The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 movie Gaslight that stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The film portrays a clever sociopath convincing his new wife that she’s going crazy by manipulating her sense of reality. The gaslights dim for no good reason. The husband insists that she’s imagining it, and he plays other tricks to get her to question her sanity. Today, gaslighting is mostly used to describe manipulation in relationships where the guy (usually) is having an affair and tries to convince his wife/girlfriend that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the clues she thinks she sees that suggests he’s cheating.
Gaslighting strategies include: (1) Telling gigantic, often obviously false lies over and over, (2) Insisting that what one observed first hand didn’t really happen, (3) demeaning and criticizing the victim, (4) Isolating the victim from other sources who would help them reality check.
However, the term has come up a lot lately in reference to President Trump and his persistent claims that his version of an event is the real one — like the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Because he’s a master manipulator some see sinister motives in his insistence on his version of a story being real. Is he actively playing us, manipulating our sense of reality to gain further control? Or is he just so childish that he just has to have his way and won’t be satisfied until everyone buys into it? Hopefully, time will tell.
In fact, gaslighting is no more or less than the tyranny of the self-possessed over the insecure, or someone with more power and control insisting that their version of reality is THE reality. It is a favored trick of narcissists and cult leaders — their victims being the insecure and codependent. Someone with a strong ego and confidence in their ability to reality check is not likely to fall prey to gaslighting.
Fake news is more problematic, especially in this era of Facebook, Twitter and social media. I spend more time each day scrolling thru my feed on Facebook than I’d care to admit, and what I see is governed by some algorithm likely based on what I’ve clicked on in the past. Unfortunately, over the past year I get more and more rancorous stories and memes with a political focus. Funny cat videos aside, what I really would like to see is more heartwarming, funny or spiritual stories and memes. Anyway, some of my feed comes from the far left and some come from the right. I have four or five friends from both ends of the political spectrum and so I guess what I’m exposed to via their posts is about as “fair and balanced” as Fox News. That is to say balanced, but fair, not so much.
My internal baloney detector tells me that about 50% of what I see is distorted, unbalanced, partially false or outright lies. My baloney detector is based on spending three years in graduate school studying experimental psychology. At New Mexico State we were taught to be pure empiricists and rigidly skeptical to boot. Empiricists are taught to ignore opinion and to let the data speak for itself.
In the section on “power” in my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations I write about the malignant power of reality thieves that spread falsehoods on the internet and Facebook. I give several examples of stories I have come across. My favorite is that the PBS kid’s show host Mr Rogers was a Marine Corps sniper in Viet Nam with over 20 kills. That one made me laugh out loud but surely their were folks who believed it.
Even so, I’ve been fooled a few times by clicking “like” on a story that Snopes.com said was likely false. However, what I’ve discovered is that Snopes has an orientation too–and one more liberal than my own. So fact checking is sometimes helpful, however there’s no guarantee that the fact-check site is neutral.
For me the most interesting statement in the Bible uttered by a non-believer is when Pilate says to Jesus, “What is truth?” That question can be interpreted in so many ways. He might as well have said, “What is reality?” And I’ve asked that question myself innumerable times. Sadly, for many reality is what they choose to make it. It is what they are prone to believe rather than what the facts actually indicate. However, one thing for sure, it’s a question that will not be answered by social media. Fake news proliferates on Facebook and there’s no good way of regulating it. Take away social media and the fake news problem would drop by over 50%.
However, what is even more discouraging is that major newspapers reprint fake news and don’t really seem to care. In the old days magazines and newspapers had fact checkers. Veracity was important. Today, politically correct opinion and commentary trumps the facts. Ditto the major TV networks.
Trying to sort thru opinions to find the facts is hard work. Consider hot button topics like climate change and trickle-down economics. One PhD says this, but another expert with equally good credentials says the opposite. Tacking down the hard data and drawing a conclusion is arduous. It’s work that most are unwilling to do and so we opt for a cleverly worded opinion that reflects what we already believe.
Way back in 1986, I wrote an unpublished essay about the perniciousness of lies, liars and lying. This likely was prompted by reading Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. Peck’s book was about evil people and how the psychiatric nomenclature is inadequate to describe evil. I never finished the piece but I remember some of what I wrote. My point was that the evil in lies and liars was that we need the truth to make good decisions — sometimes life and death decisions, and that those who steal our reality by deliberately lying to us are truly evil people. My insight at the time seemed a half-step expansion on what Peck had written.
Even baby-Christians know that Satan is a liar, the father of lies (John 8:44) and a thief (John 10:10). Satan came to lie and to steal and to kill. Gaslighters, deliberate purveyors of fake news, and plain old liars all serve the devil in that they seek to steal our reality, kill the truth–and in some sense destroy us as well. Whether we are a believer or not we owe each other the truth as human beings — the truth as best we can discern it.