Irish Times

Monday, April, 17, 2000

The greatest threat to truth comes from denial

OPINION/John Waters
Irish Times

The outcomes of two legal sagas, the Irving libel trial in London and the Nevin murder trial at home, have left slightly more secure the distinctions between right and wrong, truth and lies.

Deborah Lipstadt, the Jewish historian sued by David Irving, recounted in Denying the Holocaust, the book at the centre of that trial, that a 1993 survey found 22 per cent of adults in the US were prepared to believe the Holocaust had not happened. That Holocaust denial has gained such influence within the lifetimes of survivors is not encouraging about our capacity for longterm retention.

And the greatest threat to memory arises not from extremists who hate so much that the truth becomes their enemy, but from the desire of ordinary people to be reassured about the essential nature of humanity. Most of us would prefer if the Holocaust had not happened, and wishful thinking combined with a selective approach to fact brings us closer to amnesia.

There is a fallacious belief that public debate protects us from this, arising from a belief that media are neutral conduits of information, and that the more "debate", the greater the chance that truth will triumph. But it is possible for media discussion to have the opposite effect. In Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt outlined how, when invited to "debate" the Holocaust with its deniers, she always refused.

She believed that to appear with such people would give unwarranted credibility to their views. She acknowledged that her refusal to co-operate meant deniers got an easier ride. But this, she believed, was better than extending them equal standing with six million dead Jews. She related how, invariably, the response was: did she not think their readers/listeners/viewers should hear "the other side"? Ms Lipstadt correctly identified this tendency to believe that debate can occur in an amoral vacuum as of even greater concern than the activities of the deniers. We are not, in fact, equally entitled to our opinions: some opinions, being in conflict with the truth, are simply wrong.

But changing the beliefs of a society depends less on facts, truth and argument than on the extent to which society is willing to have its views challenged. You would think the Holocaust so huge that denials would immediately be dismissed. On the contrary, its incomprehensibility makes it an easier target, because, being human, we wish such things were not possible. It is when truth comes into conflict with the mechanisms we have created to conceal from ourselves the reality of the human condition that the danger of yielding to the distortion of propaganda is at its greatest.

The conceited belief in the media that all discussion leads to enlightenment can make it as difficult to establish "new" truths as to preserve existing ones. Just as we are anxious to disbelieve in the fundamental darkness of human nature, we are determined to avoid any excessive probing into the complexity of the mechanisms we have developed to "manage" that darkness.

I had a recent personal experience of this syndrome at a more mundane level. At the end of March, I addressed a conference of the voluntary group AMEN, dedicated to helping male sufferers of domestic abuse. My talk was well received, by an audience of about equal numbers of men and women. Other speakers, like Warren Farrell, Erin Pizzey and Malcolm George, presented independent research illustrating that, contrary to the propaganda suggesting 95 per cent of perpetrators are male, domestic violence breaks down 50-50 in gender terms.

This is deeply problematic for modern society, which, to protect itself from the unthinkable, has become fixated with the twin notions of the demonic male and the demure female. That men and women are equal in their darknesses is in its own way as challenging to the psychic integrity of society as the idea that fellow humans exterminated six million Jews.

The AMEN conference was fairly reported by most media with the exception of one report which, to me, was misleading - the main point being that the conference was "anti-women". This account was the only mention of the conference in the particular newspaper.

When the organisers protested, the editor, while agreeing to extend right of reply, refused to concede that the "report" was unbalanced. Just because you disagree with their interpretation of events, said the editor, does not restrict the reporter's right to their opinion either.

This column is my opinion, and clearly flagged as such. That does not liberate me from the necessity to ensure that my opinions are grounded in fact, although it does give me latitude to express independent, even eccentric views, based on interpretations of those facts. In outlining my opinions, can it be argued that I am "reporting" them? No, it is facts that are sacred and comment free: the other way round gives you propaganda.

At the first AMEN conference, 16 months ago, a representative of Women's Aid stood up and stated: "Women do not tell lies." This is not just a central tenet of the domestic violence industry, but an abiding belief of this society.

How many Catherine Nevins have escaped justice because of such notions and the culture of disbelief surrounding the possibility of female violence? Marian Finucane can inform her listeners that she feels "very sorry" for Mrs Nevin, but Tom Nevin lies today in a grave at Brittas Bay, Co Wicklow, because his grasping, murderous wife believed she could count on such sentiments existing within the community.

Perhaps she imagined these beliefs licensed her to have her husband assassinated and evade justice by painting him as a house devil and a street devil too. Perhaps the mistake she made was not invoking the aid of the domestic violence industry to present a "history" of abuse at the hands of her husband.

jwaters@irish-times.ie