Plagues of Denial

Why can’t the leaders see the obvious problems as they come?

There are certain things we see coming, and, this being 2020, things we didn’t see coming. Until an event actually comes to pass, it’s easy enough to think it may or may not.

An example will help. The Civil War.

For the decades before the war, there was a lot of effort made on both sides of the horror of slavery. Slaves struggled and sometimes freed themselves. They were captured and sent back, or they kept their freedom and worked to free others. Some folks agitated for emancipation. Some manumitted in their wills, others upon inheritance.

But the talk of disunion wasn’t a novelty come the Civil War. It had been seen coming. But still, it did come.

For decades, then, you had the slave states seeing this thing coming. They chose to let it come, and indeed they inaugurated it in attempting to cast off the bond of the Union.

Another example. The Revolutionary War. Again, Britain surely saw that risk, and yet they continued to press with taxation, with bad choices.

I’m sure there are more unseen inevitabilities than seen, but these aren’t hiding. These governments and parties are buying advertising space on their own foreheads. The ads read: “I know it’s coming, but I’m pressing on.”

Denial doesn’t tell the whole story. They know what’s coming. They are the reason it’s coming. They are what creates the conditions. Yet they do not stop or change. We have enough reporting that they’re aware of what they’re doing on some level, so it’s not full denial.

It’s more of a socially-constructed denial. That appearing weak, or making any move to change the course or ease the transition, or to admit to themselves the reality, would… this is where I struggle. The most concise image still is that of Wile E. Coyote. They don’t want to look down. They don’t want to fall. But the farther they go past the cliff, the farther the drop. It’s quite disturbing to watch. The farther down the path the naked emperor parades, the more who see him naked, until that one boy pipes up.

Would it not be better to turn around at the gate of the palace, fire the tailors, put on some trousers? Would it not be better to admit to the inevitable, to change and get ahead of it to be able to smooth the transition?

There are those who did that. Who restored the dignity they or their forebearers had stolen from their fellow men. Who quit their redcoated loyalist ways to become unionists. And there are some in the various coming crises who also do work to mend first, rather than to wait for the forces of nature to rend.

Perhaps it is all in the design of those who seek leadership and power that they cannot lead in crisis. That’s the stuff of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—the notion that they in the established order cannot bring about anything but crises, and that those who rise up to meet the crisis will supplant them.

But I don’t believe that, not entirely. It lets them off too easily. They are positioned to do exactly what they believe they cannot: to lead.

The governors who opened too fast, who have failed to heed the obvious warnings, they are still in a position to lead. It is not that they are incapable. It’s that they won’t. The system wasn’t designed to, sure. But that they won’t change it as they see the world change before them, that’s a damn shame.

The best analogy that presents itself is that of machine learning. These face recognition systems, trained on biased data, cannot properly recognize some faces. It is the same with those in power, scientific and otherwise, and their failures. The machine learning system, were it articulate, would likely admit its limitations, though. It would seem that a first step toward change would be convincing those in leadership positions the need to look at the world differently than they have. But so far, the only way that happens is after a crisis, not while it is on the horizon.

(To be clear, the list is broad. It includes social media companies who dragged their feet on dealing with hardcore hatemongers on their platforms. It includes police departments and governments that too long ignored or promoted brutality. It includes the reckoning that will someday come for the real estate industry, not just for segregation, but for being a horrid, broken mess with all sorts of crime and misery at work. It includes the climate crisis, and pollution more broadly. The gun lobby. All these myriad problems in society, all known, all coming to heads on their own timelines, but few if any actually dealt with by those in the place to do so.)

Happy Independence Day! On a personal note, my book now has a lower price, at least for the month of July.


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