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.’”
And then came Trump. Days after the 2016 election, EverydayFeminism.com identified “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used That Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex.” A few weeks later, Lauren Duca wrote a column on Teenvogue.com entitled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” And with that, “gaslighting” boldly jumped tracks into the realm of politics. Google searches for the word went through the roof. “Gaslighting” began proliferating in political commentary and on social media. Today, both sides deploy it with relish: “Fox News Is Gaslighting Their Viewers into Authoritarianism,” reads one headline. “Media Gaslighting Can’t Hide the Fact Trump Campaign Was Spied On,” reads another. “Trump is a f—ing idiot,” notes a typical Twitter comment, “but he’s conducting a master class on gaslighting.” Amanda Carpenter, a one-time Ted Cruz staffer, wrote an anti-Trump book called Gaslighting America.
It’s such a vivid word, you can understand why pundits love it. CNN’s Anderson Cooper has a recurring segment called “We’ll Leave the Gaslight On for You.” MSNBC host Chris Hayes wrote that “it’s hard to come up with a better word” to describe Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. According to the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle, even animals can do it. “My dog is trying to gaslight me into believing I didn’t just feed him 45 minutes ago,” she recently tweeted.
“Gaslighting” feels like one of those trendy words that becomes au courant for a couple of years and then devolves into a punch line. (“How many men’s rights activists does it take to change a lightbulb?” one online meme asks. “None, they still use gaslighting.”) But the term’s growing popularity hints at a deeper change in political language, not just in the words we use, but in how we use them, in the goals we are trying to accomplish when we speak.
Disagreements over political issues used to hinge mostly on factual questions. (At least that was the ideal to which both sides claimed to aspire.) Does a higher minimum wage help or hurt the poor? Will tax cuts boost inequality or lift all boats? Good-faith advocates for either side would marshal their evidence and make their cases. To be sure, some debates got nasty. But, underneath the vitriol, people generally accepted that winning the argument required having a more persuasive set of facts.
There is another style of argument, one that doesn’t trouble itself with pesky facts at all. British writer C.S. Lewis dubbed this style “Bulverism,” after a fictional character he called Ezekiel Bulver. He imagined Bulver as a child overhearing his mother dismiss a point made by his father with the words, “Oh you say that because you are a man.” At that point, Bulver later recalls, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of your argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.”
Lewis conceived Bulver as a stand-in for the Freudians and Marxists of his day who dismissed their opponents’ positions by attributing them to deep-seated—even unconscious—biases. If you disagreed with a Freudian, you were “projecting” or “in denial.” Question the inevitability of socialism and you were just a victim of “false consciousness” showing how deeply you’d been brainwashed by capitalism.
If we were to drop Ezekiel Bulver into a modern-day Twitter debate, he would feel right at home. Bulverism is now the norm. Political debates have become like sumo wrestling: The goal is to knock your adversary out of the ring. Why argue with your opponents when you can muscle them clean out of the conversation? So partisans begin every argument by attacking the other side’s character and motives. According to Trump loyalists, anyone with a smidgeon of international expertise is a morally suspect “globalist.” For those on the left, having the wrong skin tone or sexual leanings is enough to deny you a seat at the table. New York Times editorial-board member Sarah Jeong famously complained on Twitter about “Dumbass f—king white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” No need to listen to them, obviously, they’re no better than dogs.
In this field of rhetorical combat, “gaslighting” is a subtle but powerful weapon. When you accuse someone of gaslighting, you’re not trying to debate them on the facts; you’re describing their malevolent intentions. Those engaged in gaslighting aren’t just wrong, or even simply lying, the word suggests; they’re conducting an insidious campaign to undermine the judgment and mental stability of their interlocutors. In other words, gaslighters aren’t trying to convince us, they’re trying to confuse us, even unhinge us. In a single stroke, the word establishes that your opponent’s argument is both incorrect—and, better yet—illegitimate.
But “gaslighting” also says something interesting—and troubling—about those on the receiving end. Even as the term ascribes extraordinary powers to the gaslighters, it portrays their listeners as virtually powerless. They’re often described in the terms used to characterize abused spouses or hostages suffering from Stockholm syndrome—traumatized, vulnerable, easily misled. Teen Vogue’s Duca described gaslighting as “a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate.” In this view, not only is it pointless to debate a gaslighter, it’s actually dangerous. The idea that ordinary people can hear controversial ideas, assess their validity, and then accept or reject them on the merits has become outdated. Instead, we now imagine political discourse as taking place between malicious mind-benders on one side and fragile Bella Manninghams on the other.
How did we get to the point where large portions of the American public see themselves as emotionally wounded and intellectually defenseless? In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write that, over the past decade, political speech on college campuses started becoming “medicalized.” They explain: “Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function.”
The authors attribute the shift to what they call the “concept creep” involving our notions of trauma. Originally, “trauma” referred solely to extreme physical injury. But over time it came also to define the kind of extraordinary psychological stress—like combat or torture—that might lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with the new definition came recognition that such patients could be “triggered” or “re-traumatized” by exposure to certain stimuli. Soon, that new concept of trauma started creeping as well. Today, anything an individual might subjectively perceive as upsetting can be defined as trauma, and college students are increasingly likely to see themselves as victims in need of protection.
Haidt and Lukianoff believe that today’s students are being taught to reject rationalism in favor of “emotional reasoning,” a concept they borrow from cognitive behavioral therapy. If we aspire to a rational mind set, we try to align our opinions with the facts we encounter in the external world. But emotional reasoning demands we do just the opposite: We believe that our subjective state—fear, anxiety, anger—should define external reality. For example, young people schooled to be alert for “microaggressions” are being encouraged “to start with their feelings and then justify those feelings by drawing the conclusion that someone has committed an act of aggression against them.” If we feel that someone’s opinions have traumatized us, then, by definition, that person has done us harm.
In this worldview, words are not separate from actions. Instead, hurtful words are seen as concrete threats to one’s well-being. This is why, when college groups protest against a controversial speaker, they often say the speaker intends to “enact violence” on some members of the school community. They don’t mean this as a metaphor; they actually believe words can be as injurious as fists. In this context, to say someone is gaslighting is to accuse that person of quasi-criminal behavior. No wonder so many students feel they are protecting their community when they try to deny controversial speakers a “platform” from which to speak.
The overheated atmosphere of elite campuses eventually infiltrates other parts of society. Not long after the New York Times hired the mildly conservative writer Bari Weiss, offended employees took to an in-house message board to complain about how the paper had become a “hostile work environment.” (Critics piled on with the obligatory accusations of, naturally, gaslighting.) Google famously fired engineer James Damore after he wrote a memo arguing that the paucity of women in the company’s engineering departments might have more to do with voluntary career choices than with discrimination. It was an unpopular position, but one for which he provided an array of scientific evidence. Damore’s critics didn’t much engage with the substance of his arguments. Rather they focused on his intentions and character. “You’re a misogynist and a terrible person” was one of the more succinct formulations of that rebuttal.
What we’re seeing here is the creeping Bulverization of our culture. Facts are becoming secondary to feelings. And, with our own feelings as our guide, we increasingly believe we’re entitled to attribute malicious motives and biases to others. Disagree with a political columnist? Accuse her of “bad faith,” implying that she knowingly makes false arguments—which you are then entitled to ignore. Want to frame someone as a racist but lack evidence? Start by assuming they’re a racist, and then almost anything they say can be labeled a “dog whistle.” When Trump brags about low unemployment numbers for blacks and Hispanics? Dog whistle. When Florida Governor Rick Scott accidently says “ragtime” instead of “rag tag”? Dog whistle. This language game inverts Humpty Dumpty’s famous axiom, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” When modern-day Ezekial Bulvers play it, they effectively say, “When you use a word, it means just what we choose it to mean.”
In Gaslight, the evil husband drips honeyed lies into Bella’s ear, and she believes him. It all sounds so plausible! Fortunately, a dashing detective arrives to help her see through the deception. In its modern, political form, gaslighting is similarly portrayed as a deviously subtle technique. A politician or pundit might sound perfectly reasonable, but don’t be fooled! Those seemingly innocuous words just prove what a brilliant gaslighter he or she is. We need to protect our delicate Bella Manninghams from these insidiously sensible arguments. We mustn’t “platform” these dangerous thinkers; people might get taken in.
In such an environment, accusations of gaslighting ensure rhetorical supremacy. The person making the allegation gets to claim the status of victim—or that of protector of victims—and that confers bulletproof moral authority. (If I feel that your words are meant to cause me psychic injury, who are you to question my “lived experience”?) The accuser also gets to play the role, not just of vulnerable Bella but of the brilliant detective who uncovers the plot. Like the Freudian sniffing out “denial,” or the Marxist denouncing “false consciousness,” the “gaslight” accuser holds the linguistic high ground, uniquely qualified to determine the true meaning of everyone else’s words.
Those who want to police campus speech often equate words with actions. Well, “gaslighting” turns out to be quite a hardworking utterance in its own right. It elevates the accuser to a position of unchallengeable authority, while exposing the accused as a particularly nasty sort of person, the kind whose words must never be trusted. Without having to deploy a single fact, you can invalidate any opposing argument—and banish the arguer from the realms of legitimate discourse. That’s a lot for one little word to accomplish. No wonder the people who use it sound so smug.