In the 40s crime film, Gaslight, a murderous husband tries (and ultimately fails) to convince his wife she’s going mad by hiding various of her possessions and then accusing her of having done it herself. He isolates her from anyone who might be able to corroborate her version of events, saying that she’s not well and that she needs to rest. After a while, she begin to believe that she’s going mad and that she shouldn’t go out in public. Naturally, the wicked plot unravels and the evil husband is unveiled as the cad he really is.
Whatever the film’s merits, the phrase ‘gaslighting’ has, in recent years, entered the vernacular. At first it referred only to a form of domestic abuse where one partner (usually a man) would attempt to manipulate and control another (usually a woman) by getting them to doubt their ability to recognise reality with the ultimate aim of crushing their ability to function independently and to increasingly rely on their manipulator.
This article sketches out the seven stages of gaslighting in a relationship. The abuser begins by lying and exaggerating, then repeating their claims. When challenged, the abuser will become angry and deny reality. Over time, this will wear down the victim to the point where they come to depend on their abuser who, in manipulative acts of contrition will offer out false hope, thus assuring their dominance and control. Nasty stuff.
From there. the term came to be applied to the political arena with the Clinton administration being accused of gaslighting in their treatment of Newt Gingrich. In his book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, Bryan Welch observes that, “Gaslighting comes directly from blending modern communications, marketing, and advertising techniques with long-standing methods of propaganda. They were simply waiting to be discovered by those with sufficient ambition and psychological makeup to use them.”
Latterly, the term has come to be used in educational debate. Whenever someone is suspected of saying something insincere – or even of using a tone that might be construed by their ‘victim’ as insincere – they are gaslighting. When someone expresses themselves in an outwardly rational way in which a victim sees as intended to make their reaction appear shrill or hysterical, that is gaslighting. When a claim is repeated, it is an example of gaslighting. If others join in to corroborate any claims made by the gaslighter, that is group bullying. If the perpetrator of such foul calumnies points out that such behaviour is irrational, then that is the ultimate proof that they are trying to get you to doubt your sanity. Their intentions can only be viewed in one way: they are evil manipulators and you are an innocent survivor of abuse.
But it seems to me that accusations of gaslighting have increasingly become examples of gaslighting themselves. There are three important and crucial difference between the horror of domestic abuse and the kind of online situations where one individual or group accuses another of gaslighting. First, it’s impossible to isolate someone on social media. Social media is, by its very nature public and many if not most users operate as part of a tribe or an in-group. In this kind of arena, you’re never going to be ‘alone’ with your abuser – they will always be external and public support.* Second, social media provides handy evidence for the claims we make. If I say that making children choke on their own vomit is a good way to reinforce strict discipline, there will be evidence that I have said so. I can try denying what I’ve said, but even if I delete my statement, someone will always pop up with handy screenshoted evidence to prove me wrong. I can wriggle and deny to my heart’s content, but you will have clear and incontrovertible evidence that I am lying. As such, it is had to see how an abuser could get a potential victim to doubt their sanity. The third difference is the ease with which we can protect ourselves from persecution on social media by blocking those we perceive as abusive. No one has to interact with anyone they find threatening.
What is possible though is to twist and misconstrue the actions of others to make them look silly or bad. We can selectively quote from what they’ve said, omitting caveats and exceptions. We can whip up storms of support that obliterate any chance of being heard and prevent rational debate. We can use trigger words and accusations to label or caricature our opponents so that bystanders assume the worst. This might be gaslighting.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that if your view of reality is warped enough then someone coming along with facts, evidence and reasoned arguments might seem a real threat. Cognitive dissonance is so powerful that the simplest response to such a threat is to lash out with accusations.
The next time you see one group or person accusing another of gaslighting, or if you’re concerned someone is gaslighting you, or even if you’re not sure whether you’re gaslighting someone else, ask yourselves these questions:
- Is there a more charitable explanation? Applying the principle of charity is a clear sign that you are taking the most sensible, courteous and reasoned way to interact with others.
- Has the accuser or the accused got form? Who, based on their previous behaviour, is most likely to have been involved in hounding others or making dubious, unevidenced claims?
- Is the accusation being made instead of presenting an argument? If the accuser doesn’t actually have an argument and fears either being made to look silly or fears losing an argument, accusing their opponent of gaslighting is mud that can sometimes stick.
- Where are your biases? Is either the accuser or the accused part of your in-group? Are you therefore likely to hold one party to higher stands of behaviour than the other?
- What’s at stake? Is the accuser vulnerable? Is the accused in a position of power or authority over the accuser? If, for instance, the accused is a trainee teacher, we should be sceptical. If the accuser is PGCE tutor or a prominent voice in education with a long track record of educational publishing we should be very sceptical.
None of this is to claim that manipulation and abuse do not occur – of course they do. As such, using a term like gaslighting to help us identify such behaviour can be useful. However, when the term is used by the powerful against the vulnerable, it can be used as a pre-emptive strike behind which to conduct corrosive and abusive hate campaigns.
* Obviously, if your claims are completely mad and utterly without foundation, maybe there won’t be any support. If this is the case you really ought to consider whether you are, in fact, losing your grip on reality.