‘You Can’t Handle the Truth…’

One of the most famous lines in movie history comes from the film ‘A Few Good Men’ released in 1992. The film, directed by the hugely underrated director Rob Reiner (just look at his filmography!), was based on a play by Aaron Sorkin and was concerned with holding those in power, in this case in the military, to account. Tom Cruise’s youthful, green-about-the gills prosecutor is questioning Colonel Nathan R. Jessop, a deeply conservative, and deeply intimidating figure, in the witness stand. Pushed for the truth behind the death of two black marines, Jessop delivers the famous line: ‘You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.’ He implies that the public don’t want to know what it takes to keep the fantasy of their country going because, if they did, it would burst the bubble.

Sad thing is? I think he’s right.

In ‘Don’t Look Up’, Adam McKay’s prestigious new movie, released on Christmas Eve on Netflix, two astronomers, played by Leonardo diCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, discover a meteor heading directly for the Earth and predict an ‘extinction level’ catastrophe but are met with a bemusing lack of concern which escalates into total denial despite the overwhelming evidence. It’s a nice conceit, well supported with excellent comic turns from Meryl Streep as a female Trump-alike, and a brilliantly obnoxious Jonah Hill as a sycophantic Chief of Staff.

It is, of course, a satire primarily about the looming environmental crisis and our collective failure to act despite consistent warnings. But it is the flagrant denial that anything is wrong, not just with the environment but with our society, that we should find as chilling. McKay portrays an America where the truth is there to be manipulated, denied or ignored, not that this is purely an American problem. Facts are challenged by politicians, or dismissed as too negative by the media. The impending disaster is politicised; ‘Don’t Look Up’ becomes a slogan for the government, one that a huge swathe of the population adopt and support. Anything but face the reality.

Another blockbuster movie this Christmas was the new Matrix movie. I’ll come clean, I haven’t seen it but the very fact that, at this moment in our history, another movie in a franchise which is all about mankind choosing to ignore their reality is released is fascinating.

Avoiding reality, or at least, avoiding hearing what we don’t want to hear, is all too easy. Don’t like the news? It’s because they’re biased. Don’t like the scientists? It’s because they’re politicised. Don’t like being wrong? Never, ever admit it.

This is denial. According to the famed Kubler-Ross model of 1969, denial is the first stage in the human response to loss. In this stage, grievers refuse to accept the validity of the prognosis, searching instead for a false but preferable reality. The model suggests that humans will hide from the truth to avoid pain and according to Kubler-Ross herself, can be applied to a range of circumstances, not just the grieving process. The concern is that people in this state are easily misled when times are challenging. Like now. Times are undeniably difficult and people genuinely feel some degree of loss. COVID-19, Brexit, climate change, energy crises, culture wars, the potential for real war in Ukraine. It is understandable that so many of us are looking for an escape, an answer to the question ‘What the fuck is going on?’ but one which is palatable. Politicians know this; so do the media.

Capitol Hill, January 2021: Denial spills into anger

Let’s take Boris Johnson and Donald Trump as examples. People in both countries wanted to believe in a strong leader, who had clear simple answers to the complex problems of modern existence. Leaders who ‘said it like it is’, who were ‘one of us.’ And so, when evidence began to appear that the Russians had Trump in their pockets, Trump was able to dismiss the reports as ‘fake news’ and the people bought it. When he lost the election, Trump was able to simply deny the numbers were accurate, and enough people wanted to believe him that they marched on Capitol Hill, rampaging through the once hallowed corridors of power threatening violence towards Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. And here, in Britain, with Boris Johnson and his cabinet in the midst of ‘Partygate’, many are suggesting that the accusations are being manipulated by a left-wing media to bring down their man. The Conservatives are looking to shift attention from themselves to the BBC, choosing this moment to attack the licence fee, in a blatant bit of populist politics. Because they know people would rather believe in the politician they voted for than the ‘biased’ reporters. To be clear, this is not party political. The same denial was evident within the Labour Party throughout Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as the reports of antisemitism grew.

At each juncture, the people, so desperate to believe that everything is still alright, accepted anything rather than admit to the less acceptable reality that maybe they got it wrong. We let them off. We accept what they say because we don’t want to hear the truth. Col. Jessop was right. We can’t handle it, and they know it. So their behaviour gets worse whilst they placate the public with falsehoods and distraction.

This denial extends into all facets of life. The climate is ok, it’s all scare-mongering. Extinction Rebellion are loonies. The royal family are great, it’s all a left-wing conspiracy. Statues of rich and powerful men with a history of exploitative practices are ‘part of our history’ and ‘shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards.’ Whatever they are. Just so long as the radio keeps playing Queen tunes, we’ll all be okay.

The next step in Kubler-Ross’ model is more worrying still. That is frustration, and anger. Once those dealing with loss have exhausted their denial, then they become angry, kicking out against what they perceive to be the blockage, becoming aggressive towards the perceived problem. Discourse in the US has begun to include references to civil war. A populace fuelled on the exploitation of their denial is exploding into anger. Propaganda from the left and the right is increasingly divisive and, well, angry and there are prominent figures who are only too happy to prod the hornet’s nest, to exploit the nation’s mood.

If we follow the Kubler-Ross model through, then what we need to move towards is an understanding and an acceptance of the world that we live in, and our place in it. To strive for a recognition of what we have lost; some might think this is an identity, or the security that our leaders know best. We may feel that we have lost the things that we thought we stood for. Okay. Let’s accept that things have changed, for better or for worse and then let’s look to move forwards. Let’s not live in denial, looking to blame the messengers, attacking those that present us with uncomfortable information and accepting any old bollocks rather than what evidence is showing us.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please like or follow. And feel free to comment. Cheers.

2 thoughts on “‘You Can’t Handle the Truth…’”

  1. add not handling the truth to the output from Tversky and Kahneman’s research program on heuristics and biases, maybe only philosophy can save us, if we had the time to dig in?


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