Analysis: The shadow of denialism, 40 years into our democracy

Experts worry that the global wave of denialism is harming memory politics locally

It has been 47 years since Argentina’s armed forces staged a coup against the government of Isabel Peron. The dictatorship’s dark history has been written in books, documented in trials, and told over and over by its survivors: 30,000 disappeared people, 500 abducted babies born in captivity, and economic and political mayhem. 

But, forty years after the restoration of democracy in 1983, the winds are changing. Amid the financial, social, and political fallout of the pandemic, voices that seek to dismantle social consensus are finding fresh ears. And in Argentina, there are signs that denialist voices are taking aim at our collective memory.

At this week’s UNESCO International Forum of Human Rights in Buenos Aires, a series of talks discussed ‘new waves’ of denialism in contemporary politics. Ezequiel Ipar, an authoritarianism and democracy researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), told the Herald that social consensus condemning some of the most horrific crimes in the country’s history is “beginning to crack”.

The Conference on Denialism took place in the former ESMA clandestine detention center on March 22-23. Many researchers, officials and rights advocates hinted that, although speech denying the dictatorship’s crimes has existed since the 1970s, the arrival of outspoken denialists in political parties is raising concerns. 

Denialism is a term used to describe attitudes, speeches, practices, and policies that work to question rights abuses throughout history, such as the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. The concept of denialism began to emerge in Europe in the 1950s, marked by the publication of “Le mensonge d’Ulysse” by Nazi concentration camp survivor Paul Rassinier, who denied the stories told by others who had escaped with their lives.

In Argentina, denialism is often discussed in the context of those who call into question the dictatorship’s crimes – from the number of people forcibly disappeared to the culpability of the torturers.

According to Ipar, the recent hints of this tendency are diverse: some subtle, some more literal. Former President Mauricio Macri has repeatedly called human rights organizations and policies that continue to seek justice for the dictatorship’s crimes a “scam”. 

In 2021, members of far-right party La Libertad Avanza reached Congress. Its representatives in the Lower House, Victoria Villarruel and Javier Milei, openly and frequently reject the results of the trials and the research done post-dictatorship: Villarruel  wrote a book called “The silenced dead”, arguing that the guerrillas who fought Argentina’s dictatorships were just as bad as the state terrorism in the 1970s. Milei plans to run for president in the October 2023 elections. 

“It’s not just theoretical denialism, through books or social media, it has reached political parties – that’s what’s sparking our concern,” said Ipar.

A November 2022 study by Ipar’s Research Laboratory for Democracy and Authoritarianism (LEDA) found that 32% of young people and adults from the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area agreed with examples of hate speech in the form of segregationist, racist, homophobic and dehumanizing statements. A further 20% agreed with the statement “A coup d’état in Argentina would be justified in circumstances of excessive corruption and in an economic catastrophe”.

“I’m mostly worried about the youngest,” he said. Those who were born long after the end of the dictatorship lived through the pandemic as teenagers or young adults, and now face the crisis that came after it. “They see an exit to their sense of ‘perma-crisis’ or long crisis in violent speech,” he said, highlighting the urgency of incorporating memory into contemporary social problems.

Nicolás Rapetti, the Coordination director in the Human Rights Secretariat, told The Herald that, generally, there are two ways of dealing with denialism from a public policy perspective. “While some believe that it’s necessary to punish it, some others believe it’s counterproductive,” he said. 

In February 2020, Alberto Fernández announced that he would push a bill to make denial of the dictatorship’s atrocities illegal, similar to anti-Holocaust denial laws in force in European countries such as France. However, he found that there was not enough consensus among human rights defenders for the bill to pass. Instead, the Human Rights Secretariat decided to work on boosting the national debate around the topic. 

In a booklet created in response to these debates, sociologist Daniel Feierstein argued that the new wave of denialism focuses on a “theory of the two demons 2.0”. He is referring to a popular post-dictatorship denialist argument that there were “two demons” – militants and the military – who committed comparable crimes. Now, he argues, dictatorship-era criminals are being portrayed as “victims of a State apparatus, and as political prisoners”. 

“They object to the conditions of their detention, ask for house arrest, file lawsuits in the Inter-American courts,” he wrote.

According to experts who spoke to The Herald, memory policies must be enhanced, the youngest voices must be heard, and demands for truth and justice must be maintained to prevent a dark seed from taking root that could make it harder to stop history from repeating itself.


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