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Denial and Bad Faith

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Soka University Japan - Transcend Art and Peace
Created: November 2, 2002
Latest Update:November 2, 2002

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Site Teaching Modules NOT SEEING THE SILENCE

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, November 2, 2002.
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I'm reading a very troubling book. It fits right into all our discussions, including those about Euro-American ethnoentric pronouncements on female genital cutting, including the 1000 children a day who die of hunger, including the older persron victimized by young who seem to not to empathize, including the school's mistakes and mislabeling it so cavalierly refuses to correct. The book is States of Denial by Stanley Cohen. I like that he is a sociologist, that he has lived in South Africa, England, Israel, and that he is DETERMINED to understand what nice people like us could possibly be thinking that would allows such atrocities and miscarriages of justice to go on.

What I don't like, is that he seems to keep allowing himself to be seduced back into the academy, where I don't think all of this is going to go anywhere. He wants to name DENIAL. He wants to define it, in typical professorial fashion. And we could pull lots of great testable definitions from his work, which is fairly clear until he twists himself up in the tentacles of Sartre's bad faith, and the sound of one hand clapping.

Give me Wolpe and reality theory. I don't care nearly so much that you remember whether Freud or Sartre or Anna Freud or postmodernism got it right or contributed a piece of IT. I'm not even sure what IT is. But the IT I'm trying to bring to AWARENESS with you is that everyday rich people are committing terrible crimes; (no, not just Enron, but also toxic gasses, safety issues, food production worldwide) (as are certainly poor people also though their lesser power puts the harm on a smaller scale); everyday nation-states are denying many of the terrible crimes against humanity they have committed, on very flimsy grounds; everyday we are unkind to each other in varying ways and refuse to see the relationship of that unkindness to the nation-state and global horror.

Stanley Cohen has worked with peace groups all over the world, and he's asked questions as I have asked questions, from everyone that seems to matter around me in my life, from organized professionals whose job it should be to end the suffering, from institutions whose goals should be to end the suffering. I couldn't put down the book when I started it. Cohen has been so many places, had so many alternatives that I have not. (Don't misunderstand me. Those alternatives included family bodyguards in South Africa and war always near in the Middle East.)

Not only that, but he addresses many of the same theorists I do: Freud, Sartre, in seeking answers to this collective and individual denial. But now, four chapters into the book (on Knowing and Not Knowing, which should ring a bell from our discussions on knowing), I couldn't wait any longer to express my frustration.

One, I didn't get to reading the text until now. So it's late in the semseter. Besides, you've already got a lot to do towards the end of the semester. And this needs to be the kind of book that you can just gobble up for those of you who would glady dive into it, even now.

But two, this book doesn't gobble up! It stops and detours down a textbook path. I can't believe that I'm telling you that that gets in my way. But it does. Right when I think I've got hold of this thought on how we can know and not know at the same time, and how I can translate that into Sartre's "bad faith," Cohen stops to go through the rest of his outline. Oy! I hate outlines. I know you need to get there, and I know you need to cover every angle, at least every conservative angle, or the publishers won't publish it. But when you're almost barely on the edge of getting it, you just can't stop and talk about something else that hardly matters.

And, I guess, I'm accusing Cohen of DENYING SOMETHING THAT MATTERS: that what he's writing matters, and matters to people, as well as to the academy. I really need to understand both Freud's "unconscious" in relation to this denial, AND Sartre's BAD FAITH. I've read Lewis R. Gordon's Bad Faith and Anti-Black Racism. Even ith extensive reading in this area, I still don't understand exactly what Cohen is saying. Refusing to hear evidence, as in a court fo law, sounds terribly remote from the process I witness everyday.

The only substantive stuff I've really gotten (I hope!) so far is that "knowing" may not be static. That "knowing" may be a process in which sometimes we see and sometimes we don't. Like what's happening to me now, as I try to explain this. I "know" it, yet I'm having trouble telling you what I know. Sound familiar, kids? Who says you're different? We just DENY that it happens to us, because of course it doesn't count if I'm doing theory instead of studying for a test. Remember that expression, "it's on the edge of my tongue"?

As inexact as I have to remain at this point, I think they're all sort of saying that if the process is as dynamic as we think it may be, then yes, we can know at one time and social context, and yet actually, in a different portion of the process (notice that there's no referent for the "the" - which process? - that's a clear indication I'm not sure what I'm talking about), we could legitimately "not know."

Now, see what I've done. I've yanked Habermas into the discussion. Can we "legitimately" know? What Habermasian sense did I have in mind? Well, how about legitimate, in this sense, could mean that the I/me in process could refrain from any active effort to dissemble or to prevent any voice within from being heard. That wouldn't cover the actually "unaware" cases, but then, that's what we're questioning the legitimacy of, anyway, isn't it? And of course, the "I/me" won't cover all these different theories Cohen is considering. Oy!

You see how messy this issue is. The issue? "I didn't know. I didn't do anything. So how can I be responsible?" This may well be THE QUESTION of the 21st Century, kids.

Now I'm going back to reading. love and peace, jeanne

Oh, and by the way: