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Cameron Domenico Kirk-Giannini (Rutgers University-Newark), "Dilemmatic Gaslighting"
Forthcoming in Philosophical Studies
Gaslighting has gone mainstream. After searches for the term shot up 1,740 percent compared to 2021, Merriam-Webster recently declared ‘gaslighting’ its 2022 word of the year. But what is gaslighting, and why should we care about it?
Naturally, Merriam-Webster wouldn’t spotlight ‘gaslighting’ without offering a definition. It characterizes gaslighting (not exactly succinctly) as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
The Merriam-Webster definition does a great job of capturing what is distinctive about the interpersonal dynamic explored in the 1938 play Gas Light, which gave gaslighting its name. In the play, a husband seeks to convince his wife that she can’t trust her own perceptions of the gas lights in their apartment dimming when he goes out. Eventually, it is revealed that he is doing this to conceal the fact that he is a criminal periodically searching the apartment above for jewels.
But dictionaries aren’t the ultimate authority on the meanings of words. Conceptual analysis or careful investigation of the ways ordinary speakers use the word ‘gaslighting’ could reveal that the folks at Merriam-Webster have included too little in their definition, or too much. Indeed, there has been a recent flurry of philosophical work on the concept of gaslighting, with some philosophers proposing analyses more or less along the lines of the dictionary definition and others arguing that gaslighting should be understood quite differently.
To understand what gaslighting is and why it is important, I focus in my paper on two of its aspects: the dilemma a gaslighter presents to his victim and the harm she experiences if she trusts him.
Think of the situation of the wife, Bella, in the 1938 play when her husband, Jack, tells her that she can’t trust her perceptions of the gas lights. She has two options: she can either believe him or refuse to believe him. If she believes him, she will have to conclude that something is seriously wrong with her ability to form basic beliefs about what is happening around her. If she refuses to believe him, on the other hand, she will have to conclude that he is not to be trusted — a verdict that will likely destroy their marriage. To me, this dilemma is characteristic of gaslighting. The victim of gaslighting has to choose between believing the gaslighter, in which case she will have to accept that something is very wrong with the way she forms beliefs, and refusing to believe the gaslighter, in which case her relationship with the gaslighter will be undermined.
The dilemma faced by a victim of gaslighting is closely related to the harm she experiences if she decides to trust her gaslighter. Because Bella initially trusts Jack, she begins to believe that she can’t tell the difference between reality and her own hallucinations. This radically undermines her access to knowledge, effectively disabling her as an independent person. Gas Light has a happy ending: with the help of a police detective, Bella discovers what Jack is up to and brings him to justice. But real-life victims of gaslighting are often not so lucky. They are often permanently psychologically damaged by what happens to them.
Of course, it’s no surprise that we can find both the dilemma and the harm characteristic of gaslighting in the situation described by the 1938 play — that’s where the term came from, after all. What makes the concept of gaslighting important is that we can also apply it to situations in the real world. And this is where focusing on the dilemma and the harm associated with gaslighting makes a big difference.
If, like the Merriam-Webster definition, we focus on the fact that Jack is manipulating Bella, then in order to prove that someone in the real world is a gaslighter, we need to prove something about their intentions. This makes it very difficult in practice to tell for sure whether anyone is gaslighting, and it also means that we can’t treat certain intuitive cases of gaslighting as genuine gaslighting. For example, many people think that a situation in which a woman experiences sexual harassment in the workplace and her colleagues dismiss her account of what happened is a textbook example of gaslighting. In such a case, the colleagues present the victim with the dilemma characteristic of gaslighting and threaten to harm her by undermining her access to knowledge. But being dismissive is not the same thing as being manipulative, so if gaslighting has to be manipulative, they aren’t gaslighting her. Focusing on the dilemma and the harm characteristic of gaslighting gets things right about cases like this, while focusing on the manipulation gets things wrong.
The idea that gaslighting is about the dilemma and the harm faced by the victim rather than the intentions or motivations of the gaslighter has an important broader upshot for us all. Because it is possible to gaslight someone without intending to gaslight them, we should all be careful when we challenge others’ interpretations of their own lives and experiences. We should ask ourselves, “Am I really in a position to know better than this person what happened to him or her? Is my interpretation of events likely to be more accurate than their interpretation?” If the answer to these questions is negative, we should tread carefully, since dismissing or rejecting a person’s interpretation of their own experiences can cause them a great deal of harm.
You can read the full paper here.
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