I argued against introduction of the terms ‘denialist’ and ‘denier’ to the climate change debate, but I was unsuccessful.
Sadly, it was predictable that uptake of these expressions would be swift and near-universal by westerners concerned about human modification of the environment and supportive of urgent action on the issue of human-induced climate change (just to be clear, I’m in that category).
Now, in early 2011, articles about climate change in the western media rarely lack references to ‘climate change deniers’, sometimes shortened to ‘deniers’ or ‘denialists’ – either in the body text, the comments or both. The concept of ‘denial’ has become deeply embedded in our new discourse about climate change, for better or for worse.
In my opinion, it’s definitely for worse! I dislike use the term ‘denier’ or any of its derivatives in discussions about climate change, because it:
- presents a false dichotomy – an simplistic yes/no choice, supposedly subject either to affirmation or denial. In reality the isssues are far more subtle and cannot neatly be reduced to two options
- is an act of rhetorical arrogance, akin to labelling one’s adversary ‘Mr/Ms Stupid’. A more neutral term such as ‘sceptic’ is more conducive to fair and respectful discourse.
- is associated in the public mind with a term widely used in preceding decades: ‘Holocaust denier’. The association is inappropriate and counter-productive.
The third of these points may be least obvious.
The issue of what, since around the 1970s, has been commonly referred to in English as ‘The Holocaust’ is a complex historical and historiographical topic. It’s an entirely different subject with no direct relevance to climate change. Yet the validity of the orthodox view within that quite separate debate – and the error of unorthodox views – is tacitly assumed and ‘built in’ to usage of the expression. As I noted above, the term ‘denier’ might be therefore be replaced with ‘Mr Stupid’ or ‘fruitloop’, without much changing the meaning of a sentence. That amounts to intellectual dishonesty.
The only possible beneficiary of common usage of this newly embedded term are those keen to promote orthodoxy on the issue of ‘The Holocaust’. It confers no advantage on the discussion of climate change.
It’s far better to keep the complex issue of competing narratives over what happened during World War Two separate from the pressing and current issue of global climate change. However, since the association has already been made – and since we incessantly receive reminders of that fact – it’s not inappropriate to point out that the issue of so-called ‘Holocaust denial’ occupies a quite unparalleled niche in contemporary western culture. Uniquely, to my knowledge, it’s subject to legal sanction in more than 10 jurisdictions worldwide, through laws that stipulate historical truth and render scholarly dissent illegal.
Even in western countries where ‘Holocaust denial’ is not, at present, a crime, dissidents have suffered extreme discrimination and persecution for expressingly these unorthodox beliefs, ranging from murder to fire-bombing of property, legal harrassment and attacks on career and reputation.
Whether or not one believes such persecution to be appropriate in the case of so-called ‘Holocaust denial’ is one matter. I do not – but let’s leave that subject aside for now.
More directly relevant to the politics of climate change is that use of the term ‘climate change denier’ carries the not-so-subtle implication that anyone resisting ‘scientific consensus’ over climate change may merit extreme repression of a similar kind.
The effect has been like a red rag to a bull. It’s contributed to what was already becoming a fractious disputation, making yobbo-style ‘get stuffed’ reactions from the ‘denier’ camp even more inevitable, especially once (in the case of climate change) shock-jocks and print-media equivalents jumped on the bandwagon, hurling their own terms of abuse back in retaliation. At present, the rather tame word ‘warmist’ seems the most popular of those… though there are occasional mutterings about the ‘fascist’ climate change ‘establishment’.
With so much noise in the debate it’s not surprising quality has gone astray…
While Hollywood may be fond of nice simple plots with wise heroes and foolish villains, real life is usually more complex. That’s certainly the case with respect to the subjects of climate change and the politics associated with climate change. A simplistic ‘affirmer-denier’ distinction is – quite simply – an absurdity.
In general, the quality of discussion about climate change would benefit from a shift to risk analysis. It’s ironic perhaps, but we may most easily find rational common ground by sharing recognition of uncertainty.
Oh… and by the way, open debate about science, the future, history, politics, culture – and any other subject – is NOT a crime. It should never be subject to suppression. Open debate is essential for the advancement in human understanding. Criminalisation of any opinion is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The real crime is the attempt to criminalise what is categorised as ‘denial’ – not the act of ‘denial’ itself.
How can western civilisation survive if we deny ourselves freedom to apply the Socratic method?