Monday, April 27, 2020

Turn off the gaslights

Before we get to tonight's point, a short journey by way of a prelude to an excursion.

I was looking for Rupar's recent tweet trying to explain "gaslighting," but this article by Amanda Marcotte was easier to lay hands on, and gives a more extensive definition of the term:

Experts in domestic violence developed the term to describe the way that abusers in real life try to manipulate victims. The gaslighter works by denying reality, often when the facts are plain as day, with such conviction and repetition that the victim starts to question themselves and the evidence of their own senses.

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For instance, this might take the form of the abuser denying that he hit his victim or falsely claiming that she provoked it, and then browbeating her until she accepts the lie and even starts to wonder whether she imagined the whole thing.

Under Donald Trump’s administration, however, the term has ventured into politics. It’s become a way to talk about how Trump and his defenders won’t merely tell lies, but will stand by even the dumbest and most obvious lies, holding their ground until the defenders of reality simply give up fighting. This started from the very beginning of the administration, when Trump and his administration claimed his inauguration crowd was bigger than Barack Obama’s, and insisted on repeating that lie and intimidating government agencies into backing it up. Needless to say, this has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic, dialed up to an extreme.

One might wonder why we need a term with such a complicated back story, when the word “lying” is right there for the taking. The reason is that Trump lies so frequently and in such varying ways that it’s useful to have a taxonomy of Trump lies to understand the various ways his lies work and how best, perhaps, to resist them.
One might wonder, indeed, and Marcotte spends a lot of pixels trying to justify the application of the term to politics and distinguish it from "lying," but in the end, it can't be done.  "Gaslighting" does not work on a mass scale, any more than "mass hypnosis" works outside bad novels and cheap scripts.  "Mass hysteria" is even going too far; it plays better in old horror films where the villagers take up torches and pitchforks in the third act than it does in reality.  And that's not a small point, because the term comes from the manufactured reality, not actual reality.

Notice Marcotte roots the term in domestic violence "to describe the way that abusers in real life try to manipulate victims."  Well, abusers in real life are not strangers hiding in the bushes in the dark of night along the poorly-lit sidewalk.  They have relationships with their victims, usually relationships of trust and even some level of intimacy.  I read the comments and tweets of too many people too obsessed with Donald Trump (who honestly wouldn't know them if he met them), and they seem to confuse their interest/obsession with the President of the United States with reality.  Just as his "supporters" do, who think Trump speaks directly to, and for, them.  Well, it's a representative system, and we too often and easily think that means the politician re-presents us as we think we are. Not unlike Trump musing on how long it took to respond to the coronavirus, all the while excusing himself and blaming others.  Yeah, we do that, too; just seldom so transparently in public.

Anyway, gaslighting requires a relationship between persons.  I just saw an excellent example of it in a "Community" re-run, where the 7 main characters have gone to a (purported, we learn) psychiatrist, who in a last desperate effort against our "heroes," tries to convince them they've never attended Greendale Community College, but rather shared a mass delusion because of their failures that led them to Greendale, but Greendale was an asylum. It almost works, too (well, it's a comedy, and a meta-commentary on TV shows and TV story-telling), because by the almost-end of the episode the "psyhiatrist" has created enough of a relationship with seven individuals that he has convinced them that what he says is true and can be trusted.

It's also, of course, flamingly ridiculous.  One character points out he has 1000's of photos of the school on his phone, another that she's carrying a school backpack.

How much more effort does it take to refute Trump's lies?  And while obsession with the news and the latest post on the internet or tweet by whoever may seem as if you have some sort of close, even intimate, relationship with President Trump:  you don't.  He barely has a relationship with the American public.  He certainly has no power to persuade them up is down and black is white and he was not talking to Dr. Birx last Thursday but to somebody else, and that he was being sarcastic about bleach and black lights anyway.  "Gaslighting" works because you develop a level of deep trust in the victim, and then abuse that trust to convince the victim they don't know what reality is.  I can see how an abusive person would use it.  But you can't use it on an entire nation, or an entire political party.  People who agree with Trump actually agree with Trump.  They hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest.  They aren't dupes "hypnotized" (another favorite media trope for several decades) by Trump's charisma and personal magnetism.  They actually think the way he does.  Is that a surprise?  Somebody's been making the name "TRUMP" on buildings worth something, and it isn't Donald Trump alone.

So enough with the "gaslighting."  You're using it wrong.  Trump is just a liar.  In those tweets above there are fine examples of bullshit, obtuseness, and sheer lies.  If Trump is gaslighting anybody, it's Donald J. Trump.  He actually believes what he says.  He actually thinks the rest of us believe it to, and only "fake news" and "nasty journalists" refuse to go along because they "hate" him.  I don't think he has any real power, except the power of his office and the fear of the GOP base most other elected officials seem to have.  And he doesn't use the power of his office effectively at all.  It's not a clever insight, and it's not distinguishable (in this case) from being a profoundly broken and incessant liar.  Trump lies.  He does it the way other people draw breath or make a sandwich.  He's not even very good at it, and the only reason it hasn't turned him out of office is because of our political system  (the GOP Senate) and the general unwillingness of the masses to grab the torches and pitchforks.  That only happens in the movies, or the French Revolution.  And even the French only did it once.

Now if Trump had ever had the gumption to build a Bastille.....

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