August 19, 2022

Consider the last time you fell out with someone: your partner, a friend, or your boss, for instance. Perhaps you argued about a previous event: about who said what to whom, what exactly happened, and whose fault it was. Did your opponent say things that made you doubt your version of history? Did you start to feel like your grip on reality was becoming undermined? Have you considered that you may have been gaslit?

If this is your conclusion, you’re not alone. Allegations of gaslighting are all the rage these days, whether about Ryan Giggs towards his ex, Kylie Jenner towards her fans, Love Island contestants towards each other, or Liz Truss towards everyone.

As it pertains to illicit psychological influence rather than seeing in the dark, the concept of gaslighting has been in use since at least 1981, though it seems to have really got going around 2012 (interestingly, at around the same time as “mansplaining” took off — another term heterosexual women tend to hurl at uncomprehending men). The term was first coined in tribute to Gaslight, a 1944 film based on a play by Patrick Hamilton and dramatically billed at the time as “a story which reveals a man’s secret and unholy desires”.

In the film, Charles Boyer deliberately drives Ingrid Bergman to the edge of insanity in order to steal from her. He sets up the gaslights in the house to flicker, then disputes the effect when she notices it. He accuses her of being a kleptomaniac and then frames her with stolen items. He tells her she is going mad, the easier to have her institutionalised and take her jewellery. In other words, he is almost parodically evil and calculating.

Fast forward to today: are we really beset with toxic Charles Boyer-types everywhere we look? Such villainy is hard to credit. Fairly predictably, the answer is no. As with terms such “trauma” or “abuse”, concept creep has transmuted the original idea of gaslighting, once reserved for genuinely sinister behaviour, into something much more mundane and everyday. In some visions, it has migrated from evil mind-control to simply arguing with someone. The charity Relate, for instance, initially defines gaslighting as “trying to convince someone they’re wrong about something even when they aren’t”. Most commonly, we’re told, “it takes the form of frequently disagreeing with someone or refusing to listen to their point of view”.

But this glosses over a crucial fact about arguments, which is that when you are in the middle of one, you are almost always trying to convince the other person they are wrong, often while “failing to listen to their point of view”. And yet quite often, the person with whom you are arguing isn’t actually wrong. The emotions surrounding arguments simply make us all less good at objectivity (and let’s face it, most of us weren’t that good in the first place). Human relationships are routinely full of self-deception, misunderstandings, shame, and projection — and that’s just the successful ones. For a national “relationship support” charity to pathologise the ordinary murk of romantic interaction like this therefore seems unhelpful. Emotional granularity — in other words, increasing our vocabulary to describe the full range of human emotional experiences — is all very well, but should we really slap an accusatory label on something that most of us do from time to time, and most of us cannot help doing, being the frail humans we are?

And then there’s the fact that — just as a blue-faced denial that a certain thing ever, ever happened can be useful ammunition in a blazing row — so too, on the other hand, can the accusation that the person you’re having the row with is “gaslighting” you. Though it’s often presented otherwise, it’s not as if the charge of gaslighting is itself inevitably accurate or offered with the purest of intentions. Clearly, it too can be a useful passive-aggressive tool with an eye to winning a fight.

A revealing example of how accusations of gaslighting don’t necessarily illuminate much was found last week in The Times. Readers were offered the putatively touching story of millennial Olivia, gaslit by “Ben”, a man she thought she was dating. After sleeping with her, telling her she was the best person he’d met in years, and talking about going to Italy together, Ben told her they had only ever been “hanging out” and not dating after all. Later, she found out that Ben had been dating someone else all along.

Clearly Olivia thought this was egregious enough behaviour to write an article in a national newspaper, comparing Ben to Ryan Giggs, now on trial for much more serious charges. Later she found out that Ben had been dating someone else all along. But what if, in these officially polyamorous times, it was just that Ben was a bit confused about what he wanted? What if he sincerely wanted to go to Italy with Olivia when he said it, but afterwards changed his mind? What if he had never really been clear in his own mind whether they were merely hanging out or dating, and what if Olivia had never really forced the issue in conversation either? In other words, what if this was all entirely the result of standard human ambivalence, indecision, and poor communication skills? In this sense, we are all gaslighters now, and we are all being gaslit.

Meanwhile, over in the land where a non-negligible number of the population believe that lizard people are taking over the planet, the NBC news website defines gaslighting just as broadly as involving “trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions”. According to Robin Stern PhD, the author of a book about gaslighting and who, perhaps for that reason, is apparently in no way tempted to play down its ubiquity or significance: “This is always dangerous… The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.”

Here too, in an age (and a country) hardly known for rampant epistemic humility, the wisdom of encouraging people to cling tightly to potentially mistaken beliefs or even outright delusions seems unclear. Philosophers sometimes talk about what mental states feel like “from the inside” — as opposed to the clashing perceptions or knowledge that others have, either of you or of the world or both. From the inside, then, believing something makes it feel true. That feeling is built into what a belief is. You can’t believe something and also feel with conviction that what you believe is wholly false. So if another person has evidence that you’re wrong, then he is going to seem wrong to you, at least initially. But of course, he still might be right. In many cases, then, “letting go of your reality”, as Stern puts it, might be a very useful thing for you to do, even if it feels uncomfortable to do it.

Of course, there are still extreme versions of gaslighting behaviours out there, though I assume they are relatively rare, or else folded into a collection of other more unambiguously abusive behaviours. In one recent legal case, described as a “milestone” by the barrister who won it for her client, a woman was convinced by her partner, a mental health professional, that she was bipolar when she was not. Still, it seems to me that for a connection to be made between “undermining someone’s reality” and criminalisation, the case has to be made very, very carefully. Unlike rape, or physical violence, or even the characteristic behaviours of what is now known as “coercive control” — isolation from friends, sexual coercion, humiliation, and so on — what commonly passes for gaslighting is a relatively benign feature of human interaction rather than a bug.

So, the next time someone accuses you of gaslighting, remember you have options. The mature choice would be to acknowledge that, yes, you might simply be in the wrong. A less mature option would be to tell your accuser that, by saying that you are gaslighting them, they are in fact gaslighting you. Finally — and I wouldn’t necessarily endorse the escalation – you could opt for the least mature option of all: which is to reply, as in Rick and Morty, that “gaslighting doesn’t exist… you made it up because you’re fucking crazy”.

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