With 2021 drawing to a close, we’ve endured a year that has dealt us enormous challenges: the global pandemic; climate change; the frontal attack on democracy; and ongoing racial injustice. Sadly, for each, we have done far too little problem-solving, and used denial far too often.
The COVID facts are daunting but clear: 1) COVID-19 has killed more than 750,000 Americans; 2) death rates among us are currently 12 times higher for the unvaccinated; and 3) masking and social distancing are risk reducers.
COVID denial in 2021 was rampant. Advocacy for an animal deworming agent, one with no track record as a disease preventive, was embraced by science deniers. A Senate hearing was conducted by Sen. Ron Johnson last December to promote the use of ivermectin. In April, he followed this by calling for limiting the distribution of the proven vaccines, testily asking us all, “What do you care if your neighbor has had one (a vaccine) or not?”
In March, Idaho’s lieutenant governor, skeptical that we have a pandemic, addressed mask-burning ralliers at their state Capitol. Aaron Rodgers also swallowed the Kool-Aid of COVID denial. Having chosen the deworming agent over the proven vaccines, he deceived us about his vaccination status.
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The first week of January brought the nation’s first-ever attempt to install a president by a violent coup. We cling to denial about what happened at our long-term peril. The devastating Capitol attack was launched by a sitting president immersed in his own denial. With his ego battered by a seven-million-vote defeat, he insisted, denial flaring wildly, that he was the one who won the presidential election.
January then saw a bloc of 12 senators, including Johnson, calling on their fellow senators to break their oath of office and “de-certify” (nullify) the electoral count from swing states, and thereby award a second term to the man who had lost the election.
On January 6, the president ordered his supporters to take an illegal, unpermitted march to the Capitol, and to “fight like hell.” Insurrectionists invaded, menacingly chanting the names of Vice-President Mike Pence and House Nancy Pelosi, killing a police officer on their way down the Capitol halls. Johnson again employed massive denial, attributing the insurrection to “plainclothes militants, agent provocateurs, fake Trump protesters, and [a] disciplined uniformed column of attackers.”
Later, Johnson offered an updated denial-based fantasy, this one blatantly denying what we had all seen and heard. He asked us to refrain from judging the violent insurrection too harshly because the mob’s majority, he maintained, displayed a “jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor.”
Sadly, climate change denial is also widespread, threatening to enable destruction of the health of our world. Mountains of data, and our own eyes, tell us that polar ice caps are melting, and that we are being pounded with ever more frequent and severe storms. The scientific community is loudly calling out the alarm: The risk is enormous. The clock is ticking. Reduce fossil fuel emissions by 50%, and do it by 2030.
Yet Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, with all 50 Republicans senators along for the ride, declared that nothing was needed to speed up our snail’s pace transition away from fossil fuels. Johnson did his Senate colleagues one better, arguing incredibly that there was simply no problem. “Climate change is bulls—-”, he was caught telling supporters.
In late September, the Wisconsin State Assembly joined the denial parade. In a party-line vote, legislation passed aimed at reversing the long-overdue reckoning on race. In-depth teaching about the multi-century history of “Indian” removals, destruction of Native culture, chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and lynchings would all have become subject to attack.
Sociologist and human rights abuse documenter Stanley Cohen literally wrote the book on denial, individual and societal. In his “States of Denial,” he warns of the corroding effects of prolonged denial, including this tragic outcome: complete moral indifference.
There is a severe price to be paid when we can look the other way as a global pandemic kills people by the millions; as killings occur during the invasion of the US Capitol or at a neo-Nazi rally; when children are forcibly separated from their parents; and when outrageous falsehoods are promoted because they advance an agenda. With denial piled on top of denial, society loses the ability to hold anyone morally accountable for their words or deeds, no matter how horrific.
Aggressive denial employed by some is breaking apart the bonds connecting us all.
As Americans, we value personal choice, and personal responsibility. We can choose the comfort of denial, or, the more difficult but essential path of facing the facts, and dealing with them. In the coming year, may we do less denying, and more truth-telling.
Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist and freelance writer.