Sam Holstein

No One Is Gaslighting You

Gaslighting is a popular term right now. I see people accusing others of gaslighting all the time. In most of these cases, though, nobody is being gaslit. In most of these cases, no one is being gaslit, someone is just wrong.

Let’s take a look at the formal definition of gaslighting:

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief.

Wikipedia, Gaslighting

And let’s take a look at the titular example of gaslighting:

The term originates in the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband in the 1938 stage play Gaslight, known as Angel Street in the United States, and the film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944. In the story, a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes. The play’s title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions. He also uses the lights in the sealed-off attic to search for jewels belonging to a woman whom he has murdered. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights but, in defiance of reality, he keeps insisting that the lights are the same and instead it is she who is going insane.

Wikipedia, Gaslighting

Now let’s flip this example on its head. What if the husband had not dimmed the gas lights? What if it really was in her head?

Then, of course, the husband’s concern for her perception of the dimming lights would be justified. People who see things that aren’t there need psychiatric help and her husband would be right to be worried about her. The only reason you can say the husband is gaslighting the wife is that, in reality, the lights really were getting dimmer.

In interpersonal relationships, gaslighting often occurs where one person asserts they feel a certain way and the other doesn’t. That’s a pretty clear example of gaslighting; one person has a subjective feeling, the other person tries to deny their subjective feeling.

You: When you said X, it hurt my feelings.
Them: No it didn’t! You’re making that up.


You: When you said X, it hurt my feelings.
Them: I never said X!

Both are pretty clear cases of gaslighting. But sometimes, we’re not being gaslit. Sometimes our perceptions are wrong.

Imagine you’re arguing with a partner.

Them: “You’re being ridiculous!”
Them: (they mean honey, slow down, think this through)
You: (you hear you’re being absolutely crazy I can’t stand you!)
You: “How could you fucking say that!?”
Them: “What? I didn’t say anything!”

In this argument, nobody is being gaslit, for one important reason: nobody is intentionally denying anyone’s reality. Yes, you both have different perceptions of what just happened, but neither one of you has a claim to an unquestionable, incontrovertible truth. That doesn’t exist here.

However, the following interaction would be gaslighting:

You: “Oh, I thought you were saying I was being crazy”
Them: “You didn’t think that! You were just trying to make me look like a dick!”

There is an unquestionable truth here (you did think that) and they are denying it. This is gaslighting.

Sometimes even our memories are wrong.

A few weeks ago, I had this conversation with an old friend and a friend of hers…

Me: “I’m (her) old friend.”
Her: “Yeah, we’ve known each other since we were young.”
Her friend: “When did you two meet?”
Me: “High school”
Her: “Uh… no, we met in middle school.”

Is she gaslighting me? No, because we actually did meet in middle school. I was just wrong.

Sometimes people claim gaslighting occurs in a political context. The political examples I often see used for gaslighting, however, are not gaslighting.

Take the article The Media Gaslighting of 2020’s Most Likable Candidate. The claim “Elizabeth Warren is a charismatic figure” is not an incontrovertible truth. It is an opinion. When the media ‘casts’ Elizabeth Warren as ‘a nagging schoolmarm,’ they are not gaslighting Elizabeth Warren’s existence, they are making the competing claim that Elizabeth is not a ‘charismatic figure,’ but ‘a nagging schoolmarm.’

This is the job of the media in a democratic society when it comes to politics; cover all of the competing claims at play, and help viewers and listeners discern the truth.

It would be gaslighting if every single person crafting the schoolmarm narrative knew without a doubt she was not a schoolmarm, and were intentionally crafting this narrative… but come on. Ockham’s razor, people. What is more likely: a double-digit portion of the population is consciously engaged in a nefarious gaslighting conspiracy to deplatform Elizabeth Warren, or that a double-digit portion of the population just has a competing opinion?

I’m not saying all political accusations of gaslighting are wrong. For instance, Wikipedia has an excellent example of recent political gaslighting:

Ben Yagoda wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2017, that the term gaslighting had become topical again as the result of Trump’s behavior, saying that Trump’s “habitual tendency to say “X”, and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, ‘I did not say “X”. In fact, I would never dream of saying “X”’” had brought new notability to the term.

Wikipedia, Gaslighting

Here is a list of things Trump has lied about in office. If we assume he’s genuinely lying (and not merely mistaken), these lies qualify as gaslighting. Here’s a great example of a dumb lie Trump was caught in:

Here’s what Trump tweeted on the evening of Christmas Day: “I hope everyone is having a great Christmas, then tomorrow it’s back to work in order to Make America Great Again (which is happening faster than anyone anticipated)!” So what exactly did he do to get “back to work” on December 26th? According to his official schedule released in the White House pool report, Trump had literally nothing on his work schedule today. Instead he hung out at a golf resort.

PalmerReport, Donald Trump caught in one of his most idiotic lies yet, 2017

What makes something political gaslighting? Incontrovertible truth that it isn’t true. Not opinions, not suspicions, completely incontrovertible truth.

Even then, what counts as incontrovertible truth is up for debate. In the above golfing example, what if Trump spent his entire golf day talking with important advisors? What if those conversations made progress for the national debate? In that case, PalmerReport would be the ones who were wrong. From our position as mere citizens with no insider information, we technically can’t know for sure.

I’m comfortable calling that a Trump lie because the White House themselves published Trump’s schedule. But what about when it comes to softer subjects, like feminism? Feminists say sexism is a huge problem in America still today, anti-feminists claim sexism is a here-and-there tragedy, not a pervasive and shaping force in today’s America. You may believe that’s true, you may believe it’s so obvious you can’t believe anyone would question it, but unlike with the gas stove or Trump’s White House schedule, there’s nothing to which we can point to just know. Every (honest) feminist is forced to entertain the possibility, however remote, that we’re wrong.

There are always two sides to a debate. There are even two sides to historical debates we think are said and done. Decades later, there’s still room for debate on whether or not the Civil Rights act was as well-constructed as it should have been. Going back even further, Abraham Lincoln was more hated as a President than even Trump is today. He won by the lowest margin of any President in history, a mere 39.8% of the voteOur only civil war started during his presidency. They didn’t have approval ratings back then, but if they did, Lincoln’s would have been the lowest in history.

That’s why most political discourse isn’t gaslighting. For someone to be gaslighting, there can’t be two sides, and rarely is there only one side.