States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
March 2001, Polity
Do these phenomena have anything in common? When we deny, are we aware of what we are doing or is this an unconscious defence mechanism to protect us from unwelcome truths? Can there be cultures of denial? How do organizations like Amnesty and Oxfam try to overcome the public's apparent indifference to distant suffering and cruelty? Is denial always so bad - or do we need positive illusions to retain our sanity?
States of Denial is the first comprehensive study of both the personal and political ways in which uncomfortable realities are avoided and evaded. It ranges from clinical studies of depression, to media images of suffering, to explanations of the 'passive bystander' and 'compassion fatigue'. The book shows how organized atrocities - the Holocaust and other genocides, torture, and political massacres - are denied by perpetrators and by bystanders, those who stand by and do nothing.
Chapter 1: The Elementary Forms Of Denial.
Chapter 2: Knowing and Not-Knowing: The Psychology of Denial.
Chapter 3: Denial at Work: Mechanisms and Rhetorical Devices.
Chapter 4: Accounting for Atrocities: Perpetrators and Officials.
Chapter 5: Blocking Out the Past: Personal Memories, Public Histories.
Chapter 6: Bystander States.
Chapter 7: Images of Suffering.
Chapter 8: Appeals: Outrage Into Action.
Chapter 9: Digging Up Graves, Opening Wounds: Acknowledging the Past.
Chapter 10: Acknowledgement Now.
Chapter 11: Loose Ends.
A First systematic attempt to analyse the personal and political dimensions of denial
A Draws on a whole host of fascinating material from clinical and counselling psychology, studies of human rights violations, criminology and media studies.
A Beautifully written, for a general audience
A Strongly endorsed by Michael Ignatieff, Howard Becker, and Noam Chomsky
'With images of disaster and atrocity raining down on us from
every quarter, it's hard not to resort to a balming fatalism.
Sociologist Stanley Cohen's timely book about how people and
societies deny information which is too disturbing or threatening
serves as a brilliant corrective ... This is how scholarship should
be - zesty, engaged, witty, and always accessible.' Anne
Karpf, The Observer
'Cohen is original, wise and essentially optimistic ... [He]
looks towards a practical utopia where "a deep shame of passivity"
would become a mobilizing norm of social life.' Victoria
Brittain, The Guardian
'The sociologist Stanley Cohen, who spent many years in Israel
before continuing his academic work in Britain, offers one key to
why wars happen, why peace settlements do not take, and why
terrible conflicts are ignored or dealt with ineffectively. His new
book stresses how central denial is in conflict, indeed in all
human life. The concept is well known, but Cohen's careful building
up of the detail of denial in its many forms is truly illuminating.
He leads the reader to the conclusion that it is denial that is
"normal" and an ability to see the truth and act accordingly which
is rare, whether in individuals or in governments.' Martin
Woolacott, The Guardian
'[a] brilliant and important book.' Anne Karpf, Jewish
'Stan Cohen masterfully exposes the intricate matrix of forms of
denial ... Artfully crafted and beautifully written, States of
Denial is certainly not an easy read: it forces us to confront
our blind spots and rationalizations. After the twentieth century
no serious intellectual can afford not to tread this book and
absorb Stan Cohen's profound insights.' TIKKUN
'Over a period of several decades Cohen has made a series of
original and provocative contributions to the field of criminology
. This book offers a rich contribution to criminology of a much
broader scope, one more in tune with an era of increasing
globalization. It explores in a profound way the pervasive
resistance to confronting some of the worst crimes of our time.'
'In an exceptionally wide-ranging treatment of the topic,
Cohen's timely book traces multiple forms of the denial of distant
suffering. He analyses denial through through the rich literature
of its expression, including cognitive psychology and
psychoanalysis, social and political sources, the reports of
witnesses and bystanders, legal theory and literary texts.'
Anthony Elliott, The Australian
'Ignorance is bliss. But Cohen knows it is not. The details of
denial are shocking to read ... [but] Cohen looks beyond despair
towards a more honest way of living. He calls it the possibility of
"living outside the lie", the phrase used by former Czech president
Vaclav Havel. This isn't easy to achieve, he concedes, but that
shouldn't stop you from trying.' Sydney Morning
'This is a pathbreaking and comprehensive study of how political
actors, civic groups, and private citizens manage to know and not
know about the atrocity and suffering around them, a rare book
whose practical value for activists and officials is as great as
its contribution to scholarship.' Eric Klinenberg, Le Monde
'It would be hard to deny that denial is ubiquitous these days,
but few have tried to survey the topic as comprehensively as Cohen
does here.' Lynne Segal, Radical Philosophy
'How do we deal with the unthinkable? How do the perpetrators of
horrors justify their actions to themselves and to society? And to
what extent is a bystander a perpetrator? These are basic, painful
questions that need to be confronted directly - which is what
Stanley Cohen resolutely does in this book. Rating: very
good.' New Internationalist
'Few topics can be so painful to contemplate as the modes of
avoidance we construct to protect ourselves from what we do not
want to know. Stanley Cohen guides us through this labyrinth in a
compelling study that is cool, thorough and analytic, yet also
passionate and riveting, and, remarkably, infused with sympathetic
understanding for the forms of denial that are a foundation for
"every personal life and every society", but must be faced honestly
and overcome. It is an impressive achievement. To read and ponder
it is an unsettling experience, but a very valuable one.'
'This is an exceptionally important book, because it asks
difficult and painful questions and answers them with that rare
combination of tenacity and modesty which Stan Cohen has made his
trade mark. The question of denial is at the very centre of the
question of why human beings find being virtuous so difficult.
States of Denial is the most rigorous attempt to analyse our
various strategies of denial and I am sure that this book will
become the starting point for all future debate on the subject'
'States of Denial is thoughtful, profound, engaging,
disturbing, knowledgeable and comprehensive. Cohen reveals,
modestly but thoroughly, a mastery of a vast amount of scholarly
and journalistic work. It's a remarkable book ' Howard
'...as fine a product as any scholar might reasonably wish for.
The book is sociological while at the same time an exercise in
social psychology...a very good book about many things.'
British Journal of Sociology
'This book presents the case history of human denial. It is
disturbing but gripping reading, a tonic of truth for us all.'
Journal of Medicine,Conflict &
'States of Denial deserves a wide readership. It is
testament of Cohen's brilliance both as a sociologist and as a
writer that he manages to deal with a broad and difficult topic in
a manner that is both comprehensive and deeply engaging.' The
Howard Journal of Criminal Justice
"In an exceptionally wide-ranging treatment of the topic,
Cohen's timely book traces multiple forms of the denial of distant
suffering. He analyses denial through the rich literature of its
expression. including cognitive psychoanalysis. Social and
political sources, the reports of witnesses and bystanders, legal
theory and literary texts." The Australian
"A remarkable new book that hits the nail on the head page after
page after page. It should be compulsory reading for the political
class in Northern Ireland, players of historical games and experts
in 'whataboutery'." Leader
" This book compels readers to look at their own responses and
judge their own behaviour when faced with the atrocities and
suffering of others." Criminal Justice Matters
"States of Denial presents a highly differentiated understanding
that includes an appreciation of the value of denial alongside
recognition of its perils, the goals of the book are excruciatingly
important, and the results are a rich source of insights and
concepts. This is compelling moral sociology, among other things,
and will be an important starting point for the future research."
American Journal of Sociology
"This is a passionate work, with a fierce commitment to humanity
and to the need for societal and personal transformation to resist
the denuals which permit atrocities to flourish. Good for the
corporate soul." The Round Table
"The exhaustiveness of Cohen's review of cases and theories, the
constant shifts and linkages between the micro and the macro level,
and, above all, the rigour and insightfulness of Cohen's own
theoretical framework make the book a 'must' for social scientists.
More generally, the nature of the subject matter makes the book a
'must' for any person who is willing to break free the forms of
denial inherent in any society." European Journal of Social
"This is a noble tract for our times, written by a modest,
honest man." British Journal of Criminology
"To say that States of Denial is exceptionally
important, impressive or remarkable is to understate the enormity
of this book's achievement. Stanley Cohen's deeply disturbing study
of the ways in which people and states react to knowledge about the
suffering of others is an oustanding piece of
scholarship."Jacqueline Tombs, Stirling University,
"This book provides an excellent introduction and exploration of
the concept of denial. It examines the concept of denial in such a
thorough and all-encompassing manner that the reader is forced to
examine their own behaviours to atrocities and suffering. It is
easy to read and well researched."Patricia Kingori, University
College, London. Medical Sociology News
"Denial is a difficult and thought-provoking area. Cohen
certainly allows the reader to reflect on the concepts and apply
them to current issues. I would therefore recommend this book to
professionals working with clients who are in some form of denial"
Dr Carol A. Ireland, The Psychologist
"States of Denial [is] a quite brilliant examination of the human capacity, or incapacity, to handle disaster and tragedy." Laurie Taylor, The Humanist