Language Check: Gaslighting

Trigger Warning; talk of mental abuse.

I’m writing this in a rush so please excuse the huge lack of polish. I’m doing it because I’m a bit upset about the way some people appear to be throwing around the phrase “gaslighting” inappropriately. When words like rape are used inappropriately (i.e. to describe things that are not in fact rape, but some other kind of violation) many in the feminist community call people out on it and I’m glad they do. I’d like to see the same with other terms associated with abuse. We all know (I hope) that it’s hurtful to suggest being raped is equivalent to someone posting something rude on some ones facebook page. I don’t think it’s too big a step to suggest that it’s also hurtful to suggest the experience of being acutely mentally tortured is equivalent to someone having gotten the wrong end of the stick and run with it.

For those who aren’t too sure I should probably explain that “Gaslighting” is the commonest way of describing a pre-meditated campaign of emotional & psychological abuse designed to cause psychological harm to the target. It’s frequently characterised by the systematic withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim which has the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.
The word gaslighting get’s it’s name from the 1938 play “Gas Light” and it’s later movie adaptations. All the plots follow a simillar thread, the new wife moves into a home with her stern, over bearing husband who is seen to be a flirt. The wife starts to develop anxiety issues. These are used to push her into social isolation. At which point she starts to loose things and she can’t account for how it’s happening and starts to worry she is going mad. These fears are confirmed when she starts complaining of the gas lights in the house randomly dimming/flickering and her husband assures her that it’s all in her head. In the end it’s discovered that the husband is the one behind the dimming gaslights, disappearing items and everything else and that it has been a pre-meditated campaign to psychologically assault and damage the wife.
Gaslighting is something that is premeditated. The abuser doing the gaslighting might not write down a detailed five year plan about it and most probably haven’t heard of term but still they will have made the choice to mentally torture someone, normally to increase the power they hold over them for one reason or another.
There are some things that share elements with gaslighting but on their own are not gaslighting and it’s important not to confuse the two things. The same way violation is a part of rape, but not all violations are rape, minimisation is part of gaslighting but not all minimisation is gaslighting. It’s important for those of us who have lived through the torture of actual gaslighting that the term is used correctly and not devalued/normalised through inappropriate use. I thought I’d make a quick list of things, that when used on their own or by accident, are not gaslighting;
  • Misunderstandings between people – it’s ludicrously common for two people to take part in a conversation and then both leave believing they have gotten two different things out of the talk. Person A thinks they have convinced someone to think about things the way they do, person B thinks they have shown person A how foolish their way of looking at things is. When either party talks about what happened, even though their versions of events aren’t the same, they are not gaslighting the other. It’s not nice to be misunderstood and then misrepresented as a result, but it’s not gaslighting.
  • Minimising – when someone suggests that things weren’t that bad. Minimising is a normal psychological defence mechanism we all employ at some point or another. It’s a form of denial, often tied in with the Just-World Fallacy, where people protect themselves by telling themselves and unhelpfully the victims of events that it “mustn’t have been that bad”. Minimising is horrible to experience and can make traumatic events that much harder to deal with but on it’s own it’s not gaslighting. 
  • Not being believed by someone – it happens all the time. People discount what we say for a multitude of reasons ranging from it seeming highly unlikely to them all the way through to them fearing the consequences of believing it. Again, it’s very unpleasant to not be believed by someone and to be told your experience means nothing to them. On it’s own it is not gaslighting though. 
  • Political Rhetoric – most political ideologies are loathsome to someone. As much as many of us lefties hate the neo-liberal agenda and feel that it is misrepresenting the vulnerable, right wing folk often feel the same persecution (rightly or wrongly) from the left. Phrases like “Birmingham Councils move to giving Asda vouchers instead of crisis loans is just another way they gaslight the city” is not helpful. It’s a poorly thought out, damaging policy designed to secure the votes of people who have never needed a crisis loan before but it’s not gaslighting. 
I can’t tell any of you how you should use language. You can use it anyway you want at the end of the day. I would just like you to think about how you use this word and to ask yourself if it’s appropriate or if you are actually trying to say something else.
  1. I especially enjoyed your city council example, as it implies the installation of gas lights, like Birmingham was about to go steampunk. 😉

    I've found with gaslighting that it's not a term widely understood, and I am suspicious that when people misuse it – especially as an accusation against someone in an argument – this is kind of the point. Like if we fell out and I said, “There you are, bulldog-clipping again!” It almost says, You're wrong in a way you're not even clever enough to understand!

    It's not like we've got a shortage of words we can use around deception, manipulation, telling people what they should think and feel about their own experiences.


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