Keith Kahn Harris’s book sets out to be a short analysis on what drives a lot of conspiracy theories: denial.
People deny climate change, the effectiveness of vaccines, or the Holocaust. Kahn Harris explains succinctly where some of these conspiracies are driven from — helplessness in a world that leads the less informed to believing the conspiracy of someone with an alternative agenda. But the book is short in length and short on answers.
Kahn Harris makes a distinction. “Denial” is the act of denying something, for example, claiming that you can smoke just one more cigarette and quit easily. In “denialism” , cigarettes are neither dangerous nor addictive. Kahn Harris believes that denial is often used as a veil to hide a worse or more unpalatable idea. Some businesses have good reason to deny the extent of climate change in order to maximise their profits. Some antisemites would rather deny or minimise the Holocaust than advocate the mass extermination of Jews.
With the rise of the internet, it is now far easier to spread “denialism”. Serious denialists can spread their myths, online anti-vaccination people for instance. Others wish to spread more tongue-in-cheek but still damaging “denials” — “Stalin did nothing wrong” memes for instance. Kahn-Harris is right to say that it is often irrelevant whether the message put out is believed by its originator or not. He takes the example of Trump and his prolific Twitter output.
When Trump says the New York Times has terrible numbers, or a particular public figure is “failing”, he puts the ¡message out and people can take what they want from it. Kahn-Harris makes less of an impact with his solutions. He responds to Holocaust deniers that if they truly did want to exterminate the Jews, would they not find their lives unfulfilled by not having the Jews there to hate? The rhetorical point hardly gets to the root of it.
What we need to combat this “denialism”, conspiracy theory and fake news was summed up neatly in 1938: “Face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones”. If socialists follow that maxim, we will be in a better place to confront the purveyors of denial.