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Denying the truth September 9, 2015

Posted by rm42 in Philosophy.
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On my last blog entry I discussed, in simple terms, two important ways in which we acquire knowledge. And, as promised, in this entry I will discuss one of the tendencies we all have that can get in the way of our obtaining true knowledge.

Denial

As she had done hundreds of times before, an adolescent girl in Argentina, having had her breakfast, gave a good bye kiss to her parents and walked the short distance to her school. However, upon arriving, she was summoned to an office where one of her teachers, the school’s principal, and a representative of the government where waiting to meet her. Their tone was serious but very cordial and warm. However, their obvious nervousness was contagious. They realized this, so they decided to get to the point. The government official informed her that after a thorough investigation it had been found that the people she was living with, those same ones she had just had breakfast with and kissed a few minutes ago, were not her real parents.

How do you think you would have reacted to this news? Would you have calmly asked to see the evidence, calmly examined it, and, if convincing, accepted the new reality with resignation? I would find that hard to believe. That would be too much to ask for any one of us. Unfortunately, in the last 15 years, dozens of children in Argentina found themselves in this horribly shocking situation.

They had all been born from parents that the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 considered dangerous. Tens of thousands of these people were kidnapped, tortured, and killed during this time. Some of the women in this group, that were pregnant at the time, were allowed to give birth. However, their joy was short lived as their new born babies were immediately removed from them and given in adoption to undisclosed couples. When the military government was finally overturned, the new government formed a commission to investigate the issue of the “desaparecidos” (disappeared ones). Through a series of genetic tests, usually performed without their knowledge, children suspected of having been victims of this situation were identified, presented with the facts, and in many cases, reunited with their real biological families.*

Can you imagine going through a similar experience? When something so fundamental as knowing who one’s parents are turns out to be a lie, one must wonder if there is anything one really knows for sure. Thankfully, most of us never have to go through experiences as extreme as that of those unfortunate kids.  I mentioned in my previous post that it is my belief that most people would prefer to know the truth even if it hurts. However, there are many people for which this is not the case. There are many instances in which some people would prefer not to know certain things because of the pain associated with that knowledge. Think of the girl mentioned in the introduction. Would she have preferred to continue her “normal” life in the belief that she lived with her real parents instead of knowing the truth? Her life was all of the sudden turned into a nightmare. She was an orphan. Those that raised her, not only were not her real parents, but had been dishonest with her all her life. The trauma and emotional scars would likely now be with her for the rest of her life. Sometimes the truth can be very costly.

Well, in this case, she had no say in the matter. It was determined by the governmental authorities that it was in her best interest to know the truth. However, we can easily understand why, when confronted with the truth, that young girl’s initial reaction, as well as that of the hundreds of others kids in the same situation, was very emotional. Most of them reacted with denial and indignation at such an outrageous claim, even when the facts were clearly laid out in front of them. In many cases, it took several days, even weeks for the youngsters to come to accept the truth.

In Psychology, denial is defined as: “an ego defense mechanism that operates unconsciously to resolve emotional conflict, and to allay anxiety by refusing to perceive the more unpleasant aspects of external reality”. Resorting to denial is not something that only little kids resort to. In fact it may be more common than most people realize. Why? Well, first of all because, as the definition above states, it is an “unconscious” response. When people are in denial they are not aware of it. The more painful a certain realization may be, the more likely it is that we are going to unconsciously try to avoid it by means of denial.

Denial was a perfectly normal reaction for those poor Argentinian kids. It was simply the result of normal, healthy, human emotions. I say “healthy” because humans thrive in having a sense of security and confidence. Can you imagine how life would be if we automatically accepted everything people said to us about ourselves? From early childhood we learn to reject certain painful things people say to us. Young kids can be very malicious about what they say to each other. So, having a certain amount of unquestioned assumptions about ourselves and about our world, such as when you were born and who your parents are, is healthy! However, once confronted with the truth, backed up by sufficient and credible evidence, a healthy response for those kids was to slowly assimilate their new reality. Continued denial would have been psychologically detrimental to them, in the long run.

What about you? Do you prefer to know the truth even if it hurts? Or are there cases in which you don’t mind being deceived if this means being able to carry on with your “normal” life? The fact is that there are many people who don’t mind the latter. There are even popular songs in which the singer asks his lover to lie instead of revealing that his love is not reciprocated. Many people prefer not to watch “unpleasant” documentaries that talk about the food we eat, the air we breath, or the state of the economy for fear of upsetting their happy-go-lucky lives. This is the classic head in the sand attitude. Do you have any issues in your life that you prefer not to dig around too much. Maybe you are now thinking that certain amount of denial is healthy. And it is, as I mentioned earlier. But, can continued denial, at some point, become a disease?

In talking with people about this issue, I was surprised to find out how many people consider denial an acceptable remedy for coping with life. Let me tell you for example what an acquaintance of mine, an Architect, told me. He spent many years serving in the United States Army. I think that is why he seems to always be in quite a hurry. He is one of the busiest persons I have ever met. However, in his older years, and having been debilitated by some treatment, he has slowed down enough for us to be able to have some small, but profound conversations. I asked him what he thought of denial. I asked him if he considered it an acceptable way of coping with life. I was not very surprised when he said that he did. He said he believed the whole world is in denial. He claimed that denial was indispensable to live a happy life. In fact, he said to my amazement, that he believes that the people who are most determined to avoid denial are the ones most likely to end up being mislead. “Wait a minute”, I responded. “Are you saying that those people who are brave enough to look at reality, regardless of how painful it is, are the ones who will end up being fooled? Isn’t that a paradox?” Smiling, he responded, “that is exactly what I believe”.

Well, I guess that line of thought starts to go into the philosophical idea of whether truth is even attainable, and that is not the direction I want to pursue since it can become an endless labyrinth. Many people have asked the question “what is truth?” For example, the famous 20th Century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in his book, “The problems of philosophy” wrote wrote this on the subject of truth:

“We know that on very many subjects different people hold different and incompatible opinions: hence some beliefs must be erroneous. Since erroneous beliefs are often held just as strongly as true beliefs, it becomes a difficult question how they are to be distinguished from true beliefs. How are we to know, in a given case, that our belief is not erroneous? This is a question of the very greatest difficulty, to which no completely satisfactory answer is possible.”

Nevertheless, he added:

“There is, however, a preliminary question which is rather less difficult, and that is: What do we mean by truth and falsehood?”

To which he gives the answer (without the many laborious pages of reasoning that took to arrive at it):

“… a believe is true when there is a corresponding fact, and it is false when there is no corresponding fact. […] What makes a belief true is a fact, and this fact does not (except in exceptional cases) in any way involve the mind of the person who has the belief.”

I think I can go along with that, if I understand him correctly. Just so you know where I stand on this, to me a belief is true when it does not contradict reality. As simple as that. Of course, the question is then, how do we know what is reality? And I guess the answer is that many times we do not know. For example, we may know that a window was broken. We may suspect who did it, and we may express that as a belief. But whether that belief is true or not we may never find out. Does that mean that our statement was not true or false. No, our statement was either true or false, depending on whether it contradicted reality or not. We may just simply never know it.

Conclusion

So yes, there are some things for which we may not be able to know the truth. But, for those that we can, should we strive to find out what the truth is even when this may hurt us? Should people in authority shield those in their charge from unpleasant realities, “for their own good”? Are there situations in which they may be justified in doing this, at least temporarily? Well, I guess those are questions we each must answer for ourselves. However, if you have read this far, I suspect that you are, like me, passionate about knowing the truth of things. To you, living in denial is not an appealing prospect. Nevertheless, this is not as easy to avoid as it may seem.

I had hoped to be able to discuss other very interesting ways in which we tend to “unconsciously” reject the truth, but I think it will be best to leave that for another entry.

*Spoiler alert: Many films have been made narrating the situation that developed in Argentina’s “Dirty war”.  The film “Cautiva” is where the experience I mention was taken from.

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