chambers from history, they are denying not just a detail of the larger event but one of that event's defining concepts.
Debate, Censorship, and the Prosecution of Deniers
Those who wish to confront the deniers of genocide face a dilemma. Should they engage in refuting deniers' allegations? Should the state forbid the publication of denial literature and depict it as "hate propaganda"? Should the state prosecute deniers, or does freedom of expression protect deniers' rights to promulgate their propaganda? Solutions have varied considerably from one region to another, but the issue is always the same: balancing the deniers' rights to freedom of speech against the protection of the rights of the people targeted, who are mainly minorities.
Freedom of speech is a basic element of any democratic society. Fundamental international, regional, and national laws protect it. Most of those laws, however, reject the idea that freedom of speech is absolute and not subject to certain restrictions. In most countries, Holocaust denial exceeds the limit of freedom of speech and is considered an act of racism. Countries facing active and influential denier movements, such as France and Germany, have specifically adopted and adapted legislation penalizing the denial of gross human rights violations. Other countries, for instance Canada, have relied on the prohibition of hate speech. In the United States, the First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of speech is sacrosanct and, it is argued, cannot be subject to much limitation. For this reason, there is a relative absence of jurisprudence against Holocaust deniers in the United States.
In Europe, where most Holocaust denial jurisprudence originates, the European Commission of Human Rights has generally ruled that deniers' complaints about limitation of their freedoms were manifestly ill founded. It has also determined that deniers' speeches and writings are aimed at the destruction of the other rights and freedoms as set forth in the European Convention for Human Rights, and that they are engaged in a campaign against peace and justice, the values on which the Convention is based. For the European Court of Human Rights, the protection of the interests of the victims of the Nazi regime outweighs the freedom to impart views denying the existence of gas chambers. Thus, in the opinion of the Commission, Holocaust denial exceeds the freedom of speech.
The Gayssot Act, adopted in 1990 in France, makes it a punishable offense to engage in the denial of any of the crimes mentioned in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal of August 8, 1945. It was on the basis of this charter that Nazis were tried in Nuremberg. The prominent Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson, was convicted in 1992 by the French court, but challenged the legitimacy of the Gayssot Act before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, charging that it violated his freedom of speech according to section 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee dismissed Faurisson's claim.
In Canada, where no specifically adapted legislation exists, Ernst Zündel was unsuccessfully prosecuted for spreading false news. Zündel's pamphlet, entitled Did Six Million Really Die?, suggested that the Holocaust was a myth perpetrated by a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. The Supreme Court of Canada found the scope of the provision (i.e., the statute prohibiting the spread of false news) to be too broad and, thus, that the limitation of freedom of speech was in this context unjustifiable. Other cases brought against deniers in Canada were prosecuted under laws prohibiting hate propaganda. In the case of Q. v. Keegstra (1990), the Canadian Supreme Court held that the defendant's expressive activity (denial propaganda) was only tenuously connected with the values underlying the guarantee of freedom of expression, that is the quest for truth and the promotion of individual self-development. Thus, the court went on to rule, the prohibition of such propaganda does not unduly impair freedom of expression. More recently, Canadian courts found Zündel, who hosted a web site dedicated to Holocaust denial, guilty of using telecommunication devices to spread heinous messages against minorities.
In Great Britain, the High Court rejected David Irving's claim that Professor Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books had slandered him when she named him as a Holocaust denier in one of her books. In court, Irving persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence to portray Hitler in an unwarrantedly favorable light, principally in relation to his attitude toward and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews. The court agreed with Lipstadt that Irving was indeed an anti-Semite, a racist, and an active Holocaust denier.
It is worth mentioning that not all legislation prohibiting denial of gross human rights violation applies to all such events. The Gayssot Act, for instance, leaves outside its scope the Armenian genocide, in part because an independent judicial body did not establish the genocide. In Switzerland, to the contrary, section 261bis of the Criminal Code, prohibits the denial or the gross minimization of any genocide or other crimes against humanity.
An increasing body of international legislation condemning the denial of crimes against humanity and the Holocaust has contributed to the formation of a soft-law corpus, or multilateral non-treaty agreements, on the issue. Some legal authorities have recommended combating the dissemination of negationist (denial) theories by introducing or strengthening penalties and improving the opportunities for prosecution. Those who still oppose the prosecution of deniers argue that that everything can and should be debated and that truth ought not to be imposed by governments or the law. This utopian belief assumes that lies are always revealed when they are freely debated, and that this would benefit everyone in a free society. This is the "light-of-day" argument taken to its extreme. But the deniers' debate exists only because of such utopian protections.
History vs. Pseudo-History
Deniers aim to confound history. By their denials, they aim to confound history. They pretend to be engaged in a legitimate and credible scholarly effort, a genuine attempt at presenting alternative historical interpretation. But denial propaganda is not interpretation; instead, it is a tissue of lies and distortions. Denial literature and other forms of denial propaganda oppose truth with lies. Historians may engage in historical revision of past events when new evidence supports a rethinking of earlier interpretations, but no such new evidence exists to raise serious questions about the fact that the Holocaust occurred. The deniers' only true goal is a racist one: to attack genocide targets for a second time.
Some fear that prosecuting deniers will lead to the imposition of state-sponsored versions of historical truth. Such fears seem unjustified. The prosecution of deniers is not done with the intent to impose a state-sponsored version of historical truth, but rather to protect the historical record. The fact that the Third Reich is responsible for the Holocaust has been established in trials around the world, but none of the fraudulent allegations of the deniers has ever been established on the strength of verifiable evidence. In addition, legislation such as the Gayssot Act does not preclude research on the historical facts. It only sets aside one historical facthe very existence of the Holocaustn the basis of authoritative evidence, such as that which was presented at the Nuremberg Trials, that the Holocaust did, indeed, occur. Postmodernists argue that history is subjective, pointing out that it is an intellectual reconstruction of events that the historians themselves have not lived through or witnessed. History may indeed contain subjective elements, but this does not mean that a good-faith reconstruction of the past is impossible, or that interpretations can be based solely on ideology and still make a claim to legitimacy. Even historians of the postmodern school cannot escape the supremacy of evidencencluding physical evidence and eyewitness accountsnd therefore must concede that the Holocaust did, in fact, occur, or they cease to be historians.
SEE ALSO Holocaust; Propaganda
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