Industrial-Strength Denial

Jim Coben’s wife, Barbara Freese, recently published a fascinating book, Industrial-Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change.

I haven’t read it, but I assume it’s a fascinating book based on a wonderful video interview of Barbara by Joe Rogan.  Here’s a description of the book:

Corporations faced with proof that they are hurting people or the planet have a long history of denying evidence, blaming victims, complaining of witch hunts, attacking their critics’ motives, and otherwise rationalizing their harmful activities.

This book shows how far from reality corporate denial has taken people, and what harm it has done.  It is a tour through eight campaigns of denial waged by industries defending the slave trade, radium consumption, unsafe cars, leaded gasoline, ozone-destroying chemicals, tobacco, the investment products that caused the financial crisis, and the fossil fuels destabilizing our climate.  Some of the denials are appalling (slave ships are festive).  Some are absurd (nicotine is not addictive).  Some are dangerously comforting (natural systems prevent ozone depletion).  Together they reveal much about the group dynamics of delusion and deception.

Industrial-Strength Denial delves into the larger social dramas surrounding these denials, including how people outside the industries fought back using evidence and the tools of democracy.  It also explores what it is about the corporation itself that reliably promotes such denial, drawing on psychological research into how cognition and morality are altered by tribalism, power, conflict, anonymity, social norms, market ideology, and of course, money.

This is a chilling story of how institutions create falsehoods to block consensus by stimulating false doubts in the public.  Apparently, it mostly focuses on the appallingly recklessly behavior that has harmed millions of people, but Barbara talked about situations where the lies were overcome.

This has great relevance to our field of dispute resolution, as it shows how people and institutions immorally and amorally engage in strategies of deception to defeat potential consensus promoting social good.

Barbara’s work on a societal level reminds me of Jonathan Cohen’s work on individual, case, and institutional levels, especially his articles The Immorality of Denial and The Culture of Legal Denial, which are related to the disingenuous arguments that lawyers routinely make in “positional negotiation.”

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