Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a writer and sociologist. He teaches at Leo Baeck College and Birkbeck College and is a Fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the RSA and the Higher Education Academy. The author of seven books, his interests range from the British Jewish community to extreme metal music scenes. He has contributed to publications including The Guardian, New Humanist, Times Literary Supplement and he guest edited the Jewish Quarterly magazine in 2014–2015.
Denialism comes in many forms, dressed in the garb of research proudly claiming to represent the best traditions of scholarship. Its influence is insidious, its techniques are pernicious. In Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, Kahn-Harris sets out not just to unpick denialists’ arguments, but to investigate what lies behind them. The conclusions he reaches are disturbing and uncomfortable.
1. Which denialist organisation poses the worst threat to society today?
Practitioners of one form of denialism have been much more successful in developing institutions that have proved influential in society at large: climate change denialism. Within academia, this kind of denialism is still relatively marginal, although academics do feature prominently in climate change denialist discourse. In policy-making circles though, there are multiple institutions throughout the world that have worked hard to normalise climate change denialism at the highest levels of politics government (generally right-wing government but not always. Think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institution in the US or the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the UK have acted as incubators of denialist discourse and provided subtle or not-so-subtle support for politicians and policy-makers who are inclined in this direction.
Given the existential threat that climate change poses, it is fair to say that such organisations are the most dangerous denialist institutions. That said, as I argue in my book, organised and institutionalised forms of denialism are not the only threat in terms of challenges to scholarship and science. What I call ‘post-denialism’ is, to some extent superseding denialism. Post-denialism is by definition unorganised but its power lies in its near-complete scepticism that challenges the very idea of truth itself.
2. How does denialism cloak much darker desires?
Denialism is a more systematic, public and organised form of the denial that all of us practice on occasions. In fact, most psychologists would argue that a degree of denial is essential in our lives since we cannot face difficult realities continuously. Denial becomes pathological when it becomes a permanent state of affairs. Nonetheless, people may be ‘forced’ into that pathology when there is no space to acknowledge difficult realities about the self. In particular, when we desire things that are not seen as publicly legitimate, we have to deny that those desires exist.
Denialism, while it draws on deep-rooted psychological processes, has become particularly prevalent and well-organised in western modernity due to a radical change in public discourse. Certain things that humans have often desired throughout history can no longer be publicly legitimated. One of them is genocide. Genocides have occurred throughout history and in the modern era they have continued to occur. Yet what’s different is that in the modern world it has become very difficult to argue publicly in favour of a particular genocide. That’s why pretty much every genocide from at least as far back as the late nineteenth century has been accompanied by systematic attempts to deny it occurred — and these actually start while the genocide is actually occurring.
3. How should we adapt to the post-denialist era?
Post-denialism, as I call it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Like denialism it is an attempt to cast doubt and overturn science and scholarship. Unlike denialism, it is undisciplined, largely uninstitutionalised (at least publicly) and doesn’t look like real scholarship. Trump is a paradigmatic post-denialist figure in that nothing he says ever coheres into a systematic narrative; he lies and denies promiscuously but he also contradicts himself.
How do we adapt? Well first of all it’s important to recognise that post-denialism and ‘classic’ denialism coexist; one did not simply replace the other. What post-denialism does though, is come close to acknowledging the dark desire that denialism hides. It is a kind of ‘lazy’ denialism that barely bothers to pretend anymore. That means that we need to find ways to adapt to the possibility that the fundamental tectonic plates of discourse are shifting. We might be returning to a pre-modern time in which things that cannot be spoken of become speakable again.
It’s a depressing and scary thought that post-denialism might be leading us to a time when dark desires can be acknowledged. But that also brings with it possibilities. Denialism meant that we have never had an open honest debate with people who do not want action on climate change, as they couldn’t admit that this is what they wanted. Soon we might be able to. Can we deal with that reality? I’m not sure.
4. What has changed since the book was first published?
Denial was published in 2018. Obviously one of the key things to happen since then was the Covid-19 pandemic. That has seen an explosion in denialist and post-denialist discourse, particularly around the issue of vaccination. In the US this has often been intertwined with the normalisation of conspiracies about Biden’s election victory and QAnon subculture. While ‘classic’ denialism has played a part in this, post-denialism is making a lot of the running. Conspiracies about vaccination are often mutually contradictory, but they have grown nonetheless. This is part of the post-denialism trend towards polymorphous scepticism towards truth claims.
As I write this, the war in Ukraine has been going for a week. While Putin’s regime has been a main player in overtly and covertly stoking denialism and post-denialism, strangely enough the invasion seems like an ‘honest’ act: The fact of invasion cannot be denied and Putin has made his desires quite clear. As I speculated in my book, this scary ‘honesty’ might be what lies beyond post-denialism. It’s not a comfortable thing to witness but we do at least know where we stand now.
5. We work with the Jewish Quarterly, what did you enjoy about your time as an editor there?
I guest edited the Jewish Quarterly for four issues (one of them a double issue) in 2014 and 2015. It was one of the greatest privileges in my working life. In particular, I really loved commissioning art-focused pieces, including comics. I’m proud that, during my editorship, the magazine was a visual feast.
6. Are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?
I still write about the issues discussed in Denial. I have other interests too though! In 2019, I published my book about antisemitism, Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity. After writing two books about very grim themes, during the pandemic I wanted to write something celebratory and joyful! That led to my book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language which came out in 2021 and celebrates linguistic diversity via — and I am not making this up — the multilingual warning messages inside Kinder Surprise Eggs. Slightly less eccentrically, in 2022 I am publishing, in collaboration with the photographer Rob Stothard, a book of portraits of British Jews. After that? Well there is no shortage of stuff going on in the world to write about at the moment….
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