RDS and the Demand for Affirmation

Reality denial syndrome, or RDS, is a defense mechanism characterized by refusal to acknowledge unwanted or unpleasant facts, feelings, realities, or thoughts, or the rationalization of them. Denialism for short, RDS is the act of denying reality as a way to avoid an emotionally or psychologically uncomfortable truth. I am paraphrasing standard definitions found in a Google search. These definitions are derived from diagnostic criteria developed in the domains of psychiatry/psychology.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis

It can be said that RDS is a form of delusional thinking, as the RDS sufferer insists on the reality of some thing that does not really correspond to anything that is actually real or true or that is contradicted by reality. An example is belief in a god or gods.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, referred to religious belief as delusional in “The Future of an Illusion,” published in 1927. He argued that belief in the supernatural serves as a defense mechanism against anxiety and fear of the unknown. Because the god delusion was shared by millions (even billions), Freud described them as illusions, which he defined as false beliefs that people hold onto despite evidence to the contrary. Religious beliefs are perpetuated because they provide comfort to people by creating a sense of order and control in a world that is often chaotic and unpredictable. The god delusion is thus a form of magical thinking characteristic of a pre-scientific world or among those who have not yet found science.

What is it called when a person with RDS berates others for not participating in her or his denialism/delusion—participation so desired because it reinforces RDS? We see this with religious zealotry. The person insisting on dwelling in the real world who denies Allah or questions the revelation of Muhammad may in a culture governed by sharia face annihilation. He can certainly expect to be persecuted. Leaving the illusion makes him an apostate. Questing the illusion makes him a heretic. Mocking the illusion makes him a blasphemer.

Here’s another example. Humans have an evolved capacity to detect gender. It’s a trait expressed in children at a very young age. At the same time, children, in making sense of gender, incorporate into their development the sociocultural markers of gender. This sometimes produces confusion. It is a common experience of teachers to school children asking if a boy with long hair is a girl. They ask because they are confused. The evolved capacity and the acquired sociocultural understanding are in conflict. An RDS sufferer might insist, even when there are no sociocultural markers, that children deny their innate capacity, a demand that may contradict reality. This demand is made of adults, as well. However this is turned around in Orwellian fashion, the demand is that children and adults misgender the person.

Libs of TikTok provide a useful example of what I am describing. The person in the video is complaining that people do not respect the pronouns plainly written on the button the person is wearing. Anything could be on the button. Are people required to repeat what is written on a button a person is wearing? The person feels disrespected, but one might ask whether it’s respectful to others to berate them for not overriding their instinctive capacity to correctly gender a person. Is it not an act of gaslighting to tell a customer that reality isn’t real but rather that reality is what a barista says it is? What authority does this person have to determine the speech of others? Can anybody ever possess or be such an authority?

Yes, it’s a form of gaslighting obviously, and it’s a part of RDS. But it seems more than this, since not all RDS sufferers demand others participate in their delusion. Some suffer quietly. I have many Christian friends who do not demand that I affirm their illusion. They respect others enough to not do that. Those who demand others participate in their delusions are on an ego trip and most people aren’t on ego trips. For those who are, it’s not enough to be content in whatever belief they find comfortable. They demand that others share that belief. They demand that others affirm the delusion.

The personality type that often underpins such a demand is narcissism, a cluster B type. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition in which individuals have an exaggerated or inflated sense of self-importance, feel they deserve privileges and special treatment, such as the right to transgress rules and social norms, expect to be recognized as important even without achievements (identity is often a substitute for accomplishment in this disorder), express envy over what others have, and lack of empathy, that is the ability to understand or care about the feelings of others. The lack of empathy comes with using others for the narcissist’s own purposes. There is an arrogance here that conveys the unimportance of others, for example for their cognitive liberty, i.e., the freedom to express their beliefs without consequences. Behind the narcissists demands for affirmation and attention is inner doubt in self-worth. This is why narcissists are easily upset by why they perceive as criticism. narcissists live in a bubble that is all about them. Pop their bubble and they often fall apart and lash out in fury (hence Antifa).

Again, there may also be delusional disorder at work (what used to be called paranoid disorder, which doesn’t really capture the spirit of the thing). This is a type of psychotic disorder where the sufferer can’t tell what’s real from what is imagined. A delusion is an unshakable beliefs in something that isn’t true or based on reality. A narcissist may not suffer from delusional disorder. Some narcissists suffer from some degree of psychopathy and get off on making others obey their demands. Thus the problem is sometimes a combination of cluster B types. When delusional disorder is also present, the combination of pathologies compounds the situation, sometimes to the point of danger to self and others.

Freud’s view on religion as a delusion has been widely debated and criticized by philosophers, theologians, and other scholars. Some argue that Freud’s interpretation of religion is reductionist and fails to take into account the complexity and diversity of religious experiences and beliefs. Perhaps. The same argument is made about other forms of delusion. Philosopher and even scientists and medical professionals construct elaborate rationalizations to support the delusions and denials of those of whom they make their clients and patients. As it turns out, enabling disorders is profitable.

What is it called when governmental or corporate bureaucratic systems require individuals to participate in speech and behavior that perpetuates denialism and delusional thinking? That’s is an easy one. It’s is called tyranny.

You are free to believe in anything or identify as anything. As I have said before, I am a libertarian; I have no interest in forcing anybody to think anything or be anything. But that ethic tells you that I have a keen interest in others forcing me to think something or be something. If you are free to think and be anything, then I am also free to think and be anything—within the limits of reality. Of course, living in reality is my standard. Others choose a different path. They don’t have to walk my path. But by the same token I don’t have to walk theirs. I don’t have to live in unreality. The only non-oppressive environment is one that permits us both to live freely. Otherwise, we live in a state of tyranny—the opposite of living freely. You may feel that such a state is fine as long as you are the tyrant. But know that you are making a whip for your own back.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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