If you’ve ever come across the Chinese proverb that ‘To know but not to act is not to know’ (quoting the book I am about to review, a little bit cheeky – I know), you’ve probably realized that the majority of our global society seems to be pretty oblivious and uneducated about today’s suffering and atrocities. ‘Cause we ain’t doing anything.
There are two keywords in this saying: to know and to act.
Stanley Cohen tackles the former of these two neural and moral notions: In his book ‘States of Denial – Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering’ he presents himself as an enlightener, a teacher of truth, and he invites the reader to attend his lecture ‘Sociology 101’.
And it’s a lecture that will leave you thinking about how little you know and how much you deny, (At least, that’s what happened to me.) how little you are doing to stop and prevent terrible events from ever happening again, and how only reading about past atrocities, acts of torture, or mass suffering, can leave you feeling enraged, empty, and speechless at the same time.
Yet, Cohen never forces himself upon the reader but rather lures us into his mind palace filled with Freudian theories on human psychology that I decided to brush over in this review (you can thank me later), and the sheer infinity of definitions of the term, uses, and contexts of ‘denial’. And he always comes back to the universal truth: denial is omnipresent. Denial is harder to overcome than dealing with reality. Denial can be the ‘easy way out of’ or ‘the only way to survive’ reality. Either way, it is a defense mechanism as old as the human species.
Still, why do I call Cohen an enlightener? Well, he certainly opened my eyes. Before opening Cohen’s book and scanning the first few pages, I walked through life with half-shut eyes, perceiving a beggar only in my blurry peripheral vision, taking a detour when strolling around town to avoid charity stands, or skipping the news on TV or articles on the latest terrible events in distant places. Yet, Cohen never blames the people for their obliviousness but rather pinpoints the reasons why denial seems the only option. Instead of criticizing common folk for their lack of knowledge and inactivity he lays out the motives of denial and motions of denying but lets us, the readers, come to terms with our own stand towards this delicate topic. He never rubs salt in the wounds of past denial but rather offers a disinfecting wipe to clear out naive former views of life and offers a helping hand for a fresh start at perceiving the world we live in. He helps us to broaden our moral boundaries, considering not only those who are close to us but also those who seemingly live and suffer dimensions away. A truly enlightening moment for me.
Let me get this straight: Cohen manages to talk about the forms, origins, mechanisms, and accounts of denial (sometimes a rather effective history lesson on how states, governments, and officials used to and still do get away with their denial of past or ongoing atrocities, relying on the same methods as ‘ordinary’ perpetrators), the repressions of the past (I highly recommend this chapter to all the Freudians amongst our readers), bystander states (those individuals or states who simply ignore or in other, quite frank, words laugh off other people’s problems), how the media and humanitarian organizations deal with suffering, furthermore, how past atrocities were and are acknowledged, and how denial will always play an important role in our global society in more or less 300 pages, where other acclaimed sociologists need twice the amount of pages. ‘States of Denial‘ is extremely condense but highly informative. Cohen wants you to know as much as possible, but leaves the essential act of dealing with one’s own forms of denial in every aspect in life to the reader. After all, he is a teacher of truth and not a faith healer.
And although all of these 300 pages did not only have an immense impact on my views of our society (If we do any less, we might just as well leave everyone to their own problems, and where would this leave us? Hashtag egocentrism…), but also on my own notions of denial (In retrospect I assume reading and talking about the book in class was probably nothing else than a more or less free therapy session every Thursday and Friday afternoon, except for the 23€ for the book), there are two passages in particular that struck me:
Cohen spends a great deal of time analyzing the motives of individuals who remain inactive, although they are witnesses to acts that demand reactions, and at one point he explains the ultimate predispositions for bystanders to change their minds: individuals supposedly need to know they are going to gain something out of the act of generosity (knowing you helped someone is all well and good, yet even better and more effective: life-long glory and honour), and will only act if they know they get out of the mess alive. Still, generally speaking, human beings come up with all sorts of reason to stay in their shell, isolated from the world, watching suffering and atrocities but claiming to be unable to help. (Hashtag sorry not sorry? Rather hashtag read Kant!)
Now, for my second example imagine a typical charity campaign showing a child, its ribs clearly visible under its almost transparent, stretched out skin, due to its kwashiorkor-ridden stomach. Cohen refers to Jorgen Lissner who declares these pictures ‘pornographic’, and I agree: I have always felt utterly disturbed when gazing at these posters from afar, and I’ve never quite comprehended as to why humanitarian organizations would choose these ‘bare it all’-pictures, dehumanizing innocent children, giving them no voice but marketing their suffering and pain.
Cohen gives us all these (sometimes redundant, even I have to admit) pieces of information. He gives us an insight into the mechanics of denial and how we can deduce our own coping strategies with distressing realities. Cohen is the enlightener, the teacher of truth, who gives us the knowledge. We know now.
After reading Cohen, maybe even after reading this review, you can no longer truly say you do not know. The denial paradox says you can only deny if you’ve been aware of something in the first place.
So, all there is left to do now is act, might this be as simple as attempting to decipher and overcome one’s own denials. Because ‘To know but not to act is not to know’. And you wouldn’t want to deceive yourself, would you?
Maria was listening to ‘Requiem in D minor’ by Mozart while writing this article.