10 Nov 2012. Talk on disavowal at the Media and the Inner World conference on The role of the Press. Anna Freud Centre.

Less than one in a hundred stories about Sandy made any mention of man made global warming. This gross distortion of what is important, what is the big picture in the news, supports disavowal, a form of denial in which reality is seen but simultaneously minimized to make it seem insignificant. Disavowal’s main function is to keep our feelings at bay, particularly feelings of anxiety and sadness about losses reality faces us with, and it operates by creating an ‘as if’ virtual world. The big loss we are struggling to take in now is loss of a stable climate, but our daily headlines made us think it is the small losses, like not being able to run the New York marathon this year because of Sandy, that matter.

Disavowal is part of perverse thinking, where perversion corrupts our capacity to know what is true and good. Karl Rove famously summed up the perverse mindset when he referred to the reality based community as a thing of the past. The reality based community, he said, believes “that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality”. Rove noted, “that’s not the way the world really works anymore. We are an empire now and when we act we create our own reality”.

Perverse thinking always flourishes where instrumental values are allowed to triumph over values based on concern. In an instrumental mindset the other exists only for our exploitation and has no intrinsic value or reality of its own. Fraud flourishes with perverse thinking and fraud supports the disavowal. Someone might rightly say about Sandy, “but you know science tells us that no act of weird weather can be absolute proof of manmade warming.” This is true but can be a narrow minded fraudulent distorting use of a just bit of the truth. This would be the case if it was said in order to ‘cleverly’ close down an inconvenient subject so that it fades from view, with no real interest in or sense of disturbance from knowing that all this weird weather matches scientists’ predictions for warming.

The hallmark of perverse thinking is its absence of caring about real consequences, real impacts and real prices to be paid. Importantly, it is knowledge of our destructiveness and the pain, sadness and feelings of helplessness this knowledge would bring us, that is made insignificant through disavowal. Perverse thinking allows us to live in a care free bubble in which we can feel special and entitled, in a guilt free illusion of peace and tranquility, to carry on with business as usual while maintaining that nothing has been lost and nothing damaged or destroyed in the process. It helps us cover over and be indifferent to suffering, even when the suffering is our own and of those we love.

An example of the disavowal of destructiveness is a strange but recognizable everyday mindset in which we know that a descent to instrumental values with its asset stripping agenda will have destructive effects, but we go along with cover stories that say it won’t make an appreciable difference and no real loss will be suffered, at least not by us. Examples are everywhere; from the press, for instance, Murdoch said The Times would stay the same when he took it over. In a state of disavowal we know it won’t, but we ignore our knowledge to avoid feeling the loss. We were told that getting rid of so many local journalists, court reporters and foreign correspondents wouldn’t make that much difference to the quality of the news. In a state of disavowal we don’t let ourselves know just how bad things are going to get. Nick Davies outlined in his brilliant book Flat Earth News how massive staff cuts turned journalism into ‘churnalism’ where unchecked stories are recycled and opinions top facts.

To maintain our disavowal, we lull ourselves with cover stories of all kinds. They include narratives that nothing has changed really or each change is so infinitesimally small as not to matter. Cover stories are less painful to live with and they save us the work of mourning.

Susan Long in a study of Enron described the perverse culture as an organization and she noted how once it gets established, it becomes normalized, and then perversion begets further perversion. Hoggett (2012 has importantly argued that our disavowal of reality is better understood when seen as part of a perverse culture than as located in individuals. His particular analysis was of our disavowal of climate change. While it is true that disavowal is best understood as part of the culture we collude with, and not just part of us as individuals, it is also true that when we do get in touch with reality it is as individuals that we suffer. It is also as individuals that we face issues of guilt, shame and loss and here we face another problem in perverse cultures. This is that the first casualty of the perverse culture is our capacity to think in proportion, particularly in relation to questions of who is to blame. Perverse cultures leave us lost and confused.

The perverse culture is at bottom traumatizing for its citizens. We know from studies of people who are traumatized that they tend to feel the reason they have been badly treated is because they are not worth it, not entitled to proper care, because of some failing in them. When people are seduced on the surface to see themselves as special but in an underlying way are actually exploited and seen as not worth it, they can tend to internalize their status as of no value. It is one of the reasons people put up with such bad treatment. Also, in a perverse culture there is little or no social support to help us to bear a reality that increasingly feels too much to bear because allowed to escalate unchecked. The problem with disavowal is that the sane part of us does see the reality, knows in an underlying way that perverse thinking provides only destructive ‘quick fixes’, not real and sustainable solutions. The sane part of us becomes increasingly anxious and rightly depressed but is given no support to bear these increasingly unbearable feelings.

Part of the brilliance of Nick Davies’ analysis of the destructive attacks on the press is that in outlining them he gave us a deep understanding of the structures required and vital to support the press in telling the truth. The truth needs its own organizational support structures just as perversion needs its kind.

The more perversion becomes normalized and takes hold, the more underlying anxiety and guilt build up, now ‘too much’ to bear because allowed to reach intolerable levels. We may then defend against these unbearable feelings by further disavowal, causing the disavowal to spiral, one way that perversion begets perversion, as Long noted.

Going back to the big story, the one that is currently being made the most insignificant, what are our realistic anxieties about climate change? I suggest they are that deep down we know we depend on the earth for our survival, we know that we are in a world where the powers that be do not care if we and out fellow creatures live or die, and that knowing we are uncared for at such a profound level causes traumatic levels of anxiety. We also know something with the corner of the eye of our collusion with the perverse culture and we are ill equipped to face the guilt and anxiety that our collusion leaves us with. We are prone to swing from feeling it has nothing to do with us to feeling we are somehow monstrously and individually to blame. No wonder that when we look at the news we then want to avoid the real news and seek the trivial and the diverting. But it is only by struggling to regain an ordinary sense of ordinary and limited responsibility that our underlying anxieties are actually allayed.

Facing that we are living within a perverse culture and facing the underlying violence needed maintain it, beginning to face its destructive effects on our moral and ethical framework as well as the violence it does to our capacity to think and to feel, is emotionally hard work that leaves us feeling depressed. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein wrote of the depressive position not as clinical depression but as facing in a lively and a concerned way our destructiveness towards the good and towards what we love and value. Facing destructiveness within a perverse culture is more difficult than facing the ordinary kind of depressive reality Klein wrote of, because reintegrating all the feelings we have minimized and that have built up, struggling to find an ordinary sense of proportion and balance, can be very difficult. These days to be in touch with reality comes with feeling depressed, and only through recognizing the perverse culture we are part of and recognizing our collusion with it, will we find hope and strength in ourselves to challenge it.