Gaslighting, power and differences of opinion

Trigger warning: this post discusses “gaslighting”, a form of emotional abuse

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse wherein the perpetrator causes the victim to doubt their perception of reality. It is a powerful tool for tormenting an individual, and may facilitate other abuse by causing even the victim to doubt whether the abuse has occurred. Its name comes from the play and 1944 film Gaslight, wherein the villain disorientates his wife in order to cover his plot. It is a brilliant film, with Ingrid Bergman powerfully portraying a woman who believes herself to be losing her mind as she sees the gaslights in the house dim and reignite and possessions vanishing as her husband convinces her that none of this is happening. I would strongly recommend watching, as it demonstrates the phenomenon so well, that it is little wonder it became its namesake.

After watching Gaslight, a discussion of gaslighting arose, and @a_y_alex posed a rather interesting question which is worth exploring:

Is gaslighting inherent to any difference of opinion within a system of dominance?

Many of us have encountered that frustrating situation wherein we are discussing privilege with a privileged person, and they refuse to believe that such a thing is possible: the pervasive notion that things cannot be anywhere near that bad for the oppressed. They fight their position tooth and nail, that any experience of oppression must be imaginary. Perhaps the derogatory terms will come out. The loony left. The hysterical feminists. The uppity black people. “You’re crazy,” they say, when confronted with a reality which differs from their own.

The effect of this can be quite powerful. When it piles on, it can fundamentally shake up a person’s perception of reality. When this has happened to me, I sometimes find myself seriously wondering if perhaps I have just imagined everything, put greater weight on little things I have experienced, things really aren’t so bad, and somehow twisted something perfectly normal into a victim complex. Having experienced gaslighting before, the effect can be much the same.

What complicates matters, though, is the intention. Gaslighting requires an attempt to cause the victim to doubt reality, by deliberately misleading and misinforming, by tampering with the physical space. In these scenarios, in the disagreements within a system of dominance, this is often not the case. What we get instead is two opposing perceptions of reality: for the less powerful, there is an experience of oppression; for the more powerful, how could such a thing exist when everything is so shiny and fine and the world is good and right? It is not a constructed, malicious attempt to disorientate a person into doubting reality, but rather, a difference of beliefs.

This is not to adopt the fence-sitting liberal position and say that both sides are right and have valid points: indeed, the privileged person is wrong in this instant. They just haven’t noticed because they cannot see the problem. It is something which is inherent to holding these kinds of conversation in an uneven power structure, but it is not gaslighting.

Well, not usually. Once in a while, you will encounter the utterly repulsive specimen who does intentionally, disingenuously mislead, who does attempt to resolve a difference of opinion by making the other person doubt themselves, to discredit and, ultimately, to win. Arguably, the system itself gaslights us: flagrantly denying and misdirecting us, pathologising dissent and painting those who criticise it as somehow mad.

So we often find ourselves in the situation where we feel the doubt, and that our perception of reality and our beliefs are shaken. There are ways of dealing with this. Most importantly, we must remember that we are right, feel stronger in our own beliefs. Upon feeling mislead, we should turn to those who share our critique and remind ourselves of why we are right. We must not be afraid of asking for help, for back up: just as gaslighting alienates and isolates its victims from support, so, too can this form of argument. Together, we can mitigate this impact. Together, we might just finally win.

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3 responses to “Gaslighting, power and differences of opinion

  • Joanna

    Thanks for this explanation of gaslighting. I think if someone suffers from PTSD/depression as I do it can be a way to silence, dismiss or discredit you, i.e. ‘you only think that because of your problems’ or ‘I didn’t say that last week, you weren’t very well’.

  • Chraeloos

    Reblogged this on Chraeloos and commented:
    I’ve seen this issue come up before, and I think I’ve probably dealt it before without realizing it (which, in essence, isn’t gas lighting, per say, since it was not intentional). The difference is that I was strongly questioning my own beliefs at the time, and that combined with my always playing the devil’s advocate turned nasty, I think. Anyway, gaslighting is a powerful tool, and can be a very harmful one. I do think it is important for everyone to question their beliefs at least once in their life, but it’s not going to be affective if it’s forced on them. Anyway, this is an interesting article by @stavvers. I suggest taking the time to read it!

  • Kathryn Hyde (@Pity_Kitty)

    “Is gaslighting inherent to any difference of opinion within a system of dominance?”

    I’ve just ended a same-sex relationship where this happened. It’s not strictly a male-female thing, although it’s clearly about power in relationships..

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