Gaslighting may or may not be a proper fallacy of logic, depending upon how you look at it, but it is clearly a tool used to win arguments. And among the fallacies we've covered, this is clearly the worst psychological trick. It is, in fact, a very nasty weapon.
To gaslight someone is to get them to doubt themselves… to make them question their own memory, perception and judgment; even to question their own sanity. So, this is a very nasty, malicious trick. But sadly, it often works. So, we need to understand this and to be prepared for it.
The name, gaslighting, comes from an old stage play, in which a horrible husband tries to convince his wife that she is insane by doing things like dimming the gas lights in their home then insisting that nothing has changed.
The person on the evil side of this trick is trying to weaken the mind of the victim, getting him or her to feel weaker and weaker, losing all confidence in themselves, and ultimately submitting to the attacker's accusations. And it really is appropriate to call gaslighting evil, since it involves intentional injury and abuse.
Gaslighters, however, generally avoid direct statements such as "You're going insane." Instead, they'll imply it, mention statistics about it, tell you what other people would think of you, and so on.
A short phrase from George Orwell's 1984 gets to the essence of gaslighting:
If one is to rule… one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality.
A gaslighter truly is trying to rule over his or her victim (cruelly), and their means of doing that is to dislocate the victim's sense of reality. Rather than judging themselves honestly, the victim ends up with the gaslighter's false and negative view of themselves.
How The Trick Works
Gaslighting works by planting small doubts, repeating them and reinforcing them. There are generally four major stages in this process:
The planting and reinforcement of doubts.
The target (you) accepting them as possibly true.
The target responding to them as if they might be true.
The gaslighter jumping upon #3 and riding it to whatever goal he or she seeks.
Bear in mind that healthy humans are careful to examine their own behavior. They learn to accept mistakes and then fix them. Gaslighting rides on the back of this good habit, trying to hijack it and to use your virtues against you.
Now, let me give you an example of this that I recently encountered:
One man made a fairly standard sort of comment on governments taking money from people. I responded, almost in passing, that it was not defensible on moral grounds, but only on dogmatic grounds. I wasn't expecting any response, but another man jumped right upon it. It went like this:
GL: You've simplified the situation to make your position hard to attack. Start being honest with yourself.
This person, unable to address my statement directly, chose to attack me instead.
Me: Your statement was mainly accusation and was fully unsupported. But I'll try it your way: Please describe this as you think it should be described.
Having some experience, I knew the man was amorally attacking, but I chose to continue and gave him a chance to setup the argument however he thought was fair.
GL: I made a clear statement. You simplified the process of taxation to make your position harder to attack. The rest is all based on that insight.
Note that he has no interest in setting up the argument his way: He doesn't want truth or reason, only to succeed in his attack, and so repeats it.
– Another exchange ensues, with me being accused of false honesty.
1: You said I unfairly simplified.
2: I said "describe it your way."
3. You refuse to identify a starting point for a conversation.
4. You decree that my honesty is false and that I'm hiding behind an emotional shield.
GL: You are calculated in how you phrase things. The emotion is meant to insulate your narrowing of the definition. (I never stated a definition and directly asked him to set one.) Again maybe you don't see it. (Pushing me to doubt myself again, using psychoanalytic methods.)
Me: Yes, I'm blind and you see; of course. You've made a long string of naked assertions, all of them demeaning.
To end it, I wrote this:
Ok, you're time is up:
– Oppositional to morality.
– Ignores direct requests.
– Repeated insults with no sign of remorse.
That's fairly harsh, but perhaps not harsh enough. This man did his gaslighting very well, which means that he's done it a lot. Perhaps I should have ended it sooner, but it did provide a good example.
A somewhat more blunt method of gaslighting popped up in 2020: If your skin is a certain color, you're racist, even if you never hurt people with differently colored skin or even hold racist thoughts. Again, this is an effort to make people doubt themselves… to suppose that they have some stain upon their souls, even though there's no real evidence of it.
What the method above really comes down to is a belief in racism as "original sin." And so it harmonizes with old, religious leanings.
What To Keep In Mind
The first thing to keep in mind when getting slapped with a gaslighting attempt is that positioning themselves as the reasonable or more enlightened one in the conversation is the gaslighter's first blow. Until you have some experience with this attack, that moment can slip past you, so you'll have to learn to recognize it. I wish I had an easier process for you to go through, but trial, error and learning from it is currently the best I have. Observing helps, but it doesn't substitute for actually getting hit.
You should also bear I mind that someone trying to gaslight you is fairly likely to be a sociopath; that is, someone profoundly lacking in empathy. This is a subject all its own (you can read about it in FMP #51), but this type of trick is especially common among sociopaths, simply because it works so well for them. And something like 1 in 33 men and 1 in 100 women are sociopathic. So, please bear this in mind:
Showing sympathy to a sociopath gives them more opportunity to hurt you. You are exposing soft spots to them. I know that sounds horrifying, but when engaged with a sociopath, sympathy will only make things worse for you.
Again, this is a separate subject, but you should be aware of this much.
So, if you find yourself questioning yourself, please stop immediately and disengage. It's all too easy to get sucked into gaslighting. Walk away uncomfortably if you must, but disengage. Unlike the other attacks we've mention, this one can endure for more than a moment or two.
As we said earlier, healthy humans are self-analytical and are happy to see to potential flaws. Understand that your introspection is a virtue, but that someone has weaponized it against you. Remember that when good people show you something you've done wrong, they'll go well out of their to avoid hurting you in the process.
Once you've separated and are feeling a bit less tortured, see if you can identify the nasty implications that got to you; bearing in mind that they may be things that were implied rather than stated directly. Get clear on the fact that you have been maliciously accused.
After that's done, you can think about making a final statement and terminating the discussion. Bear in mind, however, that your statement will be more for the observers than the gaslighter. The gaslighter probably won't care, save that they lost a juicy victim.
More next time.