Countering Denial

By Carolina Ruiz




What do climate change, vaccines, the roundness of the earth, the Holocaust, atrocities by the Japanese military during the Second World War, and President Barack Obama's birth certificate have in common? Answer: These issues all serve as flash points of denial.



If you observe contemporary politics closely, you will have probably heard about these cases of denial before. In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence, the presence of artefacts, historical records and survivors' testimonies, deniers believe the complete opposite to be true. As far as these issues are concerned, deniers believe that: 1) The earth is not getting warmer, 2) Vaccines do not save lives, 3) The earth is flat, 4) The stories about Japanese atrocities during the Second World War are all made up, and 5) President Obama's American birth certificate is fake.


Over the past few decades, the rise of "denialism" has caught the attention of scholars. They note that apart from becoming more brazen in challenging empirically supported facts, deniers are no longer just the so-called "fringe" in politics, but that some of them have built up reputations as "respected academics." In a TED Talk lecture, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, who actually went to court to prove the truth about the Holocaust after a denier sued her for libel recalls that initially, she did not take deniers seriously. However, after doing a bit of research into denialism, Dr. Lipstadt discovered that in spite of the outrageousness of their claims, Holocaust deniers had their own institutes and publications.


Irving, the published author of books about World War II who sued Dr. Lipstadt, famously accused a Holocaust survivor of accepting money in exchange for having a number tattooed on his arm. At one time he even made the outrageous claim that "More people died in Senator Kennedy's car in Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz."


But how exactly do deniers make sense of what they believe in? How do they convince other people to adopt their arguments? And more importantly, how do we respond to denialism?


According to Paul Applebaum, head of the American Psychiatric Association, "Denial is the deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into one's belief system." This explanation gives important insights about the psychological predisposition of those who might be convinced to adopt a deniers' positions. But in order to counter denialism, we have to also be aware of the political agenda that animates the denialism we want to counter.


For example, the spread of denialism with regard to climate change is often supported and actively funded by corporate interests. (Influence Map, a UK Think Tank, recently reported that of the 50 biggest corporations influencing climate policy today, 35 of them are actively challenging climate-friendly legislation.) Knowing who the actors and institutions behind the rhetoric of denial are is important because as Dr. Lipstadt emphasised, denial is now often dressed up as rational discourse.


Dr. Lipstadt's experience was the subject of a recent film titled: "Denial." The film is based on the book by Dr. Deborah E. Lipstadt, which recounts her experience of going to head to head with Holocaust denier, David Irving.



When Denial hides behind Academic

"Revision" and "Review"


Much like the Holocaust, Japanese atrocities committed during World War II have been the subject of denial. While records of both atrocities exist - ranging from wartime military records to private memoirs, film and photographic footage as well as the testimonies of survivors and witnesses - there are some key differences between these two cases. In the first, denial with regard to the Holocaust is deeply rooted in antisemitism and is not confined to a single national context. Holocaust deniers can be found in Europe, North America, as well as in the Middle East. In the latter case, the denial of Japanese military atrocities, is deeply rooted in the politics of nationalism in Japan. In recent decades, the rise to power of conservative politicians sympathetic to deniers in Japanese politics and the election of leading figures of the denial movement into office, have brought about serious reversals in the historical remembrances of World War II in Japan (See for example the main story about Osaka and San Francisco, particularly the transformation of Osaka's Peace Museum).

Although the term "revisionist" has become almost synonymous with "denier," it is important to distinguish "Denial" from mere "Revision" or "Review" within the study and understanding of history. Revision and review do not necessarily lead to denial or distortion, but as we will see from the techniques employed by deniers, they can certainly be deployed in furtherance of it.

The revision and review of previously accepted historical facts as new evidence comes to light is part of standard practice within the discipline of history. The best example of this is how the official or state version of World War II history in Japan was challenged. It is worth noting that initially, the Japanese government denied the existence of "comfort stations" and "comfort women." But, Japanese scholars, former soldiers and concerned Japanese journalists exposed evidence from its own state archives documenting not just the existence of "comfort stations," and "comfort women," including those demonstrating the Japanese military's involvement in establishing them. These historical documents directly corroborated the testimonies of the survivors who began speaking publicly about their ordeal in the 1990s. Because of these developments, the Japanese government revised its earlier position, although because of the installation of denier politicians into office in recent years, this has also been rolled back, and in some cases, actively forgotten. (See for example how a fabricated story that the Asahi Shimbun fabricated stories about the existence of "comfort women" has been making the rounds in Japan)


The Deniers' Playbook


The following list summarises some of the more familiar techniques used by deniers in negating the historical fact of Japanese war atrocities that we ought to watch out for.

1) "Moving the goal-post"

Even in the face of credible contemporaneous evidence of an atrocity, deniers will continuously demand new and additional evidence. And even when there is new evidence, they will usually ignore it and ask for other kinds of evidence.

Rather than engaging existing evidence directly, deniers will redefine the terms by raising questions in relation to "the precise count of casualties or victims," "the degree of harm," and the Japanese military's "degree of involvement." On the surface, numbers and degrees of harm and involvement are valid questions of fact, but the denier does not ask them in the interest of clarity (that is to qualify already proven facts).

These are also questions of fact that are virtually impossible to answer with absolute precision. From here, the denier who invokes them to cast doubt on proven facts makes a bold (albeit illogical) leap, claiming that the lack of precise numbers and measures throws everything (including whether or not something happened) into question. (See for example the Main Story about the Mayor of Osaka's objections to the San Francisco memorial and commemorative plaque.)

2) "Citing Disagreement" and "Cherry Picking"

Disagreements are a standard part of historical interpretation, as well as any other social science discipline. But deniers take scholarly "disagreement" out of context and instead use them, as in the technique above, in an attempt to cast doubt on a historical fact. Often, the denier will also "cherry pick" by choosing an interpretation of facts that can support their position of denial as well as reinforce their world view.

The interpretative aspect of socially created meaning is what sets social science apart from natural science. Whereas physicists have one equation for gravitation ( Isaac Newton's F = Gm1m2/r2 ), social scientists offer different or alternative explanations for social phenomenon. Psychologists can offer a an explanation for the individual and/or behaviours of soldiers during the war, while a political historian can offer insights into the role of politicians, leaders, and military officers in sanctioning (or even encouraging) ways of behaving during the war. Likewise, a historian who focuses on analysing policy documents alone might have a limited sense of the a policy maker's actual thought processes as opposed to a historian who includes the private memoirs of the same policy maker in her analysis. The fact that social sciences do not provide a uniform explanation for a phenomenon do not detract from the credibility of their methods in establishing a historical or social facts.

Likewise, not all scholarly disagreements in and of themselves are necessarily credible "disagreements," since deniers within the academe can certainly nitpick and have often taken alternative interpretations that are far from credible.


One popular thread of denial focuses on the question of whether the "comfort women" were paid or received fees in the Japanese "comfort stations" or not. To the denier, the question of fees tends to be the end all and be all argument behind a sexist moral judgement. To deniers, the question of whether the "comfort women" were prostitutes or not is connected to whether or not these women "deserved" their fate in military sexual slavery.

The well established facts: that it was in fact the Japanese military that designed and created the system (including the schedule of fees, calling them "amusements" for soldiers and officers, and was in charge of these "comfort stations," alongside of the fact that women who were taken (and sold) into military brothels were forced to serve upwards of over 20-30 soldiers a day, are conveniently ignored. Instead, the denier zeroes in on the existence of fees and the fee schedules that do appear in wartime documents produced by the Japanese military and takes them as proof positive of a woman's status as a "prostitute" including the "deservedness" of the treatment that they received in "comfort stations." In effect, this line of argument insists that the Japanese military's classification and designation of the women as "prostitutes" (reflected in the Allied Forces' translation of those documents) as more authoritative than survivors' testimonies about their experience.

3) "Appeal to non-authority" and "Anti-intellectualism"

This last, but no less insidious technique is perhaps the most familiar one. While as Dr. Lipstadt notes, deniers are no longer the stereotypical "fringe" in politics, and now also hold respected academic posts, deniers often make populist appeals and accuse experts as "elitist" and therefore out of touch with the common people. The rejection of expert or scholarly findings is accompanied by the embrace of dubious sources who are usually writers who cultivate a following within the movement. This tack of anti-intellectualism often goes hand in hand with elaborate conspiracy theories about "elites" deployed by a powerful few and have an interest in spreading made-up stories about the Holocaust, or in this case, Japanese atrocities. In 2014, Prime Minister Abe of Japan appointed Naoki Hyakuta, a nationalist writer to the board of governors of the Japan Broadcasting Corp., commonly known as NHK. Hyakuta insists that Japanese war crimes during World War II were all fabricated by the Americans in order to cover up their own atrocities.


ALPHA Education File Photo

While deniers who nitpick and hide behind "review" and "revision" do so to cast doubt on established historical facts, the populist deniers serve a different purpose: they whip up the followers of their movement into a frenzy and stir up hatred. Often, this hatred is even directed at the survivors. The trailer of the documentary, The Apology provides a glimpse into such behaviours. One scene is quite jarring. As a couple of survivors make their way to the weekly Wednesday protest calling for an apology from the Japanese government, deniers (many of them young men) can be seen and heard hurling invective at the grandmothers.


In July, Grandma Cao, one of the survivors who appeared in the above documentary passed away. You can read Tiffany's essay remembering Grandma Cao (Published as an Op-Ed piece on Women in the World) here


What should we do in the face of denial?

What can we do?


Unlike Dr. Lipstadt who actually had to go to court to defend herself in a libel case, and in the process, defend the historical facts of the Holocaust, many of us probably do not expect to go head to head with a Holocaust or Japanese war atrocity denier any time soon. However, resisting denial and the politics of denial comes in many forms besides engaging in direct confrontation or a very public debate. As Lipstadt herself realised, inaction is dangerous.


Educating ourselves is the best antidote to fight the spread of denialism, but taking a further step by helping to educate others is even better. Deniers prey on the uninformed and in this way, have an easier time misinforming and misleading people. On the other hand, seasoned deniers do consider themselves well informed of the "facts" that suit their beliefs all while rejecting the basic standards and methods of vetting sources and other empirical evidence. Many deniers have become savvy enough to adopt the outside appearance (albeit not necessarily the format) of rational discourse and a number of them do not even appear all that confrontational while espousing dangerous ideas. One example is the idea that because wartime sexual slavery is so common place across cultures and history, drawing attention to specific acts (through a commemoration of survivors' bravery) is unfair or offensive.


While it may not be up to us to engage or debate individual deniers, the spread of denial as well as the culture of anti-intellectualism that breeds it affects us all. (Carolina S. Ruiz, Research and Resource Development Associate, ALPHA Education)




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