Review by Brian Martin


States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering

By Stanley Cohen

Polity Press, 2001


We all know that there are people dying of starvation in many countries around the globe. We all know that there are brutal dictatorships. We all know that there are numerous wars going on, with millions of refugees. We all know that torture is widely used.

We all know about the problems. What are any of us doing about them?

Now listen to the responses. That's someone else's "problem." "There's nothing I can do." "I have enough problems of my own." "They brought it on themselves."

The reality is that we can all do a lot to help. Contributions to human rights organisations like Amnesty International make a difference to political freedoms. Contributions to independent aid organisations help save lives. Even a few dollars can make a difference to a child's life.

The sad fact is that we all know about human suffering but manage to blot it out of our consciousness most of the time. Eminent sociologist Stanley Cohen examines this phenomenon in his book States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Polity Press, 2001). Cohen systematically analyses processes of denial by both individuals and governments. The book is impressive in its scope and insight. I can only introduce a few ideas from it here.

Cohen describes five methods of denial.

1. Deny responsibility: "I don't know a thing about it."

2. Deny injury: "It didn't really cause any harm."

3. Deny the victim: "They had it coming to them."

4. Condemn the condemner: "They're corrupt hypocrites."

5. Appeal to higher loyalties: "I owe it to my mates."

These methods can be used by individuals or governments and by perpetrators or bystanders. Germans living near death camps under the Nazi regime could hardly have been unaware of what was going on, but used one or more methods of denial.

Most of us are familiar with all sorts of human tragedies. Consider, for example, Afghani civilians who were killed or injured in the US anti-terrorist assault. Denial can take many forms. Have you heard any of these comments?

1. "I don't know anything about it."

2. "I don't actually believe many civilians have been hurt."

3. "What do they expect, supporting the Taliban?"

4. "Those meddling bleeding hearts should butt out."

5. "We've got to support the US government."

There can be whole cultures of denial. Everyone in an organisation knows about the exploitation, but each person either says nothing or mouths platitudes about it being a wonderful caring place.

When a single person speaks up, it breaks the silence, but this may not be enough to change the culture. Cohen tells of two main ways of forgetting. One is through active cover-up and suppression, such as rewriting history. The other route to forgetting is through diffusion, namely getting lost in the abundance of ongoing information. Before long no one wants to know.

States of Denial doesn't provide all the answers but it is immensely valuable for anyone who wants to be part of the search.


Brian Martin is TFF Associates