The Denial Barrier & It’s Effects On Activism

Since really starting to make a push with human rights activism I have kept coming up against the same barrier. A rather specific form of denial, the denial of ones mortality, which is something hardwired into nearly all of us. It’s something I really want to talk about but I’ve not been really sure how to approach it. After a bit of an email to and fro I’ve decided to just type out my thoughts in the hope it goes somewhere useful.

The denial of mortality (or Denial of Death as written about by Ernest Becker) I’m going to try to explain what I understand of this concept now, bear with me, I’m not a Psychology student but I’ll do my best. The general idea is that people’s minds, for their own protection, work hard not to think about our own mortality. Where we all know on some level we are going to die it still doesn’t really sink in. A large part of many of us thinks death is something that is a) a long way off, b) happens to other people, c) is totally outside of our control (so there is no point worrying about it) and d) can be avoided by taking precautions.

Psychologists talk about a cognitive barrier set up to protect us from the damage to our mental well being that can occur when we realise just how fragile our existence is. As someone with PTSD with a lot of acquaintances with the disorder I regularly see first hand the ‘damage’ the trauma of being exposed to your mortality can do to ones sense of self. In many ways this barrier is a good protective force. Without it leaving the house and/or talking to other people would become so anxiety provoking our lives and independence would suffer greatly.

This defensive barrier is denial in the psychological sense which manifests in the following ways;

  • It produces a desire to ‘minimise‘ the danger by acknowledging it is out there but telling us it’s not really that big of an issue it needs thinking about/ dealing with.
  • It tries to ‘rationalise’ the risk by reassuring those listening that there is a good chance it won’t be them (which feeds the minimisation) or by working out rules to keep us safe (like not wearing short skirts if we want to avoid rape or driving carefully to avoid disablement via car crash).
  • When someone tells us an uncomfortable truth it causes us to ‘project’ our feelings of disquiet onto them, so we can tell ourselves they are not worth listening to.

The issue is that this ‘denial & minimisation’ of our mortality seems to extend to a lot of causes close to my heart. Disability and women’s rights being two big ones. I’m sure there are intersections with other civil rights struggles too, but as I don’t know the areas well I don’t feel equipped to comment.

Disability & Denial

In the UK today the majority of disabled people become disabled after the age of 18, 1 in 5 people of working age and 1 in 2 people aged 65 are covered by the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act). You’d think those kind of figures would make it pretty overwhelmingly apparent that we will all be touched by disability in our life times, yet most non-disabled people still believe that disability happens to other people or that it is something that can be avoided.

Becoming seriously sick (like developing cancer) or being maimed (loosing the use of limb(s), organ(s) or whole sections of ones body) is not a pleasant thought for most people. For many it mentally equates with being given a death sentence. As a result people’s minds minimise the likelihood of it happening to them. The same seems to happen with other illnesses and serious accidents that could lead to disablement. People just don’t want to think about it. Not because they are callous or uncaring, but because, in many way they are wired that way. It’s the force that tells people disability is sad, just too depressing to think about. It’s the force that helps make people feel awkward and change the channel when faced with a advert trying to raise awareness about an important issue. It’s part of the force that champions the ‘just world fallacy’ which makes people assume that disabled people were either born that way or became disabled through reckless or immoral behaviour. It’s one of the reasons why people the idea that most people who say they are disabled must be lying sits so comfortably with people – that way the chances of actually becoming disabled/chronically sick/terminally ill are minimised once more. It’s a huge barrier for the disability rights groups to cross because until currently non-disabled people start paying attention to disability rights and taking our desire for rights not charity seriously we find ourselves less able to make gains.

Feminism & Denial

It’s not just with regards to disability either. Currently 1 in 4 UK women will experience domestic violence in their lives, over 1 in 5 will be sexually assaulted and between 1 in 6 to 1 in 10 (depending on stats used) will report being raped. Still, most women who have not already been the victims of these crimes don’t expect them to directly impact on their lives or they think they can behave in certain manners and avoid the issue.

I regularly read blog posts from feminists telling of their shock when they were abused by someone close to them and that being a feminist didn’t serve as a shield/radar. Many of these stories all have an uncomfortable touch of “I behaved in ‘x’ manner so I thought it wouldn’t happen to me”. These people were familiar with the statistics and the forms abuse can take but on some level didn’t think it was ever going to happen to them.  I’m not going to list all the ways denial makes getting the message out about gendered abuse, harassment, assault and horrid acts like Female Genital Mutilation difficult. I’m sure you’ve got the picture by now.

Dealing With Denial

Even though we can’t get rid of this barrier (well, not without harming the person we are trying to raise the awareness of) we can acknowledge it’s existence. By knowing it is there we can try to challenge it when we run into it. By understanding it’s a protective force existing within many (if not all) of us we can try to be more patient with people being influenced by it. By talking about it we can hopefully find more productive ways of engaging with our audience. We can also try to see it in ourselves when we jump to conclusions about someones personality or take a dislike to someone telling us things we don’t want to hear. If we can’t challenge it in ourselves we have no right to expect other people to do the same.

  1. I found this post so interesting that I wrote an entire blog post in response. 🙂

    Incidentally, I can't speak for other women, but personally, when I've expressed shock about experiencing abuse whilst feminists, I've never thought about it in terms of behaviour. To me, it's about being able to make an argument in one context and failing to apply the same argument in another – a kind of cognitive hyprocrisy. Which is shocking, when you realise – just as it's always very shocking for abuse survivors to realise the full extent of what has happened.

    But it's not all that surprising. After all, much egalitarianism comes from arguments we've had with ourselves about identity and self worth – when you realise you're worth fighting for, you begin to fight for others. So it seems unsurprising that some of us aren't as far through that argument, about our own self worth, as we might imagine.

    I hope that makes sense.


  2. It's late – so I'm sorry if this reply isn't very concise.

    It does make sense, I guess I assume the shock experienced – the cognitive hypocrisy you speak of – comes from the same 'I should have noticed/realised' place that most survivors go to at some point or another. I was referring to the way it seems to get exacerbated (by some) by the fact that as a feminist, with all that knowledge, it still happened. It didn't make it less likely. In short, it didn't serve as any form of protection. I wasn't intending to dismiss or insult feminists that have written pieces like that. Over the years I've spent a lot of time recovering and written plenty expressing my shock that an educated/ successful/ independent woman like myself was open to abuse. Of course, where I realise that getting my story out and helping to break the stereotypes that victims of domestic violence are unemployed/ poorly educated/ live in rough areas etc… But, at the same time I can see that those exclamations also came from my shock that being privileged in many ways didn't protect me. Part of me always assumed that domestic violence didn't happen to people like me because I didn't fit the stereotype, the stereotype I had internalised and used to help me deny domestic violence was something that would happen to me.

    To respond a little to the question asked by your superb blog post, I think empathy is actually quite important. Not everything, but high up there. When I say empathy I want to make it clear that I do not mean pity, I mean understanding. We need disabled, disabled (but non-identifying) and non-disabled people to understand why our cause is important. We need them to think about it when they vote, when they decide if they are going to build accessible shops, when they decide where they are going to host events and when they decide if they feel government policies need challenging. If denial is stopping people taking these issues seriously or connecting with them in a manner that is useful then I think it's something that needs taken into account.


  3. Thank you for an interesting approach to the topic. It helped me think through some things, particularly in aspects with PTSD and feminism (which often, like therapy, is the bit of 'dirty' that people who seem themselves as archtypes of good write might occur with others, but not themselves, or at least this is how I have experienced it – that to say I have had therapy or counselling is to acknowledge some sort of weakness, either of character, of philosophy or will – I am 'damaged goods' as a feminist, a person and thus my ideas, and my person is flawed – which oddly, we are not supposed to be. I am not sure where the idea that feminists, or our application or understand of ourselves and feminism is a work in progress but instead something one has or has not but it is how I have found people presenting themsevles and viewing others). The idea that a feminist with PTSD is somehow less a female, in the same way Greer refers to females with intersex conditions; that what they are is not relevant as feminists are only discussing 'pure women' and that is what someone with PTSD cannot be – to paraphrase a rather famous Greer quote, but an attitude which not only avoids the issue entirely but elevates the person who responds in this way.

    I am not, at least from my experience of PTSD and those close to me, by physical and sexual abuse, convinced this has to do with death but rather outcomes over which there is no or limited choices, or ones in which the choices require a loss, perhaps of self, perhaps of others.

    In the US, it was the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) which got the legal basis for disability laws and human rights passed by personalizing it: we are elderly, thus this is or will be us. How this occurred when people, even those who have had partially disabled experiences, so consistantly self identify as having nothing in common with those who are disabled, is something I have not worked out – as it would enable great leaps in advocating.

    Regarding the PTSD and the abuse, much like the habit, even today, of putting the woman being abused on trial, not the person who abused them, physically or sexually it seems to mirror the idea that being abused is the crime, not abusing. And it is something hard to not believe after or while being abused. I have not been able to see the connection to death. But I have oft seen the connection between justifying abusive acts by individuals or groups in regards to feminism. For example, again in the US, the dumping of out lesbians from the feminist movement in 1975, which was an abusive act, was self excused because 'lesbians were hurting the progress and acceptance of feminism.'

    In the same way, the extremely high percentage of same sex partners in lesbian or bisexual relationships are simply never addressed, either in feminism or lesbian culture because 'to do so would hinder the movement' – which ends of leaving a person who has been physically abused in a same sex relationship as implied to blame. In the same way, the open notices in UK lesbian dating and other groups against post transition transsexuals is often justified by claiming that the person's existance is itself an attack on women; so exclusion isn't abuse, it is self preservation. Also, the active and open verbal, emotional and sometimes physical abuse within lesbian groups of those with disabilities (particularly severe toward those with PTSD or mental disabilities), which I have found in UK, US and Canadian groups, is something I cannot find a way past even if it is acknowledged. How would you see the next step progressing in this way? Gay male groups, originally having this same 'body purity and desirability' were forced to deal with it due to AIDS and HIV, while lesbians groups did not.


  4. Thanks for a really thought provoking comment!

    It's really difficult getting marginalised groups to take stock of disability in a constructive manner – be it mental, physical, congenital, learning or another disability. They are normally very quick to generally ally themselves but getting them to really consider access can be hard. Many will mention (dis)ableist language as not being allowed, but words like 'crazy' and 'mental' will slip out. Many will say they welcome disabled members but meetings will be held in inaccessible places. I wrote a quick 'making spaces accessible guide' recently: full of ideas for groups looking to improve access. I made sure that I covered both direct & indirect access so that things that help people with mental health problems were covered.

    With regards to LGBTIQ groups and disability I'm trying to awareness raise about disabled people's issues and how they intersect as well as how they are a matter for everyone in the community. I feel one reason that in the UK disabled people are left out of the mainstream LGBTIQ discourse is that they are rarely physically present or openly identifying as disabled at community events. In the UK this is partly because access is shocking, especially to the majority of clubs and bars where networking is done and events are arranged. Hopefully we can keep plugging away at get helpful recognition at some point in the near future 🙂


  5. I'm sure you weren't dismissing anyone – I was concerned that you might have thought there was implicit blame in there. Sometimes, accounts can edge in that direction. You see it especially in accounts of rape, where, if someone says, “I was sober and modesty dressed.” it's sometimes unclear whether they mean, “so the stereotypes are nonsense.” or “so I didn't deserve this.”

    And of course, when you've been through it, it's very easy to be sensitive about the subtleties (I am, anyway!). Thus my concern.

    I think maybe I'm confusing empathy – which of course is necessary part of all our being decent to others and… well, a particular model of empathy, which requires imagining yourself with the particulars of in their position. Because, unless you are very unhappy, imagining any massive change to your life is likely to elicit sympathy with people like that – I feel sorry for people with male bodies and people with straight sexualities, and those things come with great social privilege!

    When it comes to disability, well many (though not all) disabled people would rather not have their impairments, so the sympathy is even greater.

    Perhaps part of the problem is the way we speak about these things; “Imagine you couldn't walk.” produces a different effect to “Imagine you couldn't travel by public transport without making special arrangements in advance and planning your trip around a limited number of stops and stations.” However, when people hear “disability” they think about bodies (only sometimes minds) as opposed to having ridiculous restrictions placed on one's life.


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