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Human Rights Quarterly 24.4 (2002) 1054-1057
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States of Denial:
Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering of Others
States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering of Others, by Stanley Cohen (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) 344 pp.
Stanley Cohen has taken on a fascinating and relevant subject for our times: denial. If the world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is thus far full of horrible events, wicked governments and nasty people who commit terrible atrocities, and a wide range of acts of evil, from banal to outrageous, it is almost equally full of denial about these terrible things. The book seeks to understand this phenomenon.
On multiple levels (state, society, individual), denial is frequently the first and often the most enduring reaction to accusations of wrongdoing. Denial may be common, and commonly recognized, but that does not mean we understand it. Its definition is far from clear and, as Cohen shows repeatedly, it seems to have as many meanings as it has motivations and consequences. In fact, denial is so frequently interwoven into human interaction that disentangling its meaning, especially in the context of politics and human rights, which is what interests Cohen most, would be a valuable contribution indeed.
Cohen begins the book by explaining his own long-standing fascination with denial and his desire to one day write a "sociology of denial," a definitive treatise on the subject. (He quickly acknowledges that this book is not the achievement of that goal.) As a South African Jew who has lived in Johannesburg, Israel, and England he has seen people say things that blatantly contradict what is clearly the truth—or show an all-too-shocking ignorance of the obvious—so many times and in so many contexts that throughout his life he keeps returning to a basic set of questions: what do we do with the knowledge of the suffering of others? How do we react to the terrible events that surround us? What exactly do we do when we deny the existence, significance, or emotionality of the ever-present and on-going misery of our human brethren? How about when we deny our own responsibility or complicity?
States of Denial does not pretend to answer these questions definitively. Rather, the book sets out a series of definitions and arguments for the reader to inspect and toss around on the friendly playing field of ideas. In some cases, Cohen makes clear his own feelings about an argument. In one particularly amusing and interesting section, he ridicules Freud's penis envy and fetishism theories, 1 making the clear point that these kinds of "weird" approaches to repression of memory are not useful at the least, and worrisomely strange at the most. He makes similar points about the 1980s repressed and recovered memory thesis, which was transformed from the [End Page 1054] realm of tentative psychological theory to "a mixture of social movement, urban folklore, and cult." 2 In a number of places, he shows frustration or disdain for "psychobabble" (one of his favorite phrases of derision) or "psycho-stupidity." 3 And his frustration with post-modernism—especially as it trivializes the importance of truth, and thus allows denial of truth to become relativized and unjudged—is both clear and often refreshing. 4
But in general the goal of the book seems to be to give as sweeping a sense of the possible definitions, explanations, theories, and models of denial as possible without digging too deeply into any of them. In this, the book succeeds quite admirably and makes for very worthwhile reading.
In fact, this book's most important contribution to the fields of transitional justice, human rights, and democratization studies is the vocabulary it provides for examining denial. It gives the reader a roadmap of how to understand the concept. For example, once we recognize the basics—"statements of denial are assertions that something did not happen, does not exist, is not true, or is not known about" 5 —Cohen points to the kinds of questions we must ask: What is the...