“Denial” is an ordinary English word meaning to assert the untruth of something. Recently, however, it has acquired a further polemical sense. To “deny” in this new sense is to repudiate some commonly professed doctrine. Denial is the secular form of blasphemy; deniers are scorned, ridiculed and sometimes prosecuted.
Where does this new usage come from? There is an old sense of “deny,” akin to “disown,” which no doubt lies in the background. (A traitor denies his country; Peter denied Christ.) But the more immediate source is Freud. Denial in the Freudian sense is the refusal to accept a painful or humiliating truth. Sufferers are said to be in a “state of denial” or simply “in denial.” This last phrase entered general use in the early 1990s and launched “denial” on its modern career. “Holocaust denial” was the first political application, followed closely by “Aids denial,” “global warming denial” and a host of others. An abstract noun, “denialism,” has recently been coined. It is perhaps no accident that denial’s counterpart, affirmation, has meanwhile acquired laudatory overtones. We “affirm” relationships, achievements, values. Ours is a relentlessly positive culture.
An accusation of “denial” is serious, suggesting either deliberate dishonesty or self-deception. The thing being denied is, by implication, so obviously true that the denier must be driven by perversity, malice or wilful blindness. Few issues warrant such confidence. The Holocaust is perhaps one, though even here there is room for debate over the manner of its execution and the number of its victims. A charge of denial short-circuits this debate by stigmatising as dishonest any deviation from a preordained conclusion. It is a form of the argument ad hominem: the aim is not so much to refute your opponent as to discredit his motives. The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.