Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sigma Alpha Epsilon's PR denial, and the sociology of dissociation

"You know and I know that this isn't the house we lived in," Sigma Alpha Epsilon alum Blake Burkhart writes, responding to footage of his fraternity chanting racial slurs and singing songs about lynching.

On one hand, this reads exactly like standard PR boilerplate, the sort of flat denial we're used to hearing from spokesmen and press secretaries when their bosses get caught forwarding a racist email or speaking candidly at a private fundraiser. Here, the point is obvious: to cast doubt on reporting of the incident, politicize the audience reception, and maintain the support of third parties.

But on the other hand, Burkhart isn't addressing third parties. He's explicitly talking to people who know what happened and who have personally experienced racism in SAE.

We all live in bad faith to a certian degree, ignoring our crimes and thinking about ourselves in the most positive light possible. Burkhart's formulation, however, suggests that this psychology is susceptible to the norms relentlessly cultivated by our PR industry. Denial, he has learned, is an effective and productive way to engage with inconvenient reality - whether you are dealing with customers, constitutents, or yourself.

But this dynamic should probably be understood as something more than quotidian denial, because it isn't simply coming from the internal defense mechanisms that maintain psychological homeostasis. The key point here is that this psychology is being fostered by industrial practice - that is, by the massive economic forces that make PR denials so ubiquitous and prolific. Ultimately, it's an expression of capitalism itself, which builds a massive media apparatus in which PR denial is effective and useful as a means of navigating the constant injustices and trauma inflicted by our economic system.

Or to put it in simpler terms, we have built a culture that encourages us to rely on denial as a way of dealing with our problems. And because this tendency is being driven by massive social forces, it's cultivating a pathology that invididuals are increasingly unable to resist. And as magnitude and proportion are what distinguishes mere denial from psychotic dissociation, comments like Burkhart's should probably be understood as the latter.