A Few Notes on Gaslighting

A few million (mostly) women in the U.S. and abroad marched yesterday. They marched to protest various forms of oppression, symbolized in a new presidential platform that involved explicit racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

That seems like a good thing.

Today, the President of the United States’ surrogates held several media junkets. The point of these media events? To lie about how many people did (or, rather, did not) attend this year’s presidential inauguration. Yes, it is all very strange.

What it isn’t is new.

Many people have used the term “gaslighting” to describe the new President of the United States’s relationship to facts and evidence. I was around when gaslighting became a term du jour in various internet circles that talk about social movements and social justice. Basically, gaslighting is:

is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target.

For example, the easily proven, blatant lie that President Trump’s inauguration has the largest crowds “ever, period”, as his press secretary claimed, would be an attempt to deny reality, misdirect public interest in this president’s mandate to govern, contradict arithmetic logics, destabalize media and organizers, and delegitimize direct democratic action.

Seems to fit.

But, again, my point is about how new is this regime of destabilization and delegitimization. I don’t harp on this for ego’s sake. I bring it up because I do not know how people are going to resist direct attacks on basic civil liberties if they spend an inordinate amount of time re-inventing the wheel. The other side is moving ahead with politics while the opposition worries about this “new” gaslighting culture of politics.

One could use all kinds of historical examples of how gaslighting works and how people have resisted it. I will use the examples most available to me because of my expertise. This isn’t exhaustive. And, in fact, you can find some example of what we often call hegemony in any stratified society. Hegemony is when the undue influence of a group serves your interests; gaslighting is when it does not. If today’s hegemony feels like gaslighting to you, it is probably because you have benefited from the power of undue influence over “facts” and “rationality” for a long time.

For example, let’s take the very idea of “race”. Race is a way to stratify a society. Ergo, there must be some hegemonic power served by the creation of this social fiction. As it turns out, the fiction of biological, irrefutable, natural “racial groups” serves the interests of those at the top of that hierarchy. In our current world, that would be whiteness (the idea or concept) or white people (the persons and groups granted the privilege of that idea and concept).

How could a fiction, easily refuted by science, that bastion of rationality, not only persist but take on so much social power that today we talk about it being real and biological even though we know it is not?

That kind of gaslighting involved the creation of an entire language, political and economic system. When it served powerful interests for science to justify oppression, scientists have turned evidence into fictions. Governments have rewarded these fictions with funding, backed by military dominance. And, our institutions have validated them by promoting those willing to trade in these fictions as if they are facts. Rationality, or what we call it, is really a proxy for “the interests of military imperialism at any given historical moment”.

The history is long. From phrenology to drapetomania to intelligence (IQ) tests to the “acting white” hypotheses, we make facts of fiction every day. We gaslight oppressed people every day. We tell them they are clinically insane for wanting freedom, stupid because of the migration patterns that inform their genetic code, and are bullied into poor academic performance even when they tell you that they are not.

How have racialized people, especially black people, dealt with this kind of sustained gaslighting?

I’m working on a project right now that will probably eat the next ten years of my life. In working on that project, I am considering the very rationality of science, especially technology, given the irrationality of “race” and racism in the information age.

A few lessons from this reading:

  • Black people continued to produce evidence based knowledge that both advanced rational science (e.g. scientific method) and that also expanded its very definitions (e.g. valuing experience and emotions)
  • Black people built institutions to support, produce and archive this knowledge. Our black colleges, churches, neighborhood groups, blackplanet and livejournal communities are also archives.
  • Black people took to task every race fiction socially, politically and economically even knowing that hegemony stacked the deck against our winning a fair hearing, outcome, or reparation. We do it for the sake of documentation and because ethical appeals to the idea of reason matter.
  • Black people have instituted rules of politically linked fates, making strategic alliances when necessary to exploit weaknesses in any given political context. We rescind and renegotiate those rules as necessary, often generating criticism of purity tests and inconsistencies but political alliances are, by definition, malleable.
  • Black people have built affirmative identities that refute fictions about our natural inferiority. Even when our “comrades” mock us for it, we have taken the idea of co-opting and re-purposing language seriously because we know discourse is the grounds on which a lot of political action will happen. So, yes, we change what we’re called every five decades. We do it because hegemonic powers can co-opt our identification and use it against us. Technological advancements only speeds up the half-life of this co-option. We ignore the mocking and resist through discourse anyway.

Those are some of the lessons from what I might call the original gaslighting, i.e. imperial racism.


5 thoughts on “A Few Notes on Gaslighting

  1. Bring that fahr, Doc!

    What I’ve found so fascinating about this phenomenon, particularly in light of the election outcome, is the extent to which folks are dead serious about building a resistance to what they are calling fascism on the discursive grounds of American exceptionalism. They just ain’t giving up exceptionalism, and everything that comes with it.

  2. ” I am considering the very rationality of science, especially technology”

    Even more – reconsider the rationality of the individuals involved in the technology…

  3. Interesting because the Industrial Revolution itself is not rational, nor Capitalism in that it enslaves any demographic less wealthy than the top % of the world population. Who’s to say that it’s spawn, technology (a direct advancement of greed for instant gratification ), could not be the undoing of global Capitalism and result in worldwide Socialism/Communism. Looking back and looking forward.

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