I am grateful to Trump for one thing: mainstreaming ‘gaslighting’ | Emma Brockes


Of all the words that have, over the last few years, entered mainstream usage to describe the malevolence of others, by far the most powerful is the term gaslighting. I use it a lot, and find myself thinking each time that this is what it must have been like when the term “sexism” took off in the late 1960s, giving shape to an amorphous sense of unease latterly denied. As with other, relatively new descriptors – primarily “toxic” and “boundaries” – accusations of gaslighting are a quick and effective way to end any discussion, since denial of gaslighting is the primary signifier of gaslighting. Set and match!

Credit where it’s due: we have Donald Trump to thank for this state of affairs, and such is his hubris it would be entirely in keeping with the man to claim as victory the fact that a term popularised to describe his appalling behaviour was this week unveiled by Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher, as its word of the year. It was Trump’s ability to deny, with absolute certainty and total indignation, something he had moments earlier said or done that pushed a marginal term invented in 1938 fully into the mainstream. Now it is available to all of us to use and enjoy.

And boy, have we done so – or at least, I have. It started off as an exercise in revisionism, going back over old exchanges and feeling vindicated for the something-is-wrong-here vibe I had at the time and that was vehemently rejected by the other side. “That’s not what I meant!” “You’re being oversensitive.” And of course the big one, “You’re imagining it”; such sweet relief to drag all this out and, after shoving it through the gaslighting prism, park it under the heading “I Knew I Was Right”.

The definition of gaslighting on Merriam-Webster.com. Photograph: AP

The problem, of course, is the ease of this process, the appeal of assuming the victim position, and the pleasing superiority that comes with calling people out, dynamics that are all mildly addictive. It’s easy to get trigger-happy, something that is happening all over the place with the newish application of old terms in the interests of winning a discussion. People who are merely annoying are “toxic”. Anyone who’s a bit selfish – most of us, in other words – is a narcissist. Things one writes off as gaslighting may, on closer inspection, be simple differences of opinion. As an accusation, it forestalls further debate, prioritising feelings – yours – as the only relevant indicator of meaning in a particular exchange.

It remains a useful internal tool for fortifying one’s impressions against the dismissal of people – men, let’s face it – with no idea what they’re talking about. This happened the other day to a friend who returned to her seat at a straight bar in Midtown Manhattan and had her fairly mild report of homophobic vibes in the bathroom roundly dismissed by the straight man she was with. “I would be amazed if any of the people here ‘hate gay people’,” he said, confidently. This isn’t gaslighting; there’s no abusive strategy at play, no end goal beyond winning the discussion. Nonetheless, the effect on my friend was undermining in a way that made her fleetingly doubt her own sanity. The broader discussion around gaslighting – that the imposition of one person’s perception in the interests of discrediting another’s is a widespread and corrosive thing – enabled her to withstand and reject his judgment. We all need permission to believe that because everyone can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

If this is part of the metric, then I’m sure I gaslight people all the time, primarily out of laziness and to avoid conflict. That low-level, passive-aggressive vibe you’re getting off me doesn’t exist; no, I’m not ignoring you; it’s fine. Some level of gaslighting is probably necessary to oil the wheels of any relationship that isn’t one of those hideous pairings in which you see two people – and I’ve experienced this, too – are neurotically checking in with each other every five minutes. “Are you OK?” “Are we OK?” “What are you thinking?” “Have I annoyed you?” This is what we would, with effortless pathologising, diagnose these days as “neediness” and feel fully justified in shutting down; to do otherwise would be to submit to an unreasonable demand for emotional labour. The other person can deny that’s what they’re doing until the cows come home. But, of course, that would be gaslighting.



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