12/02/2011 05:26 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2012

Stop Denying the Power of Denial

Denial is a powerful and frightening thing.

What else could convince otherwise good people to believe that what think they see in front of them -- no matter how horrendous -- isn't really happening? Or that the person they consider such a "nice guy" could really be capable of doing something heinous? Or that someone else is "handling the situation," so you don't have to do anything?

Nowhere is the power of denial more evident than in the sex abuse scandals coming out of Penn State and Syracuse University. Two likeable, respected assistant coaches at powerful collegiate athletic programs have been accused of molesting boys for years. Powerful people knew. Many suspected. But nobody did anything to stop them. The level of denial up and down the ranks is breathtaking. Denial allowed the accused to continue to allegedly molest vulnerable children with impunity for years.

Most of us think that we wouldn't be like "those people" who saw things or heard rumors but did not act. WE would've done something. But that denies the power of denial.

Denial maintains the status quo. It keeps people employed, their careers intact, their livelihoods safe. It keeps chaos at bay. It is a powerful force.

The ancient Romans had a name for that strong impulse toward denial -- a legal designation called damnatio memoriae, a phrase that means "condemnation of memory." It gave legal sanction to completely erase the condemned from all written records, statues, carvings and paintings. You were, in effect, legally and completely "erased."

Denial at it's finest.

Our collective impulse toward denial is no less strong. You could see it in action when a local Pennsylvania artist painted Sandusky's image right out of a large mural celebrating Penn State's greatest (story here). The artist was making the ugliness "disappear "in a way we can't in real life. Now, I don't have an opinion as to whether the artist was right or wrong to erase the image of Sandusky -- it was his painting, so his right. I'm more curious about the impulse that drove him to wipe his image out of his -- and our -- sights.

On some levels, we all want to erase the Jerry Sanduskys and Bernie Fines (Syracuse) of the world from our collective memories. Their alleged crimes are simply too horrible, too revolting to believe. But denial never works. Just ask the children who continued being abused -- for years -- because no one wanted to believe the worst.

We can't afford to be in denial about the power of denial any longer. We must "see" what really is in front of us -- even if it turns our stomach -- and take action to stop it. We have to act even if it means we may become "unpopular" or lose our jobs. We must stop pretending that "nice" people don't do terrible things.

We must forgo damnatio memoriae and face the ugliness around us. Because pretending evil is not there only perpetuates it.