Professor Stanley Cohen: states of denial

Knowing about atrocities and suffering

(Polity Press, 2001)

Stan Cohen: states of denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering

Blocking out, turning a blind eye, shutting off, not wanting to know, wearing blinkers, seeing what we want to see... these are all expressions of 'denial'. Alcoholics who refuse to recognise their condition, people who brush aside suspicions of their partner's infidelity, the wife who doesn't notice that her husband is abusing their daughter, are supposedly 'in denial'.

Governments deny their responsibility for atrocities, and plan them to achieve 'maximum deniability'. Truth commissions try to overcome the suppression and denial of past horrors. Bystander nations deny their responsibility to intervene, whether in Bosnia or Rwanda.

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 organisations 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 organised atrocities - the Holocaust and other genocides, torture, and political massacres - are denied by perpetrators and by bystanders, those who stand by and do nothing.

'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. Stan 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.' - Noam Chomsky.

'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 trademark... this book will become the starting point for all future debate on the subject.' - Michael Ignatieff.

'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 Becker.

States of Denial won the Division of International Criminology, American Society of Criminology award for outstanding publication 2001; the British Academy Book Prize 2002; and was a finalist, LA Times Book of the Year 2002.