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Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt

By Howard Ross, Founder and Chief Learning officer

Once again the news interrupts our momentary peace. The murder of nine African Americans in the Emanuel AME Church in Charlestown South Carolina has delivered a punch to the nation’s gut that harkens back to the savage killing of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. As always we are devastated by the inhumanity of the act and by the suffering of those directly impacted. And, as always, we seem to struggle to make sense of the tragedy. But is that what most of us are really doing? As I watch our collective reaction to the events of June 17th, I can’t help but think that there is a force at work that almost always tends to supersede our honest exploration into finding out “What happened?”

Denial.

Women-washing-in-Nile-River-by-Tell-el-Amarna,-tb010905258-bibleplacesIn the case of this crime, it couldn’t be clearer. The perpetrator came into the church and shouted racial epithets as he murdered the nine victims. He is seen in pictures waving the Confederate flag and wearing clothing emblazoned with apartheid stickers. He had written a “manifesto” ranting against African Americans, Latinos, Jews and others. Everything about this young man’s act is clearly associated with racist motivations, including his own statements.

And yet, the Wall Street Journal posts an editorial column in which it states, “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists. What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage, whatever their motivation, is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity. It is no small solace that in committing such an act today, he stands alone.” Alone with the more than 3,000 race-based hate crimes that are committed every year in the United States. News broadcasters insist that this was not a racial incident, but an “attack on Christianity.” Presidential candidates insist that the incident wouldn’t have happened if the people praying in the church had more guns. And as protests mount to stop flying the confederate flag, many insist that the civil war wasn’t really fought over race and slavery, even though the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Hamilton said, “Our new government is founded upon . . . the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” and the South Carolina Declaration of Secession from the Union stated, “they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

Of course this phenomenon is not the exclusive bastion of the right. When the Ferguson and Baltimore civil actions were at their peak, how many liberals, in the interest of explaining the historical and systemic roots of the experience of oppression by African Americans in those communities, refused to acknowledge the obvious truth: despite the fact that most of the protesters were responding out of their rage and pain, some were taking advantage of the situation to play out their own sociopathic tendencies to hurt, to steal, and to destroy.

Have we lost our sanity? No.

Denial.

denialWhat is it that has us dig in so deeply to deny that which is obvious? Why is it that even in the face of mounting evidence, we stubbornly hold on to our existing point of view? We know that, as Sherlock Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit the facts.” And yes, there are some who cynically attempt to rewrite the narrative for their own purpose…to prove a point. And, far more often, we actually see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and think what we want to think, all the while convinced that we are right, discarding the evidence to the contrary. In his book A Separate Reality, anthropologist Carlos Castenada described this reaffirming phenomenon in this way:

“We talk to ourselves incessantly about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk. And whenever we finish talking to ourselves about ourselves and our world, the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we rekindle it with life, and we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves. Thus we repeat the same choices over and over until the day we die, because we keep on repeating the same internal talk over and over until the day we die.”

Some of this comes from our own personal sense of simply wanting to be right. Our ego structures get strongly attached to our positions about issues to the point where we become identified with our point of view. Being “wrong” about the issue threatens our very identity. And so while most people would agree that a wise, thinking person should be willing to listen, learn, and, if appropriate, change their mind, the reality is that we hold on to our points of view, especially the important ones, like a dog and a bone.

If this were conscious it would be hard enough to fight, but we know that our unconscious beliefs often dominate our thinking and dominate our ability to reason. Evidence suggests that our firmly held political views might even impact our ability to do the things we consider the most rational. Yale University law professor Daniel Kahan, along with psychologists Ellen Peters from Ohio State University, Erica Dawson from Cornell University, and Paul Slovic from the University of Oregon gave a difficult math problem to over 1000 people. In one version the problem was poised as determining the results of a pretty benign skin cream test. Participants in the study were generally likely to solve the problem accurately. In another version, however, the same math equations were posed in the context of a more emotional charged issue: a question about the effectiveness of handgun laws. Both liberals and conservatives erred in their math scores in the favor of the point of view they were supporting. In fact, the people who were normally the best at mathematical reasoning were the most likely to get the problem wrong when the politics were introduced. Their skill at math stopped being a tool for discovering the truth, and started to be used as a tool for proving themselves right!

And it becomes even more rigid when the issue is one that groups of people have mobilized around. Our tendency to want to belong supersedes almost any human need. And when we become part of a group with a “moral” purpose, this is truer than ever. We get caught up in the conversation we are surrounded by. We are no longer searching for the truth, but rather for a justification of our already point of view. And our antipathy towards “the other side” actually becomes a binding force in our group so much so that compromise is a threat to belonging.

The flood of information available to us makes it remarkably easy to get “evidence” for the point of view that we have already decided is “Truth.” We watch the same TV news stations. We listen to the same commentators. We read the same blogs. We get the constant feed from the same people on our Facebook pages and twitter accounts.   And those coming from another point of view become less and less worthy of our time and our consideration.

As Mark Twain said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” It is a psychological protection strategy that we have to fight if we want to find the truth. Of course we have to be sure that we protect ourselves against extremists who use hate and righteousness to harm others. But they do not exist in a vacuum. The mainstream justifiers and apologists for their behaviors feed their sociopathy. The real question is, do we want to be right, or do we want to have a civil society? If the answer is the latter, it starts with each of us. We have to be willing to try to understand before condemning the other point of view. We have to watch more than just “our” news station and read more than just “our” bloggers and Facebook pages. And we have to look for ways to connect rather than divide. We have to be willing to truly dialogue, rather than convince.

As the 13th Century Sufi poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

To read more of Howard’s writings, check out Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives and ReInventing Diversity:  Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance

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