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A toxic history of gaslighting: Past and present

Gaslighting is used to describe many ways of questioning people’s experiences, whether it’s a president railing about “fake news,” or someone at work telling you you’re taking a racist or sexist comment “too seriously.”

A toxic history of gaslighting: Past and present
[Source photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images]

In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary named “toxic” its word of the year. Unsurprising given the political climate at the time: Trump was President, Britain was Brexiting, and tech companies were under intense scrutiny for their role in enabling toxic environments online.

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Among the runners-up, though, was another word describing a specific form of toxicity: gaslighting. I remember hearing it for the first time and being slightly confused about where the word came from–but I very much recognized the dynamic.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation, in which the gaslighter questions or denies the validity of their target’s emotions and perceptions. Psychologists most often cite it as a form of abuse in relationships, but it extends well beyond that. Nowadays, gaslighting is used to describe many more ways of questioning people’s experiences, whether it’s a U.S. president railing about “fake news” or someone at work telling you you’re taking a racist or sexist comment “too seriously.”

Early sexist origins

The verb “to gaslight” originally comes from a play called . . . wait for it . . . Gas Light. This 1938 thriller, set in Victorian London, follows a well-to-do husband as he attempts to convince his wife she’s going insane (in part by telling her she’s imagining a dimming gas light in their home). The play became an Oscar-winning film and helped catalyze the public understanding and academic study of this form of abuse.

The Victorian setting of the play is significant: This was an early era for psychology, when scientists began studying mental illness empirically and methodically. It was also the culmination of a much longer history of a (now-defunct) condition called “hysteria,” which classified “abnormal” behavior in women as a physical affliction of the uterus. From Ancient Greece to 19th-century London, countless doctors in the West claimed that women who deviated from “normal” female behavior–i.e., being modest, sexually inhibited, submissive, subdued, unquestioning, religious, etc.–were in fact physically unwell.

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Some of this “non-normative” behavior may well have been forms of mental illness that earlier eras didn’t have a vocabulary for. Much of it, though, was undoubtedly just women being normal human beings, with a full range of emotions and personalities. Because of this long history of men–and specifically men with power, such as doctors or religious leaders–doubting women’s mental faculties, women have been subjected to the generational trauma of these behavioral stereotypes. Even today, despite so many advancements in modern medicine, those preconceived notions about how women should be or behave remain deeply embedded in our culture.

That history is one of the reasons women are more associated with gaslighting, particularly in relationships. It’s still commonplace in our society to stereotype female assertiveness as unnatural or attempt to diminish it. The familiar stereotypes around women being more sensitive, emotional, or less rational than men are weapons in every gaslighter’s arsenal.

In the workplace, this has often showed up in cases of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. A boss who doubts the seriousness of an employee’s complaint about her co-worker’s inappropriate comments is gaslighting her. That kind of invalidation of women’s experiences traces a direct line to humanity’s long history of misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism. Fortunately, now that more research has been done on this topic, there are many resources available to women who experience this form of abuse.

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Power and racial gaslighting

What’s important to glean from gaslighting as a psychological concept is that it’s all about the gaslighter maintaining control in difficult situations. And they’re able to maintain that control by virtue of their importance in someone’s life. The gaslighter has to be important enough to the victim(s) that they are willing to question their own emotions. So, it’s never really about victims being mentally “weaker” compared to their abusers. It’s about the gaslighter abusing their power in a relationship, and that power can come from any number of things: love, loyalty, prestige, trust, admiration, and so on.

Gaslighting makes it easier for people who’ve done something wrong or hurtful to confront it. It’s a maneuver that allows them to sidestep their own self-examination by denying the reality around them. It is not the same as disagreement, which is natural and normal in relationships of all kinds and scales. It’s about negating someone else’s (uncomfortable or inconvenient) truth.

It also doesn’t just occur on individual levels or toward women. Racial gaslighting is a prevalent form of denial in this country that occurs at individual, group, and institutional levels.

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For individuals from diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds, this can be particularly troubling in interpersonal situations. Journalist Siobhan Neela-Stock gives a few examples of her experiences with racial gaslighting that I immediately found familiar:

Whenever I’ve pushed back [against] the racist question “Where are you from?”, argued against someone who says discussing race perpetuates racism … or contradicted members of my white extended family who insist Eric Garner’s death was his fault, I’m usually told I’m wrong, it’s not that big of a deal, or I’m imagining things.” Siobhan Neela-Stock (Mashable, 2020)

This is an all-too familiar experience for many people of color in the United States. The key part of that quote is the last bit where the author specifies that it’s her version of reality that’s called into question through denial, diminishment, or accusations of full-blown delusion. These conversations happen all the time in private, at work, and even on television.

The examples of this in the media in the past decade are numberless. When protesters were criminalized in the press after George Floyd’s murder, that was a form of gaslighting (often racially motivated) that denied the validity of their anger. When they were written up in headlines as targets of state-sanctioned violence, often in the passive voice and without the perpetrators (i.e., the police or military) being named, that was also gaslighting. These are subtle forms of linguistic manipulation that seek to deny or obscure the truths we observe in real life.

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Gaslighting all Americans

And of course, the most famous example, the reason that the Oxford English Dictionary chose “gaslighting” as a runner-up for word of the year, is Donald Trump. In 2018, President Trump was at the height of his manipulative powers, gaslighting the entire nation by constantly calling the trustworthiness of some of our most respected journalistic institutions into question. As one commentator remembers it, at various points Trump claimed:

. . . that he watched thousands of people cheering on 9/11 in Jersey City (police say there’s no evidence of this), that the Mexican government forces immigrants into the U.S. (no evidence), that there are “30 or 34 million” immigrants in this country (there are 10 or 11 million), that he never supported the Iraq War (he told Howard Stern he did), that the unemployment rate is as high as 42 percent (the highest reported rate is 16.4 percent), that the U.S. is the highest-taxed country in the world (not true based on any metric of consideration), that crime is on the rise (it’s falling and has been for decades), and too many other things to list here because the whole tactic is to clog the drain with an indecipherable mass of toxic waste. –Lauren Duca, Teen Vogue (2016)

When, under closer scrutiny, Trump then claimed that he was the victim of “fake news” and other media conspiracies, he forced millions of Americans to question whether they could trust news outlets they previously respected for their journalistic integrity. Even for those who understood that he was lying, there’s only so far you can go when the most powerful person in the country tells you it’s his word or yours.

Trump got to power and maintained it in large part by gaslighting Americans en masse. (And he certainly was not the first American in power to do so.) But there are even more insidious forms of gaslighting that affect millions of people without the boost of a president’s word. Institutions and businesses, employers and educators–they’re all capable of gaslighting at scale. And the only thing that stopped Trump in the end was hard data: You can’t keep believing in someone’s denials when you have fact-checkers on your side.

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The power of allies

In the Gas Light play, a detective eventually shows up and assures the distressed wife that she’s not imagining the dimming of the gas lights. Only then does she begin to believe her own perceptions again. In modern instances of gaslighting, be it racial or relational, victims need allies to help affirm that their experiences are valid.

Knowing how to recognize gaslighting is therefore key for all of us. The first step is to identify that there’s a problem. For victims of gaslighting, this is often the hardest step, because it means that someone who plays an important role in their lives is hurting them.

Next, before asking who’s right and who’s wrong, acknowledge the validity of the target’s feelings and experiences. Because that’s often what the issue boils down to in most instances of interpersonal gaslighting: intention vs. impact. No matter how unaware or well-intentioned a comment may be, the impact it has can be very different. Acknowledging that words can hurt without people meaning to is critical for becoming more sensitive to gaslighting.

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Ultimately, gaslighting thrives on discomfort with confrontation, both for the gaslighter and the target of their (intended or unintended) abuse. Getting more comfortable with your own discomfort around issues of race, gender, identity, or even just your own relationships will help you recognize and respond to gaslighting better.

And finally, remember that disagreement is not the same as denying someone’s experience. Disagreeing is an important, healthy way to enable debate and share diverse perspectives. But you can disagree with someone without shutting them down or invalidating their experience. If we can all at least agree on that, then it becomes much easier to recognize and disarm gaslighters wherever they operate.

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About the author

Porter Braswell is the Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Jopwell, Founder of 2045 Studio, author of Let Them See You, and host of the podcast Race at Work. Subscribe to his weekly content pieces at Diversity Explained.

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