Monday, June 17th, 2013 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/go-deny-yourself
ews editors revel in it; when used as a seeming synonym for refutation, denial is a candidate for our most Orwellian word. As a verb it undermines modernity’s great achievement of presumed innocence until proven guilt, enabling insinuations before the subject can even get her boots on. As a suffix coining a hyphenated noun it renders disagreement unreasonable, irrational and even malign, so undermining another great modern achievement: tolerance.
In headlines, the short and solitary verb is usually overshadowed by what follows: the description of the denied act, now indelibly linked with the denier. A recent news.com.au headline reads: “Warren Rodwell’s wife Miraflor Gutang denies being involved in kidnapping”. Yet the story contains nothing to argue that she was a party to the crime, except perhaps the unstated idea that all Filipinos are bandits. Indeed, buried 2/3rds down, a Filipino government official says Gutang was instrumental in securing Rodwell’s release!
In an argument, a denial garners infinitely less respect than a refutation. If I refute a mathematical proof then I demonstrate its fallaciousness, but if I deny it, I’m either stating that the proof never existed, which is absurd, or that I dispute its conclusions without having disproved the proof — also absurd, or at least, blatantly and even ridiculously dishonest, an exercise in magical thinking. I have left the realm of reason.
Refutation is about logic, denial about judgment and power. To reasonably deny something it must be within my domain, and this applies for both senses of the word, refuse and refute. Computers are programmed, at least in fiction, to say “Access Denied”. Denying differs from obstructing, preventing or blocking access in that it is more metaphysical; while these other actions involve physically barring access, denying it is a decision about my right to access; the operating system’s power to enforce that decision is a given. Similarly, a government agency grants or denies a visa, a court one’s visitation rights.
I may plausibly deny actions or knowledge attributed to me (even without refutation, contradiction or an alibi) but I cannot plausibly deny those of others, nor independent things such as ideas. (Though we do speak of denying the rights of others, since the domain is now the theoretical. Here it’s understood that I don’t have the power to enforce my denial, but am instead exercising a moral judgment of their right to that right. Perhaps this is within my domain because, like property, rights are possessed through consensus, which includes consent from me.)
All this is why an accusation of x-denial is so damaging: it puts me in an absurd, Kafkaesque position. Since I cannot reasonably deny something that is not within my domain, accusing me of doing so renders me unreasonable. And if the thing I’m denying is a consensus that seems salutary, such as climate change and efforts to save life on earth, or Holocaust history and efforts to preserve its victims’ memory and ensure Never again, then I am surely perverse, anti-social and/or malign. To be a hyphenated denier is to be a pariah — in some countries even a criminal (though few have ever been convicted).
As Edward Skidelsky puts it, denial is the secular form of blasphemy. Previous generations of Europeans persecuted Jews for Christ-denial — how antagonistic, their refusal to accept the good news; why spoil this liberating, universalising, true and good movement by refusing to join it?
Wikipedia currently defines denialism as “choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth.” We’d do better to define it instead as trafficking in accusations of such.
Update: See this, There’s no denying this label packs a political punch by Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter