Freedom of Dissociation

FREEDOM OF DISSOCIATION: The freedom to dissociate from reality and operate on faith, the know-it-all attitude that proudly dismisses all challenging evidence.


Freedom of dissociation is not an inalienable right; it's what people crave, especially when anxious, and what people indulge in especially when rich. It is not a right because it alienates people from the rest of society and from the real world we all must live in together.

Our nation's founders, steeped in the scientific revolution, the enlightenment and the embrace of progress and learning, established freedom of religion as a way to keep freedom of dissociation from steering the nation off course. They recognized that a theocracy encourages proud dismissal of new evidence. They wanted a different kind of nation, a learning nation.

As Washington said: “…I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution” (George Washington, letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia, May 1789).

Spiritual tyranny is, at core, the tyranny that results from freedom of dissociation, the attitude that says, My way or the highway. Suck up to my fantasy, no questions asked by you because there’s no curiosity left in me.

Democracy’s revival was borne of the scientific revolution, which, at core, was a rejection of the idea that one sacred text could have all of the answers already, no need to consider further evidence. Democracy was an attempt to replace the sacred-text approach to understanding reality with many eyes and ears all in touch with different aspects of our real world, a collective search party, a treasure hunt, a trial-and-error process in which, collectively and incrementally we discover better ways to fit our circumstances.

As Enlightenment philosopher David Hume said, “truth springs from arguments among friends.” The democratic ideal envisions us all arguing and negotiating toward ever-better guesses at what reality requires and how to progress within it. Friends, in that we listen to understand each other. We don’t assume we can find solutions alone. We commit not just to our own ideas but to ideas contested, like search party members who know their worth even if they aren’t the ones who end up finding the treasure.

We’re all naturally ambivalent about these trial-and-error arguments among friends. We say, Let the best ideas win (and they damned well better be mine). And especially during hard times, our impulse toward self-assertion wins. We insist that our ideas win regardless of whether they’re the best.

These days, freedom of dissociation is resurgent—faith, not just in a religion but in any sense of having achieved perfect knowledge beyond question, whether it be political, spiritual or philosophical. This is the freedom many Americans now seem to crave, the freedom to never have to learn from our mistakes, the freedom to close our eyes and ears and imagine the world as the world is not, to be legends in our own minds, to be the ones with all the answers already.

Freedom of dissociation is the luxury that wealth often buys first, the freedom to disconnect from reality, to live in gated communities dismissive of what happens elsewhere, to buy one’s way out of one’s mistakes rather than having to learn from them, to surround oneself with yes-men who affirm always, regardless of what one does.

The rich and powerful who buy this sense that they can do no wrong generally do a lot of wrong. Disconnected from reality, they gravitate toward what feels right rather than what is really right. They become like pilots flying by instrument. Unable to see reality outside the cockpit, they navigate by means of the instrument panel. Our instrument panel is our feelings, which unlike a pilot’s instruments can easily become miscalibrated to reality. We want to make good decisions but can get the feeling that we are making good decisions through hubris and faith at far less cost than through receptivity and due diligence, and so spin off course, dissociated from reality.

And the poor come by their demand for freedom of dissociation not because they can afford to indulge in it but because they can only tolerate so much reality when it gets as harsh as it is for them. As psychologist Stephen Kull put it, “the instinct to survive is strong; the instinct to alleviate fear is stronger.”

In a way, from its founding, our two party system was bottom up vs. trickle down searching for ways to know reality. The Democrats represented the bottom-up approach. Let the people lead, like the search party. Collectively the people are in touch with diverse aspects of reality. The Republican Party was trickle-down leadership. Let those who rise to power and wealth lead. They are the ones who found the treasure so they must be on to something.

The trickle-down Republican Party led a crusade to establish freedom of dissociation as their inalienable right. With time, they found a way to forge a coalition with enough of the poor in the crusade. Plutocracy married theocracy in the Christian coalition.

And Trump stripped the Christianity away to reveal freedom of dissociation as the campaign’s true mission. It would be hard to make the case that Trump’s god is the Christian god. Trump’s god is Trump. His missionary work is to make his word the word of god. Many of the poor who voted for him, were not just supporters. He was their idea of the rich man’s highest achievement, the freedom to believe whatever you want and ignore reality. Because their reality had become unbearable that they wanted to be him, to live through him as they once lived through Christ. Opiates have become the opiates of the masses, but so has Trump, as have many demagogues before him throughout human history.

Freedom of Dissociation is what economists call a Giffen good, named after the economist Sir Robert Giffen who noticed that some goods are demanded in greater quantity both as wealth increased and decreased. The richer you are, the more you can afford to indulge in freedom of dissociation. The poorer you are, the more you would want to indulge in freedom of dissociation.

Democratic realism dies when people who are so rich that they don’t have to doubt their beliefs lead people who are so poor that they can no longer afford to doubt their beliefs.

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