The use of ‘gaslighting’ stretches beyond original meaning

Merriam-Webster picked ‘gaslighting’ as Word of the Year for statistical reasons only. Merriam-Webster saw a staggering 1,740 percent increase in searches for “gaslighting” in its online dictionary in 2022.

image: The Hindu

The word comes from a 1930s play called Gas Light that was turned into a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. In it, the protagonist’s husband secretly dims and brightens the gas-powered indoor lights and insists she is imagining it, making her believe she is insane.

Gaslighting is broadly defined as a type of psychological abuse that makes someone seem or feel “crazy.” It resembles other forms of psychological abuse. Sociologist Paige L. Sweet says:

“We know that psychological abuse, and ‘crazy making’ in particular, is a core feature of domestic, or intimate partner, violence. It functions in part by convincing victims that what they are experiencing is not real or important and then blames them for their experience (Scientific American, October, 2022).”

Professor Sweet gives “Selah’s” experience as an example of gaslighting. After suffering years of abuse from her husband, Selah left him and got her own apartment. Her husband broke in while she was at work and made himself comfortable. When Selah arrived home, he pretended that nothing was amiss and asked what they were having for dinner. He distorted Selah’s reality (she had left him) by insisting on his own reality (they were still together). He peppered subtle threats throughout their conversation and wouldn’t let her leave the house to get groceries.

As often happens with perfectly good words, gaslighting has become popularized to the point that the original meaning has vaporized.

People suffering from long COVID took up the term “medical gaslighting” to describe the medical establishment’s inappropriate dismissal of their symptoms. Patients demanded that their version of reality be recognized and that “experts” held gatekeeping power over their medical care for producing a distorted version of reality.

Then U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney claimed that “Big Oil was ‘gaslighting’ the public.”

 “As we face more deadly, extreme weather around the globe, fossil fuel companies are reaping record profits and ramping up their misleading PR tactics to distract from their central role in fueling the climate crisis,” said Chairwoman Maloney.  “My Committee’s investigation leaves no doubt that, in the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public.

Over the past decade gaslighting has become extremely popular. This is partly a result of the success of the #MeToo movement, which illuminated how victims of sexual violence and harassment are systemically doubted and discredited when they go public. Commentators have also used it to describe the mind-bending denials of reality coming out of the White House during the Trump presidency.

But those suffering from diseases that are difficult to diagnose are not suffering from gaslighting. Malevolent health care workers are not distorting patient’s sense of reality.

Big Oil is promoting its own interests when it resists anything that would reduce profits. But they are merely taking care of business, not gaslighting.

The word has exploded online among Twitter, Instagram and TikTok users interested in mental health, as well as among political and culture writers and popular psychologists.

All examples of a good word stretched so thin that it loses any consistent meaning.


Trump’s big-tent coalition of the deluded

President Trump has assembled a ragtag rabble of misfits into “Trump’s Army”.

Trump’s Army storms the U.S.Capital. Image: Los Angles Times

The disgraced president was able to unite marginalized groups in a way no other president has done. Believers in alien abductions, the Deep State, QAnon, the Proud Boys and the Illuminati all found a home in the White House.

Trump brought those on the fringes of society to prominence. Not only did he elevate these groups, he embodied their alternate reality. He epitomized a deranged mentality.

Political commentators struggled with Trump’s brand of leadership at first, calling it populism –an appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. It’s now clear that Trump’s leadership defies historical labels.

I could never figure out whether President Trump was delusional or a liar. Did he really believe the untruths he was telling or was he purposely telling untruths? Now I realize that the truth doesn’t matter. What seems important to me –whether something is true or not- is inconsequential. For Trump’s Army, the truth is a trifling matter of little importance.

It’s a rare moment in American history when an alternate reality has gripped the nation in a big-tent coalition of the deluded.

Trump’s Army is nowhere on the political spectrum of left and right. Sure, Republicans were seduced by visions of power but right-wing issues such as abortion, small government, low taxes were not key to Trump’s win. Delusion was the key to his success.

The alternate reality of Trump’s Army is outside the material world. It consists of far-right conspiracies such as QAnon which alleges a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Donald Trump. It proposes that Wayfair Furniture (a real company) was involved in a sex-trafficking ring involving children.

Antifa is a convenient straw man. Trump set up Antifa as a dangerous organization with the intention of defeating it. He can revel in the glory of defeating something that never really existed.

Illusions will die hard in the Republican Party.

After Trump’s Army invaded the Washington Capital last Wednesday, some Republicans had trouble processing it. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was convinced that Antifa infiltrated the march. She went on Fox News and said “A lot of it is the Antifa folks.” Palin said she had seen some “pictures” that convinced her.

The big tent of fringe groups is fundamentally unstable. Eventually, real events happen that can only be dealt with people with a grip on reality.

The only way Republicans can gain control of the White House is by returning to their appeal to the right end of the political spectrum. By appealing to Trumps’ Army, Republicans risk losing the White House again.

Trump’s Army still poses a real danger.

An internal FBI bulletin warned that more violence is being planned: “Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January,”

If Republicans condemn Trump’s Army, they risk losing the fringe element. Good riddance, I say. If they continue to feed the Army’s mania, they risk sending America into a civil war that pits the zombie-like Trump’s Army against rational citizens.