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Ron Malzer: Denial Threatens Our Survival

Ron Malzer: Denial Threatens Our Survival

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Denial can be a blessing. When traumatic news strikes, the mind instinctively reacts by refusing to take it all in. Social psychologist Stanley Cohen describes the process this way: “Denial is always partial; … knowing and not-knowing is the heart of the concept.” When denial of reality becomes employed long-term by a large group of people, the “not knowing” becomes a threat to society’s survival.

At the end of March, Infectious Disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci and COVID-19 Task Force Director Dr. Deborah Birx warned that America could be facing as many as 240,000 coronavirus-caused deaths if we failed to act . At that point many state governments implemented reasonable preventive public health measures. But by summer, rallies in multiple states demanded that governments overturn life-saving measures, arguing, incredibly, for an individual right to acquire and spread germs.

On July 13, President Trump issued the following re-tweet: “Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most. … I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election.” He followed by conducting multiple densely-packed, mask-barren political rallies. The events were responsible, according to a Stanford University estimate, for over 30,000 coronavirus cases, and more than 700 deaths. The prospect of losing

the election was at least partly acknowledged by the president; regarding the likelihood of deaths by the hundreds of thousands, he was a super-spreader of denial.

Denial of medical science is embedded deeply in segments of our society. In an extensive background-and-interview piece, Ryan D’Agostino summarizes the position of popular anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., as follows: “[M]ost vaccines pose a grave danger to public health, causing everything from autism and other intellectual disabilities to allergies to cancer.” Kennedy is highly skeptical of Covid-19 vaccines, asserting that he would only consider getting one if it were to be offered in a single dose. This is anti-science at its worst; the more people who buy into this, the more COVID deaths we will experience.

For a different reason, COVID deaths in America to date have hit disproportionately our country’s African-Americans and Native Americans, as do deaths from chronic illnesses. Our country’s tolerating these terrible inequities stems from our four-and-half century history of racism and violence denial, and the pain it has inflicted.

We have whitewashed from our history, through denial and minimization, all of the following: the seizure and shackling of at least 11 million Africans, with at least one million dying shipborne from disease, or from violence against attempted escape; almost 250 years of legalized slave-holding;

lynchings that continued into the 1960s; the mass incarceration of black and brown people; and serious impediments to the economic, political, and cultural well-being of African-Americans.

We also deny and minimize the brutal treatment of Native Americans by Europeans in “The New World”, including: removals from lands desired by the Europeans; deaths and illnesses during forced marches over many hundreds of miles; indentured servitude; slavery; and mass killings. Today, native peoples living on reservations and in more urban areas have led to disproportionate rates of poverty, with Native American life expectancy almost more than four years below the national average.

Most of us love our country. As we review our history, too many of us remain in the infatuation stage, with a filter allowing in only things that seem near-perfect. We therefore construct a very badly whitewashed narrative.

If we truly and fully love our country, we would acknowledge the atrocities we have caused through the grievous mistakes we have made as a country, along with embracing our many positive contributions to the world.

An extremely dangerous anti-science belief system also exists with regard to the climate changes human activity is causing. In October 2018, the world’s climate scientists declared that our already-

changed climate “will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise.” A 2014 World Health Organization report forecasts that, between 2030 and 2050, climate change will probably cause, worldwide, more than 250,000 deaths annually.

As 2021 begins, we are already very late to take action. The coronavirus virus has taken a massive toll, as has turning a blind eye to racism. And if we continue to do violence to our environment, denial will threaten our very survival.

Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist who lives in La Crosse.

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