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What role does denial play in the collective American psyche?
“Let me be very clear: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America. This is not who we are.” —President-Elect Joseph Biden, January 6 address to the nation.1
Psychiatrists need no lecture on the concept of “denial.” After all, it was Anna Freud who first identified and explained this well-known defense mechanism, over 70 years ago.2 In brief, as Dr Rui Miguel Costa put it in a recent paper,
“By denial, individuals cope with stressors by not acknowledging their reality and/or their consequences. This can range from common resistance to accept consequences of certain events to psychotic denial, in which even denial of physical aspects of immediate surroundings can happen. In a broader sense, denial may include negation, constructing fantasies to replace the stressor, minimizing the stressor, and maximizing what could make one dismiss the stressor . . .”3
The days and weeks leading up to the egregious mob takeover of the U.S. Capitol building suggest that denial was very much in evidence, among multiple persons and agencies. In retrospect, it seems clear that authorities at several levels of government either ignored or denied the reality of the nightmare that was about to unfold. Thus, Alex Newhouse—an expert on far-right extremism—writes this in The Conversation:
“The attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 was shocking, but no one following right-wing activity on social media should have been surprised. The attempt by President Donald Trump’s far-right supporters to violently stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote and formalizing Joe Biden’s election victory was consistent with their openly expressed hopes and plans . . . By surveying social media data from mid-December to Jan. 5, I discovered thousands of posts referring to the planned protests as if they were a coming revolution. In some circles, the event became synonymous with a final battle . . . when ordinary Americans would take back the government.”4
In the aftermath of the Capitol riot, it was left to novelist Francine Prose to express most eloquently the phenomenon of denial:
“Perhaps the most powerful shocks, the most painful surprises, are the ones that we saw coming yet refused to believe would happen. Our ability to fear something and, at the same time, assume it will never occur is one aspect of human nature that seems particularly ill-suited to our continued wellbeing and survival . . .”5
Denying the American Legacy of Seditious Violence
President-elect Biden’s speech to the nation on January 6 was, in my view, heartfelt and moving. I am among those who would dearly like to believe that the unspeakable actions of the Capitol building mob “. . . do not reflect the true America. This is not who we are.”1 And yet,with all due respect to Mr. Biden, I believe our history as a nation suggests that the violent takeover of the Capitol building does indeedreflect 1 aspect of “who we are” as a nation. To claim otherwise, even with noble intentions, is to engage in some degree of denial.
As Professor of History Shannon M. Smith recently wrote, the violent takeover of the Capitol is part of “. . . a long history in the U.S. of local, state and national political leaders encouraging white supremacist groups to challenge or overthrow democratic governments . . . [and] today, white supremacists appear to interpret politicians’ remarks as support for their cause of a new civil war to create a white-dominated government.”6
To cite but 1 example of the “long history,” there was the coup and riot staged in Wilmington, NC, in 1898. As Brent Staples explains:
“The uprising was engineered by white supremacists who unseated a government that had been elected by an alliance that included black citizens and white progressives. Scores of black citizens were killed during the uprising . . . and prominent blacks and whites were banished from the city under threat of death. White supremacists eventually hijacked the state government, stripped black citizens of the right to vote and brought black political participation to a close.”7
In short, scenes of men with Confederate flags parading through the defiled Capitol building last week—though unprecedented—should not be seen as merely an aberration in our history. But is this sort of event really representative of “who we are,” to use Mr. Biden’s phrase? The answer is complex. In my view, the tensions and animosities that led to the American Civil War have never been fully resolved and continue to surface to this day. Journalist Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, has rightly noted that,
“We cannot come to terms with the Civil War because it presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge. We think, as Americans, that we possess a heroic past, and we like to think of our history as one of progress and the spread of freedom, even transcendence. But the Civil War tells us that we possess a tragic history instead, over which we must continually paste a mask of hope.”8
Indeed, we might redefine “denial” in the terms Ball uses: the defense mechanism whereby we bury “an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge.” In this broader sense, denial grades into its kindred defense mechanism, repression.
And yet, “who we are”—as a country and a people—is not fixed in the stars or written in stone. If the American experience has taught us anything, it is that we can address and correct our past mistakes; otherwise, there would be no 13th Amendment or Civil Rights Act. The process of change is often slow and painful--and, as the unconscionable attack on the Capitol has demonstrated, sometimes violent. Yet in the end, I count myself a believer in Martin Luther King’s teaching: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”9
Dr Pies is professor emeritus of psychiatry and lecturer on bioethics and humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; clinical professor of psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and editor in chief emeritus of Psychiatric TimesTM (2007-2010).
Have something to say? Share comments with your colleagues by emailing PTEditor@mmhgroup.com. Comments may be shared online pending review and editing for style. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Psychiatric TimesTM.
1. WATCH: President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on situation in DC. WSLS 10. Accessed January 12, 2020. https://www.wsls.com/news/politics/2021/01/06/watch-live-president-elect-joe-biden-speaks-on-economy/
2. Freud A. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International Universities Press; 1946.
3. Costa RM. Denial (Defense Mechanism). In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford T, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Cham, Switzerland: Springer; 2017. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1373-1
4. Newhouse A. Far-right activists on social media telegraphed violence weeks in advance of the attack on the US Capitol. The Conversation. January 8, 2021. Accessed January 12, 2020. https://theconversation.com/far-right-activists-on-social-media-telegraphed-violence-weeks-in-advance-of-the-attack-on-the-us-capitol-152861
5. Prose F. Anyone shocked by the US Capitol attack has ignored an awful lot of warning signs. Guardian. Accessed January 12, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/11/us-capitol-attack-warning-signs-charlottesville-michigan
6. Smith SM. US Capitol protesters, egged on by Trump, are part of a long history of white supremacists hearing politicians’ words as encouragement. The Conversation. January 7, 2021.Accessed January 12, 2021. https://theconversation.com/us-capitol-protesters-egged-on-by-trump-are-part-of-a-long-history-of-white-supremacists-hearing-politicians-words-as-encouragement-152867
7. Staples B. When Democracy Died in Wilmington, NC. New York Times. January 8, 2006. Accessed January 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/08/opinion/when-democracy-died-in-wilmington-nc.html
8 Ball E. An American Tragedy. The Opinionator. New York Times. April 11, 2011. Accessed January 12, 2021. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/an-american-tragedy/
9. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.