“You’re crazy.” No, I’m not.
“That never happened.” Yes, it did.
“I never said that.” Yes, you did.
Sound familiar? Perhaps not yet. What about ‘alternative facts’ or ‘fake news’?
These phrases and terms all fall under the same breadth, a highly effective manipulation tactic called gaslighting. Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse that seeks to alter its victims’ reality and ultimately foster a sense of self-distrust in its victims.
The term gaslighting stems from the 1944 Oscar-nominated film “Gas Light,” based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play by the same name. The film, a murder-mystery at its core, showcases an overtly emotionally abusive relationship between a husband, the abuser, and his wife, the victim. The husband attempts to seek control over his wife by altering parts of her reality to make her feel like she is going crazy. The husband dims the gaslights in their home periodically throughout the story, and each time the wife points this out, he tells her she is imagining things.
“The victim often begins to blame themselves for the abuse or have feelings that they are crazy or imagining things while the abuser is normal,” Orange Coast College psychology instructor Jennifer LaBounty said. “Many times the victim questions their own sanity and believes they are delusional because of the abuser’s systematic manipulation of the environment, intended to cause the victim to question their own reality.”
According to LaBounty, a person employing gaslighting will do so through a variety of channels including lying, feigning shock, denial, contradiction and deflection in order to generate psychological insecurity in the victim. Gaslighting can lead to anxiety and depression by way of insecurity, fear, withdrawal and independence, LaBounty said.
“Even if the abuser never physically touched the person and never said emotionally abusive things like ‘you’re stupid,’ ‘you’re fat or ugly,’ ‘no one will love you,’ they’ve made the person feel incompetent and unstable by denying life events and manipulating the environment to make it seem like things are not happening that actually are. This is physical abuse,” LaBounty said.
LaBounty said victims of gaslighting tend to stay with their abuser longer due to the crippling sense of self-doubt and self-worth. She said although gaslighting can sometimes be engaged unintentionally, sociopaths and narcissists will deliberately gaslight maliciously. Oftentimes people who hold positions of power will purposefully use these techniques to have their victims become more fearful and dependent, she said.
But when gaslighting preys on victims on a larger scale it affects audiences on a global stage.
According to OCC argumentation instructor Sean Connor, gaslighting is a highly effective yet highly unethical tactic employed by President Donald J. Trump and politicians alike. Although a politician’s job by nature begs for their words to be fact-checked, the careless dismissal of presented facts as alternative facts or fake news twists the rhetoric of gaslighting to a more political narrative.
“Argumentation is based on grounds. When you disprove grounds, you disprove everything else,” Connor said.
In an impressive act of gaslighting, Trump managed to dispel arguably the most controversial moment of his presidential campaign by simply claiming he never said the very thing he was caught on video saying. Following the pattern of a sociopath, Trump has been caught on multiple occasions in bold-faced lies with unequivocal proof in the form of Twitter screenshots.
“When you’re someone that is gaslighting, knowing the facts isn’t crucial,” Connor said. “Part of gaslighting is that your actions don’t match. There’s no consistency. It’s all over the place.”
Trump’s audience, the American public, has proven itself the perfect victim time and time again. According to Connor, research and seeking out the grounds, the true facts, are the keys to fighting this manipulation.
“Fact is so objective, it proves itself by its very existence,” Connor said.
Trump and his administration have found themselves under intense and constant scrutiny which has helped bring gaslighting onto the global stage, effectively bringing an abstract and complicated manipulation tactic into everyday conversation. LaBounty said it is that awareness and education are crucial in the fight against explanation.
“We need to educate — we can’t wait until people are in college to bring awareness to these topics. We need to teach children to be self-aware, to develop positive self-esteem and teach them what a healthy relationship looks and feels like, so they can better identify when they are in an unhealthy one,” LaBounty said.