Thursday, 30 March 2017

Denial Screening & Film Essay

Tinted Lens: Denial 
Experimentica Film Festival Special

The screening at Chapter Arts Centre ( will be followed by an expert panel discussion and audience debate to explore some of the themes raised by this film. The panel will explore philosophical, neuroscience and the social and cultural perspectives on misinformation and the news, the psychology of prejudice and how the state and the legal system responds to holocaust denial.

In the mid-1990s, Dr Deborah E. Lipstadt gave a talk about her acclaimed book “Denying the Holocaust,” when David Irving boorishly interrupted her lecture and sued her for defamation of character. By law Deborah must lead a battle for historical truth to prove her statements about Irving. A very timely look at fake news and the views of the Alt-Right.
Dir: Mick Jackson With: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott

A collaboration between Chapter Arts Centre, the British Film Institute (Film hub Wales) and Cardiff University, this programme of events curated by Dr Katie Featherstone will explore contemporary social and cultural developments and the ideas found within new-release, cult and classic film, with a focus on understandings of the mind, human behaviour, memory, the life-course, and ageing.  The film screening starts at 5.45pm Monday the 3rd of April, Chapter Arts Centre. Followed by the free panel discussion and debate. Speakers are: 

Andy Williams, School of Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies will draw on his work on misinformation and the news (centred on corporate, scientific and political communication).

Tony Manstead, School of Psychology will discuss prejudice, in-group guilt and motivated reasoning.

Beke Zwingmann, Law and Politics will discuss how can the law deal with holocaust denial (and hate speech more widely) and should it? Whose responsibility is it? The state's or ours as citizens?

Denial Film Essay

Antony Manstead
Professor of Psychology
Cardiff University

I am a psychologist, and some of you might reasonably expect a psychologist to offer an explanation for David Irving’s behaviour before, during and after the events depicted in the film. Frankly, I am not sure that I can do that. As Deborah Lipstadt herself said in a radio interview I heard at the time this film was first released in the UK, it is hard to find a rational explanation for something that is so deeply irrational. To explain Irving’s behaviour one would need a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist, not a social psychologist, which is what I am. Social psychologists try to explain human behaviour in terms of the social context – the ways we are influenced by the social environment. Using this approach, I hope to shed some light on why people might be motivated to engage in Holocaust denial.

The first and most obvious factor from a social psychological perspective is prejudice. We are all familiar with the concept of prejudging others on the basis of gender, race, or sexual orientation. Anti-Semitism has a very long history and Holocaust denial can be seen as particularly pernicious expression of this prejudice. But why should it matter to those with anti-Semitic views whether the Holocaust did or did not happen? After all, if you hold deeply anti-Semitic views, why would you want to deny these events? In the perverse world of extreme anti-Semitism, you might even expect people to think that the Holocaust was a good thing.

However, the Holocaust was on such a scale, with its industrialization of genocide, that it challenges two aspects of the anti-Semitic worldview. First, it reflects badly on the perpetrators. Even if you are deeply prejudiced against Jews, sending defenceless men, women and children to the gas chambers may be ghastly enough to challenge your identification with the perpetrators. So if you admire an authoritarian, white supremacist approach to political and social issues, you may be unsettled by the notion that people who share your views could have done such things. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it evokes sympathy for the victims. We know from research that presenting people with evidence that members of their own group were responsible for harming another group in the past increases support for compensating the victim group (Imhoff, Wohl, & Erb, 2013).

This brings me to the second factor I want to discuss, which is collective guilt. We can feel guilty about something that members of our own group did, even if we ourselves were not involved in doing it. This is what we call collective guilt. In everyday language we might use the term ‘guilty by association’. For example, if you identify as British, you might experience intense feelings of discomfort when learning about the slave trade, despite the fact that you yourself had nothing to do with the slave trade. The reason that it is so uncomfortable to experience is that our group memberships are important to us – they are central to our sense of who we are, our sense of identity. Being confronted with evidence that fellow members of our group have committed crimes against humanity is threatening because it undermines our own identity. One way to respond to feelings of collective guilt is to acknowledge the wrongdoing and seek to compensate the victims. Another way is to question the evidence of wrongdoing.

We know from research that If members of a group attach great importance to a particular group membership, they are less likely to accept information that portrays the group negatively (Doosje, Branscombe, Spears & Manstead, 1998). For example, highly patriotic people will have more difficulty accepting that their compatriots have acted cruelly towards others. We also know that it is easier for highly identified people to dismiss negative information about their group when they are told that the information comes from an outgroup source. So it is not surprising to find that Holocaust deniers argue that documentary evidence of genocide was forged, after World War II, by people working for world Jewry. It is an easy way to discredit the evidence. What better way to defend the integrity of your identity, when it is challenged, than to argue that the evidence of wrongdoing by your own group has been faked?

This relates to the third factor I want to discuss, which is motivated reasoning. When we are given information that challenges our lifestyles or worldviews or corporate interests, we are motivated to find flaws in the evidence or argumentation. We don’t want to accept the information, so we start to look for holes in the evidence or the arguments. The Holocaust, like many societally significant events, is a complex phenomenon. It was not a single event with a single outcome and a single actor who was clearly responsible for that outcome. Instead, it was complex in the form that it took, in the consequences that it had for its many victims, and in the personal responsibility for those consequences of the many perpetrators who were involved. This very complexity creates an opportunity for the Holocaust denier to engage in motivated reasoning.

One way for the denier to do this is to be selective about the evidence. We all know a smoker who is keen to tell you about his or her relative who lived to be 94 despite smoking 20 cigarettes a day, and uses this to cast doubt on the link between smoking and lung cancer. The same is true of Holocaust deniers like Irving. For example, Irving seized on something called the Leuchter Report, which he claimed showed that there was no evidence of cyanide in the brickwork of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. This is despite the fact that the author of the report, Fred Leuchter, had no formal qualifications in toxicology or engineering.

Another way for the denier to engage in motivated reasoning is to argue that the evidence pointing to what they do not want to accept as true is part of a conspiracy. Research shows that 20% of US residents believe that climate change “is a hoax perpetrated by corrupt scientists who wish to spend more taxpayer money on climate change research” (Lewandowsky et al., 2013).

In 2014 the Anti-Defamation League published a survey containing 11 questions that were posed to tens of thousands of respondents in nearly 100 countries. Around half the respondents had heard of the Holocaust. Among them, one-third did not believe that the Holocaust had happened. Instead, they thought it was a hoax perpetrated by people with a political agenda.

This, I think, is the most troubling aspect of the Irving story and others like it. By claiming that the Holocaust is a hoax, he feeds the conspiracy theories of gullible others. We are told that we live in a post-factual world. Our own political leaders encourage us to be sceptical about experts, while the leader of the free world proclaims that anything that does not fit into his worldview is “FAKE NEWS!!!”. Continually casting doubt on the truthfulness of evidence that is uncomfortable for your political agenda is effective. In a world in which many people get their news through social media, a false but sensational denial of something that is true can be retweeted hundreds of thousands of times. By the time it has been established that the ‘facts’ were indeed facts, not fake, the damage has been done.

David Irving claims that “Interest in my work has risen exponentially in the last two or three years. And it’s mostly young people. I’m getting messages from 14, 15, 16-year-olds in America. They find me on YouTube. There are 220 of my lectures on YouTube, I believe, and these young people tell me how they’ve stayed up all night watching them. They get in touch because they want to find out the truth about Hitler and the second world war. They ask all sorts of questions. I’m getting up to 300 to 400 emails a day. And I answer them all. I build a relationship with them” (The Observer, January 15 2017).

This is how we end up in a world in which vaccinations ‘cause autism’, climate change ‘is a hoax’, the slave trade ‘never happened’, and the Holocaust ‘is a conspiracy perpetrated by Jews and their allies’, rather than a real event perpetrated by Nazis that caused the deaths of millions of Jews.

We should not be equivocal on this issue. If we let the deniers off the hook, we feed the growing trend to distrust scholarship and research. There is a well-known quote by US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that seems highly appropriate in this context: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."


Doosje, B., Branscombe, N. R., Spears, R., & Manstead, A. S. R. (1998). Guilty by association: When one’s group has a negative history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 872-886.

Imhoff, R., Wohl, M. J. A., & Erb, H-P. (2013). When the past is far from dead: How ongoing consequences of genocides committed by the ingroup impact collective guilt. Journal of Social Issues, 69, 74-91.

Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E., & Oberauer, K. (2013). The role of conspiracist ideation and worldviews in predicting rejection of science. PloS ONE, 8(10): e75637.
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