Denial: Not just a River in Egypt

When we are incredulous at what others believe, because for us the ‘facts’ are clear and unambiguous, we probably aren’t in touch with the concerns of those other people. But there are times when we too ran afoul of what, in retrospect, were the ‘facts’ of a situation. Remembering those times may help us understand the conditions that cause others to deny what to us is reality. Seeing ourselves in the grip of a fictitious story, we may come closer to understanding the conditions that cause people with whom we disagree to embed themselves in their fictions.

When I look for examples of viewpoints that I consider delusions, or worse deliberate lies, I think of election deniers, especially people who physically harm those with whom they disagree.

I have difficulty putting myself in an equal relationship with election deniers, and I don’t think of myself as suffering so egregiously from a comparable falsehood. But my life abounds in examples of times when I lost an opportunity to experience something because of my ignorance.

Not feeling ready to delve into my own painful examples, let me share an incident that may have some relevance. Back before I met him, in the 1950’s, Eric, the mentor of my adolescence who would later introduce me to Western literature and philosophy, was selling shoes at Eaton’s department store on Saint Catherine Street in downtown Montreal. The shoe connection may be irrelevant, but Eric once suggested I buy a pair of custom-made shoes. The cobbler, like Eric, may have been from the old country. (Also, my father, who would have turned 112 this week, had his shoes custom made, because, like me, his feet were outsize.)

Eric may have been selling shoes when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), whose officers now show up in automobiles, informed him that he could no longer work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), where he had given the news on the International News desk, because he had been a Communist in Germany in WW II. This persecution in Canada paralleled 1950’s McCarthyism in the U.S., both egregious denials of the shortfalls of capitalism and of the need to create new social organizations that don’t exclude so many people.

Like many of the most creative and intelligent people in the U.S., Eric lost a livelihood for which he was very well qualified. I was not then aware of the unfairness of the world and was earning a good salary as a computer programmer; more than enough to pay for a pair of custom-made shoes. The problem that surfaced for me had nothing to do with the irrational fear of political options by those in power in Canada. My problem was that when I stood on a large piece of paper in the cobbler’s workshop so that he could trace the outlines of my feet, I didn’t like the appearance of my flat-footed arches. So, I raised them and held that position while he made his careful measurements.

The cobbler may have been more skilled at cutting and sewing leather for the soles and upper portions of hand-crafted leather shoes than he was at recognizing the extent of his young customer’s vanity. I don’t recall him telling me to visualize myself standing in a field and relaxing as a butterfly fluttered by, nor suggesting that I visualize myself in a warm bath without a care in the world. In any case, a few weeks later I discovered the unfortunate side-effects of prioritizing my appearance over adapting myself to the truth of the situation. When I laced up a beautiful pair of brown leather shoes, with stout leather soles fit for years of walking, and took a couple of steps, it was painfully obvious that they were too short.

The cobbler tried stretching them over the next week, but the very substantiality of their construction made them resist any effort to change their length; my new shoes, which no doubt faithfully reflected the pose I assumed when he measured my feet, could have been cast in iron.

I haven’t had to pay a steep price for my moment of vanity. I have been able to wear comfortable shoes ever since, as my feet grew from size 13 to size 16. However, so many who don’t find a good fit for their psychological and physical orientations, nor with their ethnic backgrounds, must live lives in which they are excluded from their share of Earth’s bounties.

And many who deny election results—in the U.S. and more recently in Brazil—seem to feel that they have been left out of their share of acceptance and respect by their nations’ policies. Conviction that they haven’t been given the place they deserve has spawned a desire to tear down the structures that exclude them. Some delight in destruction and chaos for their own sake.

Recently, the national news has been following Solomon Pena, who ran as a Republican in New Mexico and lost. Unlike most election deniers, he personally ran for office and lost his bid in a fair election process. He also stands out among political candidates because–unlike Trump or Bolsonaro—he personally committed acts of violence. He fired a weapon into the home of a successful political opponent and hired hitmen to fire bullets into the homes of other Democrats.

In these various cases of election denial, I wonder which came first: the egg (a sense of being trapped inside a shell of social orthodoxy) or the chicken (actively pecking a hole in established order in an attempt to be free of it).

Sometimes extreme resentments explode in movements aimed at reversing established outcomes. But which came first: the resentment or the movement? Was there a confluence of individuals each independently expressing denial of the outcome of a particular election? Or was the chance to join forces with other angry people a primary draw?

As with my unwearable pair of shoes, does a self-image of ourselves more flattering than who we really are, put ignorance of how things work and denial of the situations in which we live in the driver’s seat? When are we are then forced to inhabit a world in which the chance to live in harmony has been sacrificed, whom among us remembers our own role in that outcome?

It’s not just ordinary people who feel they have been left behind by agreements made in their name and who deny their legitimacy. In the horrors of McCarthyism in the 1950’s, the perpetrator operated with the authority of the U.S. Senate. The harm he inflicted on many of the most creative and thoughtful individuals of that time was orchestrated from inside the political order. And this danger continues to lap again the future of our planet now as much as ever.

When people are left outside the order that claims to represent them, the grounds for future deniers is being primed. And there are always leaders who haven’t forgotten that the easiest way to seize power is to prey on our fear of the future.

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