Can you really know you’re being gaslit?

[Content Warning: discussion of abuse]

“Gaslighting” is a term I see a lot these days. When I first learned about it in high school I became obsessed with it because of how often I saw it, most especially in people attributing feelings and drives in me that I saw no evidence of. Every time I would pose my doubt to people purporting to explain my actions or feelings, they would retort that I hadn’t introspected deeply enough, hadn’t seen the data, etc. A lot of them were clearly wrong in retrospect, but some of them I now think were rightr. The question seems to be: How could you possibly know you’re being gaslit?

The problem is that when there’s no reality to make recourse to, you can’t know you’re being gaslit. And there is no reality to make recourse to. In the film from which the phrase originates, the gas light is real, but the entire reason it works is because an outside observer confirms the truth…but what if that outside observer confirmed the truth of the gaslighter?

In its original usage—convincing another their beliefs about basic facts about reality—outside observers will usually be somewhat reliable. But as soon as it was co-opted for psychological description, this was not the case. Someone in an abusive relationship may get bad advice from friends who feel loyalty towards their abuser or are in similar situations, misunderstand the situation and give too much credit to the abuser, etc. The phrases makes the jump to the big wide world when people talk about “society” gaslighting them into, for instance, believing certain foods are healthy such as orange juice, which is often mostly sugar and some Vitamin C.

But the gaslighting narrative doesn’t end there. It has come to be used as a Meme of Destruction, whenever a cultural movement needs to collectively dismiss the intuition of a certain segment of the population. Anti-vaxers believe that Big Pharma has gaslit the world, but are they really that different from people who gaslight kids into believing their situation is not that of a cushy prison, but with less recourse to the law?

I will not argue with any of these points, because the real point is that this vocabulary is bad, and we need to do something about it. We don’t know how to talk about narrative, because our vocabulary and frameworks are about constructing narratives for communicating things not about describing societal processes. There is no lingua franca with which we can describe the memetic wars, and instead we are stuck trying to find consensus among people we found who we liked. Even if these are the groups we naturally segregate into, we need to be able to describe the battle to control the narrative, or eventually be outwitted by another subculture or worse—a meme that is powerful enough to control how people view the world.

This reminds me of a very good friend of mine, who says I am the person who understands her best. She is from a foreign country, but she is fluent in English, though not for deep and complex ideas. Gradually she is not as comfortable with her mother tongue. These days when we talk, there are many concepts that she has no words for, even in her mother tongue (which I speak). I know her very well, and sometimes I am able to tease out the idea with bits and pieces I would have guessed and her corrections of my description. But I know when I am not there, she simply passes over them, letting the impulse die.

We cannot afford to let the impulse die—our discourse today is about the clash of narratives as a rule rather than an exception. Those who say this was always true are kidding themselves. There have always been narrative clashes, but even today the vast majority of the world lives in a situation where in order to communicate you have to use the basic metaphor of your surrounding culture to do anything. It is the internet and free movement that are causing the clashes, because direct narrative clashes are becoming the way ideas fight for proliferation. More and more people fight with memes and are willing to let new memes write their next message, because it is their proliferation that signifies success. Think: how many times have you seen people who choose their friends by the re-posting of specific cultural messages, often verbatim copies of a current trend? In fact, it is the memes that are at war. In such a memetic war, who is being gaslit?

On Twitter it is very common for there to be a narrative like this:

1: You are doing X thing wrong, causing A collectively as everyone does this.
2: No, X does not cause A, Y does.
1: It is ridiculous to suggest Y causes A, when Y is associated with Z which has no relation to A.
2: You’re just gaslighting us, because you don’t want to do X.

The fact is that 99% of the time, neither side possesses enough data or knowledge to prove their point. This is not gaslighting, it’s a clash of ideas, priors, and standards of evidence. Or at least that’s what it’s argued as—in reality it’s usually a clash narratives, and that’s where we need more vocabulary. Let me end by suggesting a starter-pack:

  • Linguistic Terrain: A set of terms, phrases, and general way of talking about things that is fought over. One of the most active fights here is over “conservatism” or “feminism”, which are clearly a number of different movements, many of which would like to grab the general title for the political recognition and to force a centering by which they can absorb the others.
  • Envelopment: When one group reacts to another group’s narrative with “Ah, it may look/feel/seem/be like that, but when you fully consider X, Y, Z our narrative describes why this observation makes sense. (You are really one of us.)” Note that this is by no means necessarily wrong, and is one of the main kinds of true explanations in science at large. But it is a move to envelop a narrative, and being able to recognize it, e.g. when someone suggests that because you think hard work is important for regulation of the human psyche, that you are a capatalist since capitalists see such energy as the driving force of human progress, and thus appreciate it.
  • Cute Hypotheticals: Ideal thought-experiments often used to prove points without considering the range of possible variables. For instance, it’s a statistical fact that immigrants generally commit less crimes than non-immigrants in the same socio-economic situation. Someone might take this and say: “Listen, if we allow more immigration we’re going to reduce the amount of crime in the country because immigrants commit less crimes.” But immigration of a lot low-wage workers without proper housing and job prospects can lead to a proportional increase of crime in a given society.

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