:: Article

Denial and Difficult Knowledge

By Thom Cuell.

 

This piece is an extract from Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, to be published by Dodo Ink in 2021. The anthology, which also features work by David Lynch, Juliet Jacques, Alex Pheby, Saskia Vogel and others, is currently being crowdfunded: you can support their Kickstarter here.

When Coronavirus hit Europe, I was in Lisbon, staying with my wife while she worked in a Portuguese GP’s surgery, as part of a European exchange programme. As cases began to mount in the city, the response was swift: within days, the government declared a lockdown, followed by a state of emergency. Shops and restaurants, if they stayed open at all, adopted social distancing, and mask-wearing was ubiquitous. At the surgery, emergency protocols were put in place, and we were advised to stay away. We spent our days in our rented apartment. When we ventured to the local corner shop for supplies, the streets were eerily quiet. While the numbers in England were much lower, my colleagues exchanged panicked WhatsApp messages, wondering when our office was going to close, and we were going to begin working from home.

Within hours of landing at Manchester, we saw that things were different back in the UK. In Arrivals, there was no distancing, no checks. But when we went to the supermarket, the shelves were stunningly bare. If the government was slow in taking action, the people were preparing for something serious. This time, it was my wife’s WhatsApp that was full of anxious messages from medics who were being asked to go onto emergency rotas, being reassigned to ICU roles or worrying about being deployed to rumoured super-hospitals.

***

It was three or four weeks into the UK’s lockdown period that I first became aware of Coronavirus conspiracy theories. In America, the ‘empty hospitals’ movement saw members of the public filming deserted hospital car parks, as evidence that the pandemic was nothing more than media hysteria (obviously, the lack of cars was down to non-essential procedures being cancelled, and visitors banned). In the UK this gained less traction. Rather than vigilante journalism, British ‘truthers’ focused on minimising the impact of Covid-19 as ‘no worse than the flu’, the mounting mortality rate brushed aside with the thought ‘they would have died soon anyway’.

These denialists clearly took their lead from the government’s daily Bullshit and Equivocation Conferences (BEC). When the Prime Minister of the country with the worst death toll per capita in Europe, who had himself spent several nights in ICU, perhaps as a result of his cavalier behaviour during the early stages of the crisis, could stand in front of the press and declare that ‘we have succeeded in avoiding the tragedy we saw in other parts of the world’, is it any surprise that private individuals might also downplay the scale of the catastrophe? This process was further enabled by legions of pliant journalists. I’ll pick on James O’Brien here, who stated on Twitter that ‘we can’t even report [on political decisions and incompetence] in the way we would if another country was failing so badly. It would be so unhelpful and frightening’.

However, there is a difference between the official bullshit and the unofficial variety. In the early stages of the crisis, the government clearly decided to adopt a tone of vague optimism in their dealings with the public, tempered with grand empty gestures to boost morale. In the first camp came messages about the number of ventilators and tests soon to be available — the ‘jam tomorrow’ school of political communication. The latter was exemplified by the empty Nightingale Hospitals dotted around the country. Boris has never met a white elephant he didn’t want to ride, so the prospect of converting conference centres into vast pest houses was an irresistible temptation, regardless of their doubtful efficacy (the government subsequently chose the much tidier method of allowing elderly victims of the pandemic to be sent into care homes, or else die untreated at home, alone and uncounted, rather than clutter up these pristine new facilities, or overwhelm existing ICU capacity).

Despite all this, there was no question of the government entirely denying the existence of the problem. Whilst for a brief moment ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ may have seemed tempting, events (and public opinion) moved rapidly. There was, and remained, robust public support for the lockdown, to the point where the only people questioning it appeared to be the frothingly reactionary Tory MPs of the 1922 Committee and the leader of her majesty’s opposition, Sir Keir Starmer QC. They may have quibbled over details (exact death tallies, provision of PPE), but they remained committed to a policy which placed the threat posed by Covid-19 as a significant and pressing emergency.

This was not true of the Twitter reply guys. Whenever an expert mentioned the death toll, or a medic spoke out against the lack of essential supplies, the responses would read ‘this is just the same as seasonal flu’, ‘how do we know they really died of Covid?’ and ‘our trust has plenty of PPE’. This was even mirrored by the likes of Sir Alan Sugar, who in an interview with Jeremy Vine, asked: ‘Who’s dead? I’m not. I’m still alive. So’s everybody else I know’. While the UK suffered at least 40,000 deaths, a record drop in GDP and the significant mental health effects of lockdown, a core of the public seemed determined to explain events away as though nothing were happening.

***

In June, three months into the lockdown, Black Lives Matters protests were held across the UK. Prompted by solidarity with American activists, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, these demonstrations also addressed Britain’s own racist history. The protests culminated in the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Coulson into Bristol harbour, and the temporary boarding up of a statue of Winston Churchill. These events, once again, were met with a wall of denial, from politicians down, of Britain’s role in slavery, imperial crimes and ongoing institutional racism.

Statues, we were told, were designed to educate people about history — despite evidence showing that organisations such as Merchant Ventures in Bristol had long prevented any mention of slavery from being added to the plaque on Edward Coulson’s statue. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, elided Churchill’s historic crimes with ‘opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today’. The motley crew of far-right activists and football hooligans who gathered to ‘defend’ the Cenotaph (and, incongruously, a statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton) were referred to in the weaseliest of terms as ‘anti-anti-racists’ as media organisations scrambled to preserve the fiction of British tolerance.

***

In his 2018 essay Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, the sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris attempted to define the characteristics of denialism. Khan-Harris explains that through his Jewish faith, he developed an interest originally in the psychology of Holocaust deniers, but that this expanded to take in everything from climate change denial to fringe beliefs such as flat earth theory. He separates the everyday practice of ‘being in denial’ from the practice of denialism: ‘denialism is more than just another manifestation of humdrum deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a new way of seeing the world and . . . a collective accomplishment’. While denial may be passive, denialism is active, sometimes aggressively so: ‘denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth; denialism builds a new and better truth’.

The word ‘extraordinary’ is important here. Denialism exists because some truths are so shattering that to accept them would require us to completely re-evaluate our view of the world. The sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel states that denial ‘usually involves refusing to acknowledge the presence of things that actually beg for attention. . . . Those highly conspicuous matters we deliberately try to avoid’. It thrives, says Michael Spector, ‘when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favour of a more comfortable life’.

The present situation in the UK has created a breeding ground for denialism. The December general election had been viciously fought, with the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn being routinely demonised in the press, and journalists disseminating false stories about Labour voters attacking Conservative staffers. Social media was particularly fertile ground for fostering denialism: a report published the day after the election found that 88% of social media adverts paid for by the Conservatives during the first four days of campaigning featured inaccurate or misleading information. The ongoing battle over Brexit had become a form of culture war, with trust in the media and political establishment diminished on both sides. This exacerbated an emerging generational divide between boomers (predominantly Conservative and Leave voting), and overwhelmingly pro-Labour and Remain millennials.

This is not an entirely new development, more an acceleration of an existing trend. A shift in attitudes towards Britishness began around the Golden Jubilee. Britain’s imperial and military history began to be viewed with a sort of cloying twee nostalgia encapsulated by the phrase Keep Calm and Carry On. As Owen Hatherley noted in The Ministry of Nostalgia, this Blitz-era slogan had actually been rejected in its own time because of its patronising tone, but was embraced in 2008, as austerity began to have its impact on the poor and marginalised within British society. In tandem with this, Union flags became more common sights outside of international football tournaments, and the wearing of poppies became rigorously policed, with news anchors and footballers being shamed for their failure to wear this symbol of British sacrifice.

At the height of the Covid crisis, the government seized on this new ideation of nostalgic patriotism to create a feelgood event around VE Day, complete with nauseating socially-distanced conga lines dancing through predominantly white suburbs. At a time when Britain was being criticised for its handling of the crisis by comparison with the rest of Europe, the population could imagine a time when Britain stood alone as a player on the international stage — itself a mythologised view of the past. Predictably, the papers which had previously criticised Londoners for sitting in parks during their allotted daily exercise times were delighted to report on these events.

The idea that people should stop worrying and get on with enjoying themselves is an important element of modern right populist tactics. In Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbyn (Zero Books, 2020), the academic JA Smith described the appeal of right populism as being libidinal: rather than concerning itself with winning arguments, populist discourse was atavistic, a promise of power without consequences. This lack of consequences was embodied in the figures of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, privileged white men who got their own way and never apologised. Johnson’s vocabulary, including descriptions of Africans as ‘piccaninnies’ and gay men as ‘tank-topped bum boys’, gave a jolly, upper class acceptability to common prejudice.
Thinking too deeply about the details of politics was actively discouraged by the Tories’ 2019 election campaign. While Labour’s manifesto argued for big structural changes, including nationalisation of utilities, free broadband and a green new deal, Johnson showboated, driving a truck through a wall of polystyrene blocks marked ‘Get Brexit done’. Their programme was a buffet of contradictory options — as journalist Stephen Bush put it, ‘you cannot have a Brexit that unlocks trade deals with India and reduces the uncontrolled flow of people from elsewhere around the world to the UK. You can’t have a more generously funded public realm and pursue a Brexit that makes everyone poorer’ — and allowed people to pick their favourite bits, helped by highly-targeted social media advertising.

In this context, asking a population who had gleefully provided Johnson with a huge majority in December, to realise in March that this decision had led to a rapidly increasing death toll, was always going to be hard. Is it any surprise that a significant number of people turned away from traumatic reality in favour of a more comfortable life? To face up to the government’s failures, and to confront the UK’s racism, would be to acknowledge the brief libidinal rush of electing Johnson had a devastating long-term consequence, and that the jolly VE Day Union Jack bunting had a bloody history.

The paradigm-shifting impact of Coronavirus challenges beliefs that go beyond one election result, however. As David Rowland writes in his Tribune article ‘We Need a Public Health R’evolution’, ‘in one short shock, this crisis has overturned the neoliberal notion that individuals are best placed to manage and navigate risk in the modern world, while government is simply there to nudge us, and to steer and shape the market environment to meet our preferences’. Rowland argues that a succession of governments, steered by neoliberal ideology, have weakened the status, resources and capacity of public health bodies, as collective, top-down solutions to health issues were abandoned in favour of a reliance on ‘behavioural economics’ and individual ‘lifestyle changes’. To acknowledge that this ideological shift has exacerbated the crisis of Covid-19 requires us to ask questions of a system which has dominated British politics for decades, and become entrenched in the national psyche. It requires individuals to reassess their relationships and responsibilities towards others in their community, in all aspects of our lives. No wonder that so many are willing to engage in denialism rather than face up to this reckoning.

We have already seen that the UK’s political system is woefully ill-equipped to deal with denialism. There is no mechanism by which the government can be punished for their refusal to acknowledge the UN special rapporteur’s report on the impact of austerity, or for their attempts to sweep the effects of Grenfell and the deportation of members of the Windrush generation. When government adviser Dominic Cummings was revealed to have broken lockdown rules, the government’s response was to organise a mass-gaslighting session in the garden of 10 Downing Street, in which transparently phony explanations were given, to provide talking points for online denialists. The pliant media and opposition played their part, lining up to ask softball questions and then forgetting all about it.

So how do we confront denialism on this scale? In Britain, the default response to catastrophe is to commission an enquiry. Whether this is an effective way of responding to collective trauma is questionable, however. When countries attempt to promote healing through a process of ‘truth and reconciliation’, there is inevitably a tension between narratives which promote unity and positive outcomes, versus those which remind us of conflict, justice and the experience of victims. So far, research has been inconclusive as to the benefits of either approach. It has been argued that truth and reconciliation commissions put an unfair burden of responsibility on the victims of events, while psychologists now feel that debriefing in the immediate aftermath of trauma can actually increase harm.

Key to understanding this dilemma is the idea of ‘difficult knowledge’. This term describes ‘knowledge that remains incommensurable and cannot be assimilated into one’s world view’ and is contrasted with ‘lovely knowledge’, which reinforces our existing beliefs. In 2003, the psychoanalysts Deborah Britzman and Alice Pitt published a paper examining the use of difficult knowledge in learning. They recognised that there is ‘a kernel of trauma in the very capacity to know’ — as we have seen, it is this kernel of trauma that often seeds into denialism. Britzman and Pit argue that the pedagogy of difficult knowledge lies in ‘provoking, not representing, knowledge’.

One of the most pernicious effects of denialism is that anyone who wants to fight back against it is forced to confront difficult knowledge directly; many Black Lives Matter activists described their exhaustion at having to educate well-meaning white people about damaging incidents their community had experienced. Similarly, combatting Covid denialism meant immersing oneself in mortality rates and harrowing accounts of overwhelmed hospital wards. There was the gaslighting effect of columnists and pundits decrying criticism of the government’s approach as ‘hipster analysis’ one day, and asking why hospital admissions were so high the next.

The language of difficult knowledge is complex: ‘though the traumatic event can be felt, it is often untranslatable into meaning, leading to breakages and aporia, moments in which language can no longer create holistic arguments or sustained statements’. In the absence of straightforward narrative, Britzman and Pitt propose the benefits of allegory, which, ‘with its lack of totality of meaning and preponderance of fragmentation, can be related to the experience of difficult knowledge’.  Of course, the toppling and immersion of the Coulson statue can be read in these terms, as an allegorical act which gives voice to the various demands of protestors whilst also provoking knowledge in the general population, through its unignorable anger.

The use of allegory also encourages a literary approach. While we are seemingly long past the point where a book could be so ubiquitous as to change society, literature is still a driver of culture. One of the immediate reactions to the British Black Lives Matter movement has been the dissemination of anti-racism readings lists, with authors like Eddi Reno-Lodge, Akala and Afua Hirsch topping bestseller lists. Whilst these are predominantly non-fiction, each confronts difficult knowledge about the Black experience in Britain.

There is precedent: in the wake of the right-wing dictatorships which spread across Latin America in the Sixties and Seventies, many writers expressed themselves through allegory. No doubt this was in part as a means of avoiding censorship (or assassination), but there were also literary benefits, as detective fiction and magic realism provided extremely effective means of conveying the menace and paranoia of the society the writers existed in. It is only in recent years that the likes of Alia Trabucco Zeran have been able to confront Chile’s past directly. Likewise, in her book Human Acts, the Korean novelist Han Kang directly addressed the difficult knowledge of a government massacre, giving ferociously realistic voice to the victims of brutality. David Peace has used stories of crime and police corruption as allegories for the UK’s collective trauma in the early years of Thatcherism. Maybe this is how writers will approach the period of Coronavirus, racial inequality and the rising tide of populism in 2020.

***

I write this piece in week fourteen of lockdown. Whilst my situation is privileged, there is a mental shock that comes with the suspension of normal activity, the necessity of distance from family, friends and strangers alike draining to maintain. Sleep and work patterns are disrupted, everyday activities are inaccessible. Since beginning to work remotely, I realise that this period of lockdown is the longest I have gone without physically being in Manchester for fifteen years, and there is a sense of loss that comes with that absence.

For weeks, I struggled to read anything, never mind write. My routines were jumbled, but just as damagingly, I was mentally overwhelmed by the difficult knowledge the pandemic was forcing me to confront. Each news cycle brought stories of mounting death tolls, failures in the supply of PPE and testing kits, and other signs that Britain’s neglected infrastructure was straining under the pressure. When I was able to stop myself doomscrolling through twitter, the first books I managed to read were a series of thrillers and horror stories: Stephen King, China Miéville, Dan Simmons. The mixture of conspiracy, lurking menace and otherworldly threat was both a form of escapism, and a way to indirectly confront the paranoia, confusion and fear in the outside world. These were the stories which helped me to approach and understand the difficult knowledge of lockdown.

The challenge of coming to terms with the impact of Covid-19 is one that each of us will have to face. Many will have lost relatives or friends, had their lives turned upside down, and experienced a multitude of traumas. They may also look at the government’s response to the crisis, the crisis of funding in the public sector, and the possibility of remote working reorganising the way that we structure our lives. Coronavirus has exacerbated existing problems in Britain, from insecure housing and employment to regional inequalities, access to services such as broadband, and the future of the NHS. Concurrently, the Black Lives Matter movement has challenged institutional racism and the ongoing legacy of Britain’s imperial past. It is crucial that these issues not be swept under the carpet in our haste to get back to ‘normal’. To make a progressive case for change, it is vital that we confront the difficult knowledge surrounding Coronavirus and empire. The challenge, as artists, is to find the allegories that will help Britain explore these vital and traumatic issues.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thom Cuell is an editor at Dodo Ink, a small independent publisher founded in 2016. They are also senior editor at literary journal Minor Literature(s), and their writing has appeared in We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Manchester (Dostoyevsky Wannabe).

Cover artwork by Christiana Spens.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 7th, 2020.