By Metta Spencer
Special to the Toronto Star, August 6, 1983
Item: During the night before the great nuclear disarmament rally last spring in New York, an air raid siren went off. Probably someone set it off to give us a sample of the terror that we’ll feel when the real thing happens.
If so, the plan mainly failed, since almost no one paid any attention. Nor did I see it mentioned in the papers the next day or discussed during the march.
Such reactions are predictable.
Item: Sociologists who study disasters report that, instead of fleeing in panic, most people refuse to take the warnings very seriously. For example, in Mississauga three years ago. many residents had to be forced to leave their homes after a train wreck poisoned the air in their neighborhood.
An unnatural calmness in response to a life-threatening situation is surely puzzling, especially since these cases are the responses of normal people, not pathological personalities. What is the explanation?
The most convincing one I have heard was proposed by a Hamilton psychiatrist. Joanne Santa Barbara, who claims that you don’t have to be crazy to deny reality; we all do it.
We all want to think that our ideas fit together harmoniously, says Santa Barbara, but sometimes we experience “dissonance” — an uneasy situation in which we are aware of two facts that seem somehow incompatible.
For example. I may be aware that (a) exercise is healthful, and that (b) I don’t exercise very much.
The “dissonance” between these two facts will feel uncomfortable and, to reduce that discomfort. I may pick and choose which facts to notice and which to disregard.
I may skip over the newspaper articles that portray the pleasures of jogging, but read the ones about runners who drop dead. In that way, I can deny the benefits of exercise. even if I ought to know better.
This kind of thinking is called “kidding yourself.” It may not be smart, but it is certainly normal.
We all sometimes go to great lengths to deny that there’s a gap between what we do and what we believe in.
The more dangerous a situation is the more painful it feels to acknowledge that one’s actions are not an adequate response to it. Arid the more painful it is to admit, the more we tend to kid ourselves.
If we’ll deny the reality of even such a trivial danger as insufficient exercise. how much more so will we deny the reality of an impending nuclear war?
Denial serves a purpose; it reduces anxiety. The only bad part is that it prevents one from taking appropriate steps to cope with reality.
Santa Barbara compares our present situation to the coming of the Nazi menace. Today, billions of people have access to the facts about the potential nuclear holocaust, yet do not admit to themselves that it is a real possibility.
Likewise, in the early days of Nazi rule, information was publicly available about Hitler’s plans to do away with the Jews. Most people, however, found the thought too painful to acknowledge and brushed it off.
Most people today both do and do not know about the prospect of nuclear annihilation. They have heard the facts: If you tell them that there are one million Hiroshima-type bombs ready to go at any time, they nod and say that they have heard it.
But they do not really “know” it either; their responses prove that.
We resign. ourselves to a hard fate, sometimes, by pretending that we never wanted anything else. Indeed, pollsters say that after an election. a higher percentage of voters claim to have supported the winning candidate than actually voted for him.
We must expect some people to kid themselves in the same way after the cruise missile decision appears irrevocable; they will attempt to reduce their dissonance by saying, “Oh well, it probably won’t be as bad as we thought,” or even, “I always did think we should test the cruise.”
Dissonance seems to demand a justification from us — the acceptance of a third idea that makes the gap between the other two seem reasonable.
Thus, if (a) I believe in the value of exercise but (b) I don’t do much of it, I may reduce dissonance by asserting that (c) I don’t have enough time.
But unless the serene ones among us are willing to study what is available to be known on the matter, I regret to say that their serenity seems too ill-founded to be admired.
Two rationales for their serenity deserve special criticism. The first is the calm remark of the easy-going optimist: “They’d never do it. It doesn’t matter how many nuclear bombs they have because no politician will ever be crazy enough to use them.‘So don’t worry.”
Eleven occasions have been documented since Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the U.S. government either threatened to use, or seriously considered using, nuclear weapons. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon secretly threatened such an escalation of the Viet Nam war in 1969.
A second justification is offered amazingly often to support calmness in the face of impending nuclear annihilation: “The world is going to end, sure. But not one minute before God intends for it to. Since you can’t prevent it anyway, stop interfering with His plan.”
Some people seem to derive astonishing comfort from this thought — a kind of gloating. satisfaction, indeed. as if they expect to be around after it’s all over, saying “I told you so.”
Of course, if we bring God into it, we can equally assert that you can’t get out of bed in the morning until God intends for you to.
Thus sane, normal people manage to discount disturbing information — just keep it from penetrating their minds. While this serves to protect against anxiety, such contrived calmness is a luxury that we can no longer afford.
We must know the truth if we are to respond to reality and preserve the earth for other generations to inherit.
The numbness, the denial, which is humanity’s present self-indulgence, seems necessary only because the forces of destruction appear to be invincible.
But that attitude is exactly the source of our difficulty. Because we believe we can do nothing; we actually attempt nothing, thereby allowing decisions to be imposed by those who believe in using power.
Metta Spencer is a professor of sociology at University of Toronto.