January 19, 2019

A Gaslight Unto the Nations

“The word “gaslighting” has lately become an all-purpose term of abuse in political arguments. Its journey from the pages of Psychology Today to the flame wars of Twitter offers us a useful perspective to examine the way our language is changing in this age of polarization. Words are becoming weaponized, and the old-fashioned idea that we can reach mutual understanding through honest debate is breaking down. The excessive use of “gaslighting” is a case study in how political speech is evolving from a discourse of persuasion to one of demonization.

Take the example of New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. In a column about the “churning knot of terror” women felt in their stomachs after the Kavanaugh confirmation, she writes, “‘gaslighting,’ a term taken from a play about an abusive husband trying to drive his wife insane, has become a byword of our national life.”

We owe the term to the great 1944 George Cukor film in which Ingrid Bergman portrays Bella Manningham, a fragile woman being nudged toward madness by her manipulative husband. Cukor’s version shows how a vulnerable person can be induced to doubt her own judgment by a campaign of small, insidious deceptions. “You’re not going out of your mind,” a detective tells Bella. “You’re being slowly and systematically driven out of your mind.” Gaslight is set in Edwardian London, where the unhappy couple lives in a stately home lit by gas jets that go mysteriously dim on occasion.

Since the dimming of the lights is one of the few clues Bella uses to cling to reality, it’s a little odd that “gaslighting” became shorthand for the act of trying to drive someone crazy. Nonetheless, in the late 20th century, a few psychologists began using the term to describe how narcissists and abusers undermine and intimidate their partners. Over the years, there have been several books and various magazine articles written on the topic. (And one very creepy song: Steely Dan’s “Gaslighting Abbie,” in which a philandering husband plans to eliminate his inconvenient wife.) In the past decade, the word began showing up on feminist and pop-culture websites. Jezebel called it “the increasingly popular term for the various ways in which men convince women that they’re ‘crazy,’ ‘over-reacting,’ or ‘hysterical.’””

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