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Solutions Blog

Peace Garden Makeover is underway!

The Conflict Center’s Peace Garden is getting a makeover!  Work is under way to transform the Peace Garden into a beautiful and functional space to be enjoyed by all.  The first phase of the project, removal of existing plants and features, took place on Saturday March 22.  Over a dozen intrepid volunteers braved the temperamental March weather, and in just a couple of hours they created a blank canvas that will be transformed over the next couple of months into our new garden.  Visit our Facebook page to see photos and follow this project to its completion.

Special thanks go out to Tess Scanlon-Phillips, of Gardening by Tess, who has volunteered her time and expertise to create a new design and guide our work through the project, and to Shawn Ryan of Environmental Designs for providing heavy equipment and labor for the demolition, and for donating mulch and compost!

The next work day is scheduled for Saturday May 17, and on that day we will begin installing plants in their new homes!  Additional work days will be scheduled to place more plants, flagstones, outdoor furniture, and mulch.  In the future there will be opportunities for donors to purchase personalized stepping stones for the garden.  More information will follow as the details are finalized.  If you are interested in this volunteer opportunity, contact Theo Vargas, Volunteer Coordinator at 303-865-5635 or theo.vargas@conflictcenter.org.

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Peace Garden Makeover begins Saturday March 22

Volunteer Gardeners Needed

The Conflict Center would like to invite you to part of our upcoming Peace Garden Makeover.  Our first day for the project is scheduled as follows:

Date:   Saturday, March 22nd

Time:   9am to noon.  Snacks and lunch will be provided.

Place:  The Conflict Center, 4140 Tejon Street (the Peace Garden is in the back of the building)

We will be doing a major garden clean-up and clean-out that day, removing many of the older shrubs and plants so that we can make room for a built-in watering system, a new tree, shrubs, plants, stepping stones and seating areas in order to create a more interactive community space.   We will need folks who are ready to do some hard work for peace, cutting back overgrown plantings, digging out old shrubs and hauling refuse to the dumpster.  Wear old jeans, bring your gardening gloves, and come join the fun.

Additional work days will be scheduled in April and May to install the new plantings, outdoor furniture and mulch.  We will also be adding a beautiful new piece of artwork from the 23rd Avenue Sculpture Studio at a later date.  Opportunities will be available for donors to purchase personalized stepping stones for the garden.  More information will follow as the details are worked out.

Special thanks to Tess Scanlon-Phillips, of Gardening by Tess, who has volunteered her time and expertise to create a new design and guide our work through the project.  If you are interested in this volunteer opportunity, contact Theo Vargas, TCC Volunteer Coordinator at 303-865-5635 or theo.vargas@conflictcenter.org .

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Reflections on denial and “40 Years Later, Now Can We Talk?”

I hope you were able to attend last Friday’s film event at The Conflict Center!  We had a free screening of the documentary “40 Years Later, Now Can We Talk?”, which was followed by a discussion facilitated by Harold Fields.  A few days later Harold shared some reflections with us related to the topic of denial, which was discussed at length after the film.   An excerpt from Harold’s message is below:

I was very happy to be a part of the rich conversations people had Friday night after the film.  One of the themes that came up was about being in denial around the suffering of classmates.  I have attached a couple of commentaries about Stanley Cohen’s book States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. It makes me reflect on the relation the students had to the authority figures represented by the teachers, and the ways we don’t see those defined as “other.”  This looks like a book worth checking out.  
Harold’s message also included a four-page summary of the book he referenced.  This summary is reproduced below in its entirety.  (Please note that this summary was originally written by an British author, which explains the spelling and linguistic differences.)  I hope you enjoy these insights, and will consider attending a future Film for Thought event at The Conflict Center.  Watch the Events page of our website for more information on upcoming films!  You can also sign up for our emails by clicking here, and we’ll keep you posted about future events!

States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering , by Stanley Cohen

As a child in 1950s Johannesburg, Stanley Cohen saw from his bedroom window the old Zulu man employed as a “Night Watch Boy” huddled over his charcoal fire, rubbing his hands together to keep warm. Why, the child wondered as he slipped between his grandmother’s flannel sheets, brought from Poland, did the old man have to sit out there? “Why had our family (and everyone like us) been allocated black men and women (who were called ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ or just ‘natives’) as domestic servants? Where were their wives, husbands and children?” As he lay under his cosy eiderdown, Cohen began the thought process that led to this troubling book.

With ideas like these lurking in his child’s mind it is hardly surprising that as an adult Cohen did not live in apartheid South Africa. There was no easy answer to his other obsessive question: “Why did others, even those raised in similar families, schools and neighbourhoods, who read the same papers, walked the same streets, apparently not ‘see’ what we saw? Could they be living in another perceptual universe – where the horrors of apartheid were invisible and the physical presence of black people often slipped from awareness?”

The same obsession (the word is Professor Cohen’s own) haunted him when, in the 1980s, he went to live in Israel after 20 years in Britain. He soon found that the liberal peace movement he had assumed would be his home was not an arena where he could exist in intellectual comfort; his place was on the far-left margins. He began to work on human-rights issues, in particular torture, and had to ask himself whether Israel was a uniquely horrible society in accepting that torture was normal: predictable, not news, and no cause for outrage.

But he could not escape what he knew of the universality of everyday horror well beyond South Africa and Israel: genocide in Rwanda, murders of street children in Brazil, children starving to death in Somalia, a civilisation destroyed in Iraq courtesy of the United Nations, women raped as part of the war strategy in the Balkans, and so much more. His old preoccupations were back: how do people react to unwelcome knowledge, and particularly to knowledge about atrocities? And how do the victims and the perpetrators see these atrocities?

States of Denial is based on hundreds of theoretical references in sociology and psychology, woven together with both private and public experience of how “the past comes back to haunt you”, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the clinical and political effect of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Looking at the perpetrators of atrocities – from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa via the years of military dictatorship in South America – Cohen notes acidly “the unedifying ways in which most people comply with authority”. Denial of responsibility inevitably follows one of four paths: obedience to superiors, conformity with society, necessity or splitting of the personality. He quotes Hannah Arendt’s claims that the mendacity of Eichmann’s character was integral to the whole of German society, shielding it from reality. Similarly, the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam was, for the ease of American consciences, defined as a crime of obedience. Individual responsibility and morality are minimised.

Cohen wants more troubling information made available to more people. “Someone has to inform us exactly how many children in the world are still dying of measles, are conscripted as 12-year-olds into killer militias, are sold by their families into child prostitution, are beaten to death by their parents.”

In the central argument he draws from this review of horrors that ordinary people find it possible to live with, Cohen is original, wise and essentially optimistic. He believes that denial is the normal state of affairs, and that what he calls “the Oxfam/Amnesty view”, in which the outsider is asked to take action, is the exception. “Why people don’t shut out is more interesting than why they shut out.”

Looking at why, for instance, individuals in Europe helped Jews during the Nazi period despite the tremendous risks, he identifies the common factor behind their altruism. The helpers had, spontaneously, a sense of self as part of a common humanity, which he calls “inclusivity”. Cohen looks towards a practical utopia where “a deep shame of passivity” would become a mobilising norm of social life. He dreams of a global community in which “the obligation to assist others in danger or distress was a powerful imperative”. There are, of course, such communities in the world, but because they are rural and premodern they are usually invisible to the “global community”.

In a State of Denial.

Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial [1] is essential reading for anyone wanting to know about the social psychology of knowledge evasion, issue denial, forms of moral blindness, or the social manufacture of ‘moral sleeping pills’. Although Cohen presents a great deal of psychological and sociological evidence about many various forms of denial, he wisely comments that ‘this is neither a fixed psychological ‘mechanism’ nor a universal social process’.

However, forms of denial have been extensively researched by cognitive psychologists who ‘use the language of information processing, monitoring, selective perception, filtering and attention span to understand how we notice and simultaneously don’t notice’.

There are also theories based on a concept known as ‘blindsight’ which suggests that parts of the human mind can ‘not know’ what is known in other parts. Cohen is keen not to lose the wider picture about denial, noting, for example, that, although data suggests that family members can become engaged in ‘vital lies’ about a range of abuse issues, it should also be recognised that reliance of forms of denial effect more than just individuals and families: ‘Government bureaucracies, political parties, professional associations, religions, armies and police have their own forms of cover-up and lying’.

Accounts, Justifications and Excuses.

Cohen turns his focus to the sociology of denial. However, when it comes to understanding forms of denial, psychological and sociological factors must be interwoven for the fullest picture to be drawn. In a chapter entitled ‘Denial at work: mechanisms and rhetorical devices’, Cohen gives a comprehensive account of sociological denial theory; ranging from C. Wright Mills’ observation in the 1940’s that motives cannot merely be regarded as ‘mysterious internal states’ that ignore social situations, to 1990’s feminist analysis of abusive situations, and other investigations of ‘bystander’ politics.

Cohen points out that denial operates before and after the fact, so some verbal motivational statements become guides to future behaviour. Again, it would be a serious error to regard any ‘internal soliloquies’ as entirely private matters: ‘On the contrary: accounts are learnt by ordinary cultural transmission, and are drawn from a well-established, collectively available pool’. Moreover, and why not think of animal welfarism here, Cohen says, ‘an account is adopted because of its public acceptability’, which seems to support subcultural notions that alternative – that is, generally unacceptable – accounts may be adopted for ‘shock value’.

Cohen says that socialisation processes ‘teaches us which motives are acceptable for which actions’. As children individuals learn that ‘accounts are needed’ and ‘required’ to explain behaviour. Commonsensically, it is conventional accounts that are accepted as the least problematic. Cohen follows Mills in noting that different audiences may require different accounts, yet this, ‘far from undermining the theory, confirms the radically sociological character of motivation’. Some accounts can be said to be in the form of justifications, others can be regarded as excuses. Drawing on the work of Sykes and Matza, [2] Cohen notes that:

Justifications are ‘accounts in which one accepts responsibility for the act in question, but denies the pejorative quality associated with it’, whereas excuses are ‘accounts in which one admits that the act in question is bad, wrong or inappropriate, but denies full responsibility’.

Therefore:

A soldier kills, but denies that this is immoral: those he killed were enemies who deserved their fate. He is justifying his action. Another soldier admits the immorality of his killing, but denies full volition for his action: this was a case of involuntary obedience to orders. He is excusing his action.

Cohen’s in-depth exploration of forms of denial, mechanisms of rationalisation, vocabulary of motivations, and justifications and excuses, means that it is apparently clear beyond much doubt that ‘turning a blind eye’ does not have to mean ‘not looking’. Rather, it is more about not registering or actively avoiding what has been seen or what is known. Denial is often about ‘deflecting’, ‘redirecting’, ‘turning aside’, ‘dodging’, and ‘escaping’ from what is essentially ‘known knowledge’.

The grim details of human harm contained in States of Denial makes it a hard read, and yet Cohen openly admits that he himself is ‘in total denial’ about animal rights issues. He states that he is in denial about environmental issues as well, which is a little ironic in that environmentalists such as George Marshall [3] have begun to use the book as a substantive source in accounts of the psychology of denial about issues such as climate change and global warming.

Cohen’s thesis is that denial can be common, and indeed a normal state of affairs, and he provides an account of his own denial about these two issues. Moreover, he admits that it is not the case that he cannot see the coherence of the arguments presented by environmentalists and animal advocates. In fact he reports that he ‘cannot find strong rational arguments against either set of claims’.

Yet, emotionally, he remains largely unmoved and ‘particularly oblivious’ about animal issues. For example, while accepting that animal experimentation and animal agriculture may involve the treatment of other animals that can be difficult to defend, he resorts, he says, to putting his ‘filters’ on. He therefore tells himself that some issues are not really anything to do with him; that there are ‘worse problems’ in a suffering world; that ‘there are plenty of other people looking after this’. In fact, he employs many of the rationalisations and techniques of neutralisation that constitute the substance of his own book. Finally, and animal activists will especially recognise this stratagem, he relies on attack as a form of defence, stating: ‘What do you mean, I’m in denial every time I eat a hamburger?’

Cohen suggests that there is what he calls a ‘meta-rule’ in operation here. This ‘meta-rule’ is obviously quite speciesist, but it is a rule that also seriously threatens the well-being of any human ‘stranger’. Can it be any surprise to discover that the meta-rule states that ‘own people’ should always come first? Can it be a shock that the meta-rule suggests that ‘extensions’ of moral concern beyond families, friends and our ‘intimate circle’ are uncertain? Humanity draws a moral line; establishes an ethical threshold and, on a pessimistic note for all social movement activists, ‘we cannot be confident that more information (or more dreadful information?) will change the threshold’ (brackets in original). Cohen suggests that the problem may not be the absolute lack of concern, suggesting that people tend to think that human suffering is not normal or tolerable; the difficulty may be a ‘gap’ between concern and action; a gap that regrettably does not show great signs of closing.

[1] Cohen, S. (2001) States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge: Polity.

[2] Sykes, G. & Matza, D. (1957) ‘Techniques of Neutralisation’, American Sociological Review, 22 (Dec): 664-70)

[3] Marshall, G. (2001) ‘The psychology of denial’. Observer, Climate Change pull-out, October 28: 8-9.

Posted 13th July 2007 by Roger Yates

 

 

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