George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight tells the story of Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and her new husband Gregory (Charles Boyer), who sets about the task of isolating her and making her believe she is insane. His eponymous tactic is to dim and brighten the gaslights and then insist she is imagining it.
Gregory aims to undermine Paula’s sense of self and everyday life, to confuse and distort her reality such that she must accept his own imposed reality in place of her own.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that makes you question your beliefs and perception of reality. Over time, this type of manipulation can wear down your self-esteem and self-confidence, leaving you dependent on the person gaslighting you.
Today, gaslighting is an increasingly ubiquitous term used to describe the mind-manipulating strategies of abusive people, in both politics and interpersonal relationships.
Mainstream and more so, social media, are popular platforms for gaslighting and dozens of online checklists instruct readers on the “warning signs” of gaslighting in their intimate relationships.
A second edition of Robin Stern’s 2007 bestselling book The Gaslight Effect was released in 2018, and the new edition considers how psychological manipulation dominates the “post-truth” political era. The Guardian’s Ariel Leve wrote an article in 2017 titled, Trump is Gaslighting America.
Psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, whose popular book Gaslighting came out in 2018, makes a similar argument. Gaslighting was even made an official part of criminal domestic law in the United Kingdom in 2015, and more than 300 people have since been charged with the offence.
Despite its growing recognition as an abusive power tactic, sociologists have ignored gaslighting, leaving it to psychologists to study.
Engaging in abusive mental manipulation certainly involves psychological dynamics, but scholars have so far disregarded the social characteristics that actually give gaslighting its power.
Specifically, gaslighting is effective when it is rooted in social inequalities, especially in gender and sexuality, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships.
When perpetrators mobilise gender-based stereotypes, structural inequalities, and institutional vulnerabilities against victims, gaslighting not only becomes effective, but devastating. While the origin of the term gaslighting gives the impression that it is a tactic of the master manipulator, one can gaslight without realising.
“Gaslighting can happen in work, family or platonic relationships as well as romantic ones,” says Cheryl Muir, a relationship coach based in the UK. “Sometimes, people who gaslight you in life aren’t doing it out of malice or to deliberately harm you, but rather due to a lack of self-awareness,” or perhaps even to protect you.
Muir noticed that children who witnessed alcoholism, domestic abuse or substance abuse in the home were often told it didn’t happen when they confronted their parents about it. Those parents might have the best intentions, to protect their child, but it actually comes out as unreliable, she says.
“That is a form of gaslighting, so from a young age you are not able to trust what your parents are saying, you go on not to be able to trust anyone else.” It has also been shown that denial is a common defence of child abusers.
Women are more likely to experience gaslighting both in professional environments and in their personal lives due to entrenched social inequalities.
“The assumption and stereotype that women are overly emotional, sensitive, irrational or fly off the handle easily is used to excuse the dismissal of their feelings and experiences,” says Paige Sweet, assistant professor at Michigan University.
Black women also experience a stereotype where they are expected to be strong and unbreakable, and end up feeling they cannot reach out for help as they will appear to go against the narrative and therefore weak.
Researchers use the term “racial gaslighting” to describe a way of maintaining pro-white/anti-black balance in society by labelling those that challenge acts of racism as psychologically abnormal.
Angelique M Davis and Rose Ernst, professors of political science at Seattle University have been researching how racial gaslighting maintains a pro-white/anti-black balance in society. Davis and Ernst use their expertise to equip employees of multi-national companies with the skills to spot and respond to racial gaslighting.
In the US, this type of work and teaching of Critical Race Theory has recently been banned by an executive order arguing that this focus encourages a “false belief” that America is a racist and sexist country.
Nearer home, Kenya is now only four months away from a General Election and undoubtedly, we are already seeing a lot of political gaslighting with each aspirant trying to preach their own version of reality now and the brand-new reality when they are voted into office.
It is the same old manipulative mind games and as usual Kenyans, many of whom are socially disadvantaged, are buying the various narratives hook, line, and sinker and expecting genuine change.
Unfortunately, real change can only take place when we take control of our own reality and reject the gaslighting of politicians.