The term originates from the 1938 play (and later film) Gaslight in which a husband, guilty of a murder, tries to hide this fact from his wife by slowly making her believe she is going insane.
The bumps she hears in the attic, the strange noises – all the tell-tale signs of her husband’s duplicity – are made to seem like proof she is losing her mind. To aid this, he incrementally lowers the gaslights in their home, and makes her believe she is the only one who sees this.
Gaslighting is a phenomenon which is incredibly pertinent to the times we live in. It is inextricably linked to the notions of truth, deception and power dynamics. So what better time to delve into its origins and nuances, than an age of a global health crisis where social, gender and economic equality are more pronounced than ever before and we, yet again, are battling the bloody consequences of systemic racism?
So, what exactly *is* gaslighting?
Scratch your head in doubt no more. Gather round and let me tell ye the tale of the gaslight…
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation. It refers to the action of attempting to distort another person’s perception of reality.
It is a term that has come to be used in psychology to describe a form of emotional abuse. Too often this abuse has played out in gendered relationships; where the assumed dominance of the male creates a power dynamic that does not favour women. There is also an archaic, and misogynistic association of irrationality with women; a false narrative that is heavily played up to when gaslighting occurs.
You can see it subtle examples of it all the time – no, I’m not cheating, you’re losing your mind… why are you acting so crazy? Calm down, dear…
Although we typically refer to gaslighting in gender politics, what feeds it is a power imbalance. It’s why we’re talking about it more than ever, because it feels like those in power too often distort our perception of reality. We are at the mercy of a government which – thanks to controversies over lies told during the Brexit campaign and with the ongoing Dominic Cummings scandal – we now suspect is at worst lying to us, or at best, playing dangerous games with the truth; deciding when it matters and when it does not.
Understanding gaslighting is so important, because we are living through a time where the truth is too easily and too conveniently manipulated. We have lost trust in the highest seats of power, the buzz words of the age we live in are FAKE NEWS and POST TRUTH.
If you have a headache by now, I don’t blame you. Sometimes, it feels as though everyone is out to gaslight us.
This is especially true if you do not happen to look or act like those who hold the power, those who get to decide what truth is. If you are not male, if you are young, if you are not white, straight or cis. Being different from one another should be where we harvest our creativity, our beauty, but too often it is where we brew our divisions, our anger and hate. Being ‘different’ matters in this equation, when who or what you are different from is the established societal default – shaped in the image of those who shape what our societal ‘truth’ is.
We may think of truth as objective, as so absolute that it cannot possibly be manipulated, that we cannot possibly be made to believe something is true when it isn’t. Yet that is not the case.
In the world we live in, truth is decided by those in government, the ones who hold the national pursestrings, who decide what will be enforced as right or wrong – not what is objectively, or morally right or wrong. Truth, the more we think about it, and the more we ponder the fraught political times we live in, where a Twitter-happy reality TV star lives in the White House and the man who told us all to Stay At Home during a global pandemic, didn’t. It just gets slipperier and slipperier.
It’s why gaslighting matters, it’s why we talk about it so often and we need to. We must be mindful of what narratives are told to us, we must be scrupulous about discerning what perspectives are not included, and therefore what homogeneous mindsets have influenced that narrative. We must be critical thinkers. We must dissect the stories of our times – whether that is what governments tell us to exonerate their advisors, or what presidents tweet about who are “good people” and who are “thugs”.
We have seen too often how truth can be twisted, and how often this disproportionately affects people of colour, women, anyone who does not conform to a straight, cis model of what it means to be a person.
We must be vigilant, critical and alert to the gaslighting that permeates our lives, like the subtle dimming of a lamp. What truth means right now is important, who shapes that truth and gets to dim the gaslights, even more so.