We’re in the throes of another election season. Candidates and voters deny election results from 2020 or from recent primary defeats. Meanwhile, Covid-19 responses add to a long history of science denial, in the tradition of the Flat Earth Society or nineteenth-century doctors’ refusal to wash their hands.
Perhaps some people can’t stand the tension of beliefs that conflict with their wishes. Perhaps some haven’t heard the factual evidence. Perhaps some spread lies deliberately for profit, ratings, or votes. But top factors in the appeal of denialism surely include belonging and distrust.
To be shut out from community because of differences of belief brings pain. We’re influenced by those around us not only because we think they know best but because we want and need their acceptance. If we deny evidence to stay in the group, what’s most likely to change our minds is exposure to supportive new friends with a different perspective.
To feel scorned or ignored by perceived elites breeds distrust of authority. Unlike skepticism, which demands evidence, denialism rejects legal and scientific authority regardless of evidence. If we deny expertise in order to claim our equal right to an opinion, the most effective antidote might be mutually respectful conversations free from superior sneers.
Richard S. Gilbert writes, “I rise in the morning torn between the desire to save the world or to savor it.” When my must-do list is completed for the day, does should-do have a claim on any time and energy left over? Or are the remaining hours mine to enjoy as uselessly as I please?
Poets offer both answers. “The people I love the best jump into work head first,” Marge Piercy writes. “The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.” Yet from Mary Oliver we read, “You do not have to be good. . . . You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Who got it right? I suspect individuals differ in what will help them heal. Saint Augustine, after years of restless promiscuity, found peace through Christian asceticism. A thousand years later, Martin Luther—a religious over-achiever whose efforts to please God never felt like enough—found peace in the idea of salvation by faith. Telling young Augustine he did not have to be good would only have worsened his struggles, but it was exactly the message young Luther needed to hear.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.