Modern Australian

Explainer: what does 'gaslighting' mean?

  • Written by Jessamy Gleeson, Research Officer, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University

Shortlisted for the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year, “gaslighting” has well and truly found its way into contemporary thought and vernacular.

The term has recently been employed to explain the behaviour of contestants on The Bachelor Australia, Monica Lewinksy’s experiences with the media post-Bill Clinton, and the words of US President Donald Trump.

Explainer: what does 'gaslighting' mean? Monica Lewinsky: in a recent essay she wrote of emerging from ‘the House of Gaslight’. Sheri Determan/WENN.com

But what, exactly, does it mean? Where did it come from? And why is it experiencing a resurgence today?

Gaslighting takes its name from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (itself based on the 1938 play Gas Light). In the film, Paula (Bergman) is deliberately and gradually manipulated by her husband, Gregory (Boyer), into believing she is insane. Paula’s late aunt’s priceless jewels are hidden in their house: if Paula is declared insane and committed to an asylum, Gregory can search for the jewels in peace.

One of his main tactics in convincing Paula she is losing her mind is his manipulation of the gaslights in their home. Whenever he sneaks off to the attic to search for the jewels, he switches on the lights in that part of the house: this leads all other lights to flicker and dim. Upon returning to Paula, he denies all knowledge of this, leading her to question her sanity.

In the film’s final scenes, Paula allows a policeman to enter the house while Gregory is preoccupied with his search. The policeman confirms that the lights are flickering, demonstrating that Paula is not insane.

What does gaslighting look like?

Gaslighting is a new term for a relatively old set of behaviours. If you’ve read the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra (about a woman cursed to foresee true prophecies that others disbelieve due to her perceived mental instability), watched The Truman Show, or listened to Shaggy’s hit song, It Wasn’t Me (in which a man tells his girlfriend it wasn’t him she saw having sex with another woman), you’ve seen gaslighting in action.

Although it can cover various behaviours, the central tenet of gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person in order to erode their sense of self and sanity.

The behaviour itself is not always deliberate, in that the perpetrator may not have consciously set out to distort another person’s experience of reality. But gaslighting is often used as a method of power and control.

Common gaslighting tactics can include denial of the gaslightee’s experience (“That wasn’t what happened!”), escalation (“Why would you question this? I wouldn’t lie to you!”), trivialisation (“You’re too sensitive, this is nothing”), and countering (“That wasn’t what happened, this was”).

Why now?

Gaslighting’s re-emergence in our day-to-day vernacular is in part due to a wider societal focus on violence against women. As we move towards a broader understanding of what constitutes abuse, there is growing recognition that psychologically abusive techniques such as gaslighting are often used to unnerve and demoralise others.

Gaslighting is increasingly being recognised as a technique of abuse by groups such as the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria and Safe Steps.

The term also rebuts a common set of stereotypes: the “crazy ex-girlfriend”, the “bitches be crazy” or “psycho bitch” refrain and the “hysterical woman”. Gaslighting reframes these cliches: instead of asking whether women are indeed crazy, it questions the motivations of the accuser.

Unfortunately, gaslighting has also been used to dismiss those who have employed #MeToo to speak out about their abuse. Comments directed to survivors that they must have “misread the situation” or “imagined the abuse” can in turn point to wider questions about a person’s sanity.

Gaslighting’s application in the public lexicon has become quite broad. For instance, many news articles have been written about Donald Trump’s so-called gaslighting behaviour towards the American public, in which he has tried to manipulate people into “doubting their reality”.

Explainer: what does 'gaslighting' mean? Donald Trump: various pundits have described his statements as a form of ‘gaslighting’. Shawn Thew/EPA

In a recent speech, for example, Trump criticised the media for its reaction to his trade tariffs policy, accusing it of broadcasting “fake news” and telling people, “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening”.

But in describing Trump’s behaviour as gaslighting, we lose some of the word’s context: it was developed to describe behaviour altogether more intimate and controlling in nature, and difficult to escape.

Still, aside from the latter example, the growing usage of “gaslighting” as a term is broadly a good thing. It signifies a deeper understanding of what abuse looks like and the many forms it can take.

Authors: Jessamy Gleeson, Research Officer, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University

Read more http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-does-gaslighting-mean-107888

NEWS

Domestic abuse or genuine relationship? Our welfare system can't tell

Financial abuse can be misinterpreted as 'sharing finances', which can indicate a relationship in the criteria of the couple rule. ShutterstockIn Australia’s social security laws, the “couple rule” is used...

Friday essay: why old is new again

A Royal Victorian Small Homes House, designed in conjuction with The Age newspaper, 1955. Photo: Wolfgang Sievers. Pictures Collection, State Library VictoriaOf all the mantras for modernism, the one I...

One-third of all preschool centres could be without a trained teacher in four years, if we do nothing

Currently, half of all early childhood teachers have a bachelor degree, with a further one-third still working towards one. from shutterstock.comOne-third of all preschools may lack a qualified teacher in...

Not one but two Aussie dishes were used to get the TV signals back from the Apollo 11 moonwalk

US astronaut Neil Armstrong on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.NASAThe role Australia played in relaying the first television images of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the Moon...

How public libraries can help prepare us for the future

Public libraries can use their status as community hubs to engage the public in scenario planning for the future.Mosman Library/Flickr, CC BYFor generations, libraries have helped people explore knowledge, information...

How our obsession with performance is changing our sense of self

How well we do – at work or on the sports field – influences how we see ourselves.from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-NDWe live in a society obsessed with performance. For both...

Australian writer Yang Hengjun is set to be charged in China at an awkward time for Australia-China relations

Charges against Yang appear to relate to his work as a writer and blogger in which he has been sharply critical of the Chinese regime. Facebook Australia’s relations with China...

More than 28,000 species are officially threatened, with more likely to come

A giant guitarfish caught in West Papua is hung from a fishing boat. Guitarfish are in trouble, according to the IUCN Red List. Conservation International/Abdy Hasan, Author providedMore than 28,000...

Being a Trump 'bestie' comes with its own challenges for Scott Morrison

It's now widely observed that Morrison and President Donald Trump have struck an early bromance.AAP/Lukas Coch“How good is this?” Scott might have said to Jenny, when word came that he’d...

Australian universities must wake up to the risks of researchers linked to China's military

Two universities are conducting internal reviews of research collaborations linked to the suppression and surveillance of the Uyghur minority in western China.Tracey Nearmy/AAPTwo Australian universities, University of Technology Sydney and...

Biden leading, followed by Sanders, Warren, Harris; and will Trump be beaten?

Joe Biden is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.AAP/EPA/Justin LaneThe next US presidential election will be held on November 3, 2020. Incumbent president Donald Trump will almost certainly be...

Opera Australia's Whiteley brings together 3 icons to tell the artist's complicated story

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia's 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. The opera focuses on the artist's addictions and his relationship with his wife. Prudence...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

DIY Home Remodelling Ideas That Adds ValueA place where design and functionality come togetherChoosing the Most Efficient and Effective HeatersGo on vacation without letting yourself goStaying Vibrant in Your Golden Years - 6 Tips to Stay HealthyHow to know when it is time to search for family law specialists in Sydney An All-in-one Guide to Buying Women’s Glasses5 advantages of getting an internship through PGP Australia5 Factors That Make All the Difference in Your Bathroom RemodelRelax on the beachIs A Multi-Room Audio System Right For My Home?Male power and food7 Tips for Preparing To Drive Across The NullarborHow to Save Money with Flash Sales