on August 10, 2009
I agree with other reviewers that possibly the biggest caveat to give about this book is that only 87 pages of the total 162 are the actual text, the other 75 pages are endnotes, a bibliography, and the index. So the almost $15 price tag may seem steep. However, I'm not sure why some reviewers (here and at other places) are making that big of a deal out of this. I mean, we frequently come across edited works where we say of just one essay in the book, "So and so's essay alone was worth the price of the book." Indeed, the majority of these lauded essays are less than 87 pages! So, if you're really into the psychology and sociology (and even the epistemology) of denial, perhaps the content will be worth the price of the book. In fact, isn't that what we really want in a good book? Good content? Surely people wouldn't rave over a book that was 1,000 pages long of meaningless fluff. So I think some make too much of this fact. Still, it's only fair to point out that you're getting less than 100 pages of content with this book. But, it's also fair to point out that good content is necessarily qualitative and not quantitative.
Besides this minor agreement, I have more substantive disagreements with some of the reviews (here and elsewhere) I've read. It is simply false that Zerubavel (Board of Governors Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University) just uses illustrations from literature and movies to make his points. He appeals just as much, or more, illustrations from history, every day social interactions (in the family, workplace, and marketplace), and a wide range of other substantive contexts. The reasons he uses such wide-ranging illustrations is "in order to emphasize the distinctly generic properties of conspiracies of silence" (14). Furthermore, others complained that Zerubavel was to abstract in his illustrations, that he was too general. But this is an odd criticism considering Zerubavel discusses it on pages 14-16. Zerubavel claims to be writing on a topic which he claims has been ignored, especially in his field. The sociology of noticing has received a lot of attention, but not the sociology of ignoring. Thus Zerubavel claims that in order start analyzing universal social processes the sociologist must justify his claim to generality by testing his thesis in diverse contexts, connecting facts previously treated as unrelated, thus identifying common patterns in diverse, both geographically and temporally, culturally specific events (cf. 14-15). It is a wonder, therefore, why people would bring this aspect of Zerubavel's book up as a criticism, especially without interacting with his stated justification of the matter! The final critique of the book that I take issue with is that some people think they can trap Zerubavel in some kind of self-referential incoherency. They ask how he can write a book on the sociology of silence about and ignoring of proverbial elephants in the room since to do so he has to speak about it and not ignore it. This is such a petty criticism that it hardly deserves comment. First, to have any hope of indexing self-referential incoherency to Zerubavel, this topic would have to be an elephant in the room! Second, even if this book's subject is an elephant in the room no one wants to talk about, Zerubavel claims that we need to break the silence and talk about the elephants, no matter how hard or socially unacceptable this may be at the time. Sometimes you just have to wonder what if people are reading the things they are critiquing.
In this book Zerubavel discusses the phenomena of the private act of noticing that is so often in tension with the public act of acknowledging. Like in the original story of the king with no clothes, everyone privately noticed that the king had no clothes yet no one wanted to publicly acknowledge this for various reasons. This story highlights for Zerubavel the social phenomena he calls the conspiracy of silence. This happens when a group of people tacitly agree to outwardly ignore something of which they are inwardly aware. To better understand this phenomena Zerubavel looks at denial, extending this beyond the usual psychological conceptions and into the sociology of denial. From here Zerubavel looks at many familiar stories---both factual and fiction---and brings out how the sociology of denial, silence, and avoidance of the proverbial elephant in the room functions in a community of "conspirators". These "conspiracies" do not revolve around largely unnoticeable matters simply overlooked, but "highly conspicuous matters we deliberately try to avoid"; hence, the elephant metaphor. Thus, avoidance of elephants in the room, if anyone fails to notice it, "can only be the result of deliberate avoidance, since otherwise it would be quite impossible not to notice it. Indeed, to ignore an elephant [in the room:] is to ignore the obvious." So, all persons in the room with the elephant would be internally aware of the elephant, yet they wouldn't publicly acknowledge it. This public avoidance of the obvious needs the help of the others for it to work. So dissenters are subject to mistreatment if they bring it to attentions, and the more powerful will always try to control what can be talked about, even seen or heard. The more people involved in ignoring the obvious, the easier it is to ignore it. But eventually, and paradoxically (according to Zerubavel), the growing tension and stress of silence about the obvious makes it harder to continue to ignore the elephant.
All these interesting facets of the sociology of denying the obvious are looked into in more detail throughout the book. Zerubavel points out how common ignoring obvious things actually are, and it ranges from the mundane (the piece of food on someone's teeth that a group all notices but says nothing about) to the humanly important (how the Nazi's acted with regard to concentration camps, how those living near the camps acted, and how the Jews acted for the years to follow; or, how families act when one member has sexually abused another). It happens among laymen as well as (and especially, Zerubavel tells us) in the academy, even among many scientists (his own science included). He lays out the general rules for public denial and shows how such "conspiracies" operate among the masses.
This book would be of obvious interest to the sociologist. But it will also be helpful for the philosopher studying the philosophy or epistemology of self-deception (as it offers a lot of data from which to include in analysis). However, I want to recommend this book to two other types: the religious philosopher and the pastor. For the first, the book is relevant to the topic of the natural knowledge of God and the various ways this "knowledge" has been viewed. Regardless of how you conceive of this knowledge, it seems clear that the Bible at least claims that God's existence is so obvious that people do not have an excuse for denying that God exists (whether all, or most, or only some people know God, and how this 'knowledge' and its content is to be conceived, is an issue I'm leaving aside). Thus God's existence may be like an elephant in the room. And many of the reasons Zerubavel gives for why a society would ignore an elephant seem apropos to why people would ignore the biblical God if he existed.
Secondly, for the pastor. Some sociological explanations for sin and ignoring and/or avoiding it among the members of your congregation (or among Christians as conceived more broadly than your local congregation, i.e., the church militant) are brought out in this book (of course, not explicitly, I doubt Zerubavel is a Christian, he says in passing that the Jesus of Christianity was a later invention so as to illustrate one of his points, I, obviously, thought this illustration was wide of the mark, but I digress). So this book may prove helpful for the pastor as he seeks to diagnose hidden or ignored sin amongst his congregation. To take it further, to see how the city of man is engaged in a conspiracy of silence not only over God's existence, but over their sin, which their conscious (Zerubavel's internal point) testifies against them, but which they publicly don't acknowledge (his public point) in the various ways denial or ignoring can happen.
Lastly, what was also interesting to apply theological perspectives to is over how Zerubavel says that conspiracies of silence must be broken. He says that it involves, obviously, acknowledging the elephant in the room, and this acknowledgement must take place in public. What was once silence needs to be thrust into the public eye. When reading Zerubavel's thoughts on how conspiracies of silence are broken, and why they should be, I couldn't help but think about Jesus' words that at the judgment all of men's sins would be made public, and, needless to say, God's existence will be made painfully obvious while denying it impossible. Atheists will be conspicuous by their absence.