6.24.2011

if the world sucks, why hasn't anyone told me? i respond to joe denial

"If that's really happening, why don't I see it in the news?"

I bet many of you may have encountered a question like this one. You're speaking to a co-worker or a classmate, or discussing an issue on a blog, or you've wandered into the comments section of an online news story. You offer a wider perspective, and you meet with a question like this one.

If millions of women are being beaten by their husbands, why don't I ever hear about it?

If First Nations people are getting cancer in unprecedented numbers, why haven't I read about it in the newspaper?

If the United States really has military bases all over the world, how come I don't know about it?


This person is not criticizing the mainstream media for not covering this issue; that's not what the question means. He's questioning the validity of a statement of fact, implying that you are grossly exaggerating an issue or even fabricating it.

If working conditions in these factories are so bad, why haven't I...

If inmates in US prisons are routinely raped and murdered, why haven't....


I've heard all these, and so many more. I've responded to each question, but I've never stopped to unpack the question itself. What's behind this irritating query? Why does this right-wing male - the only person from whom I've ever heard this question - need to deny the existence of very real issues?

If so many teenage girls are starving themselves, why don't I ever hear about it?

First, the question assumes that what this guy - call him Joe - hears and sees in the mainstream media equals What Is Happening. Joe's drive-time radio, CNN or Fox during dinner, and thumb-through of the local tabloid on his lunch break constitutes the sum total of What Is Happening. Maybe Joe also spends a lot of time online, reading headlines and some stories at mainstream news sites.

According to Joe Denial, then, if we subtract sports, weather, celebrity gossip, random crime, oddball pet stories, missing person stories, terrorism scares, and political downfalls, the remainder of what's broadcast on The News equals everything that is going on in the world. In this view, the mainstream media is a conduit to the rest of the world. News is not selected, edited and packaged, it is simply broadcast, all of it, like a giant feed from Planet Earth straight to CNN. And if it isn't in the mainstream media, it hasn't happened.

Second, Joe Denial assumes that he has seen all the news: every lengthy newspaper feature, every op-ed that references important studies (studies that often prove the very facts he is denying), every investigative news show, every magazine story. Because, of course, ongoing issues such as violence against women or environmental toxins are not "news". Unless a study is released or a sensational story breaks, these issues don't qualify as news and are reported on as features. So unless Joe D. follows every feature in every media outlet, he's not going to hear about these issues.

What's more, the above phrase "are reported on as features" ends with an implied "...when they are reported on at all". Aboriginal people getting cancer at rates alarmingly higher than those of non-Native people is not considered news, because aboriginal people are less important to the media, because they are not perceived as consumers of the products sold by the media's sponsors. Violence against women is accepted as part of our culture and only worthy of mention if an incident can be reported as a sensational crime story. Prisoners are unworthy of commentary at all; they are subhumans who deserve whatever they get, lest we be accused of being "soft on crime". And US imperialism, well, we don't look too closely at that. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

So far I've come up with these possible replies to Joe Denial's question. One, the mainstream reports on only a small fraction of what happens. Two, you don't see every media story. Three, these issues are not given high priority in our society.

But there's another possibility: the question may be a smokescreen.

Perhaps my friend Mr. Denial knows very well that just because he hasn't seen or read about something doesn't mean it's not happening. He's using the lack of visibility as a rhetorical device to deny the existence of the issue.

This leads to a different question: why do some people deny the existence of very real, well documented problems? Why is it important for so many people to pretend that a spectrum of issues - violence against women, environmental racism, prisoner abuse, US imperialism, and almost anything else you can think of - do not exist?

Here I can only speculate, and poorly at that, as this mindset is the most foreign culture I've ever visited.

Some of this denial seems to be a knee-jerk, unthinking reaction: if a progressive person is against it, I must be for it, and if I can't be for it (because who will actually say "violence against women is fine"?) then I must deny its existence.

Some of the reaction seems to stem from an underlying belief that "lefties" - as anyone who is not rigidly right-wing is called, even very moderate liberals - are heavily invested in portraying the world as a dismal place and in protest for its own sake. I'm guessing this belief relieves some cognitive dissonance: Why are these people making such a fuss? I don't see anything wrong, and I don't want to believe there are so many things wrong with my world. Therefore, they are making a fuss over nothing, because that's what they do.

Some people hate and fear change of any kind. Reasonable people may disagree on the best solution to a problem, but questioning the existence of a problem short-circuits all possibilities. If nothing's wrong, there is no need to change.

Finally, some of this ingrained, knee-jerk denial reacts against an entire worldview, one that sees women, people of colour, poor people, and others outside the imperialist-patriarchal power structure as important. Joe Denial's belief system says exactly the opposite, although not in those terms: the world was fine until you people got so uppity.

The sad part is that Joe is a working-class guy who stands to benefit greatly from my worldview. Sadly, he identifies more with his oppressors, because they are largely white and male, than with the people whose vision would offer him a better life.

That's why it's worth taking a deep breath and answering his question.

7 comments:

Kev said...

Good post!

Many of us are facing the same frustrations dealing with this attitude.

I call it debating the obvious with the obtuse

allan said...

If this type of response is so prevalent, why haven't I heard anyone use it?

laura k said...

Thanks, Kev :)

...and Allan?

johngoldfine said...

This is a wonderfully done piece, Laura.

I don't deny any of the problems you mention or any of the ones you don't touch on either, but I have a deep fatalism and pessimism and, although I'd never say 'why don't I see it in the news' (because I do see it in the news, all the fucking time), I get so angry, so frustrated, so disgusted, so miserable at the news that to function, I have to live part of my life as if--as if all those terrible things were happening somewhere else, outside my safe and happy world.

That is not an admirable attitude, but I wanted to summon as much honesty as I could in reaction to your post: as a compliment to the post, to do it the honor it deserves.

laura k said...

John, thank you so much.

I have to live part of my life as if--as if all those terrible things were happening somewhere else, outside my safe and happy world.

I think everyone does this - must do it - to some extent, even the most diehard activists.

One dividing line, I suppose - not really a clear line, more of a continuum - is how much of our lives we live in that safe, happy bubble, versus how much or how often we face the reality of the unjust world.

Some people insist on living in their own safe, happy world 100% of the time, and that's dangerous to society and to the planet.

Some people try to engage with the injustice 100% of the time, and that's dangerous to themselves.

We each have to find our own balance.

But I want more people to venture out of their bubbles more often! :)

Amy said...

Excellent piece. I think, however, that not everyone who responds with that question is necessarily a right wing male. In fact, I believe I asked that question myself, for example, regarding assertions about US knowledge of/involvement with the 9/11 attacks. My questions were sincere, expressing both some skepticism about the assertions (how could this be true and NOT be somewhere in the MM?) and dismay over the realization that the MM might be covering up something or just incompetent. Since asking those questions, I have come to learn that the MM is just like any other profit-seeing corporation, publishing what sells and what is safest, and thus I have become far less trusting and naive in my assumptions about where the truth lies.

So maybe some of those responding this way are like I was: they just need to be educated. I still sometimes wish for corroboration of stories in what I consider the more reliable sources in the MM, but I sadly understand now that not everything that happens makes the "news."

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy, great perspective.

In my experience, these questions have only come from right-wing males - although that certainly doesn't mean they're the only people who do this.

I do think these folks need to be educated! But I don't think they're asking the question out of naivete. It's asked in a tone that conveys belligerence, hostility, and dismissal, rather than a legitimate request for information.

And they still need to be educated. :)