Understanding Gaslighting

Ideas and Issues


            New Orleans      Until recently, I don’t recall hearing the term “gaslighting,” but now it seems like it crops up everywhere.  I’d read that the concept was resuscitated from a theatrical play in the 30’s and an Ingrid Bergman movie called Gas Light in the 40’s, but none of that helped me with an understanding that felt comfortable.  An article in Scientific America by University of Michigan sociologist Paige Sweet was very helpful in filling in my gaps, as well as allowing me to feel like I wasn’t alone in coming to this party late, since she says that gaslighting “abuse is just starting to be studied using systematic social scientific data.”

At the heart of gaslighting are the structural and social relationships that seek to convince all of us that everything is normal, when we known full well everything around us is crazy.  Professor Sweet’s research finds these situations most common in abuse, especially in “relation to inequalities around gender, sexuality, class, ability and race” or the intersectionality which is being recognized increasingly in the way issues and interests weave themselves together.  Sweet found “central relationships… in which gaslighting typically occurs:  domestic violence; intimate partners who are not otherwise abusive; parents and other family members; and institutional gaslighting, primarily in the workplace.”  In short, where there is a personal or structural power imbalance, the gas lights come on everywhere.  Sweet finds that it “may be unintentional” but nonetheless can “involve denial of another’s reality.”

No wonder the term has become so ubiquitous.  Inequality now is so pervasive that the playing field for the abuse of power by the stronger against the weaker would seem infinite.  Reality and truth itself, as Trump’s former aide described it, are no longer fixed, but easily manipulated into alternatives.  When coupled with communication channels dedicated to creating misinformation, it can make us all feel like we’ve lost our minds or that the world has spun out of control.

In writing about abuse, Sweet argues that isolation is often a critical contributing factor.  In domestic relationships that would mean cutting someone off from family, friends, community, and mobility, so that they are manipulated into believing the abuser and questioning their own credibility and reality.  Not to blow too much air in that balloon, but the same thing may be happening politically in the world of election deniers and objectors along with the Trump acolytes in rural areas and other venues where the circuits of communication are more closed.

Sweet hopes gaslighting can be offset by social networks and community support being more protective, but more worryingly to me is the fact that very separate social networks have been created, and they have thrived in isolated communities becoming antithetical to protection and more determined to close off external opposition to create separate realities and alternative truths.  It’s important to understand gaslighting, but discouraging to wonder how to put an end to it.