Friday, May 06, 2022

Gaslight and gaslighting

In recent times the words 'gaslight' and 'gaslighting' have become prominent in particular in the United States, aided by the efforts of Donald Trump and his cult followers, who want to believe that the truth is a lie.

The Google Books Ngram Viewer (see below) is a search engine that charts word frequencies from a large number of books and for the two words here the time period is 1938-2019. Gaslight has more frequencies than gaslighting.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gaslighting as "psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator."

Whether it is gaslight, gaslit, gaslighter or gaslighting, M-W says "The Historical Dictionary of American Slang' has a record of use in a speech from 1956 in which a woman defines gaslight in a way that reflects the above definition and gives its source [as being a 1944 movie.] The term is commonly used today as a verb and verbal noun."

Gaslighting derives from the 1935 play 'Gas Light' by British playwright Patrick Hamilton and it was first staged in London in 1938.

The play was set in foggy London in 1880. Years after an aunt was murdered in her home by a thief searching for jewels, a young woman, Bella Manningham, moves back into the house with her new husband. However, Jack Manningham has a secret and he seeks to convince his wife that she's going insane. The gas light flickers, items in the house seem to disappear and Bella hears strange noises from the sealed attic. A police detective named Rough convinces Bella that Jack has been responsible for the torment. Rough explains that the murderer had never found the jewels.

A film version called 'Gaslight' by British director Thorold Dickinson was released in London in 1940 and in the United States as 'Angel Street.' Four years later in the US Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released 'Gaslight' directed by George Cukor with Ingrid Bergman, born in Sweden and Charles Boyer born in France, in the leading roles. Bergman was named Paula in this 1944 film and Boyer was called Gregory.

“Are you trying to tell me I’m insane?” Paula asks and her husband retorts: “Now, perhaps you will understand why I cannot let you meet people.”

This year in the US a new TV series named 'Gaslit' was launched. It focuses on President Nixon's Watergate scandal. Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell (played by Sean Penn) tries to cover up his criminal activities while his wife Martha (Julia Roberts) becomes the first person to publicly sound the alarm on Nixon's involvement in Watergate, resulting in both the first presidential resignation and Martha's personal life to unravel.

John Mitchell and his accomplices in effect gaslights Martha.

Gaslit - illuminated by light - is an adjective and the first use of it was apparently in 1837.

Collective gaslighting

Cognitive dissonance was investigated by American social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. He was involved in an observational study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. The predicted calamity did not materialise but the leader announced she received a “message” saying that the group “had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” The so-called seekers felt vindicated and they went back to spreading the truth with a renewed determination. According to Festinger, they resolved the intense conflict between reality and prophecy by seeking safety in numbers.

“If more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly, it must, after all, be correct.”

Cognitive dissonance and the flawed American democracy

In November 1964, after the presidential election, Harper's Magazine published an essay by historian Richard Hofstadter:

It began:

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant."

In the age of the Internet, fanned by the poison spewed by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network, serial liars and con men become heroes.

'Elmer Gantry,' the 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis, was called by HL Mencken — the American newspaper editor and wit, "the greatest, most vital, and most penetrating study of hypocrisy that has been written since the works of Voltaire."

Gantry is a con-man preacher and besides being a con man Trump is also a racist. Trump was the most overtly racist president since Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921.

From 2011 to 2016 Trump ingratiated himself with the Republican Party base with his birther campaign suggesting the first black president, Barack Obama, was an illegitimate president on the false claim that he had been born in Keyna. In September 2016 Trump accepted that Obama had been born in the US while claiming Hillary Clinton had begun the birther campaign in 2008.

In August 2016 72% of registered Republican voters still doubted President Obama’s citizenship, according to a NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll.

Stephanie Sarkis, a columnist for 'USA Today' wrote [Consider Trump’s statement: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not happening.” Or this from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney: “Truth isn’t truth.” This is a classic gaslighting technique — telling victims that others are crazy and lying, and that the gaslighter is the only source for “true” information. It makes victims question their reality, becoming even more dependent on the gaslighter for “truth.”

Gaslighting behaviour has always been present in history, to a degree. It is par for the course whenever a person or entity wants to exert as much control as possible over others. But we haven’t seen this level of gaslighting since the Axis powers of World War II.]

“Toxic” was Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year in 2018.

Among the runners-up was “gaslighting. The dictionary noted its frequent use to describe tactics employed by President Trump.

The Fact Checker of The Washington Post counted a total of 30,573 false or misleading claims made by President Trump during his White House tenure.

Trump prepared for the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by claiming for months before the election that it would be rigged.

The Big Lie from Hitler to Putin and Versailles

Big lies are also prominent in Russia. Putin claims that the object of his invasion of Ukraine is “denazification.”

Putin has been the darling of white supremacists in the West. He has funded neo-Nazis.

"We do not plan to attack other countries; we did not attack Ukraine either. However, we just explained to Ukraine repeatedly that a situation posed direct security threats to the Russian Federation," Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, has said.

When asked how Russia can claim that it is fighting to "de-Nazify" Ukraine when President Volodymyr Zelensky is himself Jewish, Lavrov said: "I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. [That Zelensky is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews."

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter mass at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Russia on April 23, 2022. The Russian leader crossed himself several times during the ceremony. When Putin supporter Patriarch Kirill announced “Christ has risen,” Putin joined the other members of the congregation with the reply “Truly he is risen.” The patriarch supports Putin's murderous campaign in Ukraine and he described Putin’s 2012 election victory as a “miracle of God.”

The former KGB officer and a mass murderer is both a hypocrite and gaslighter.

Putin's versions of history are myths

It's a crime in Putin's dictatorship to refer to the Hitler-Stalin pact that was signed days before the Second World War began.

Oxford English Dictionary:

Etymology: the title of George Cukor's 1944 film Gaslight (a remake of Thorold Dickinson's 1940 version, in turn based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, first performed in 1938), in which a man psychologically manipulates his wife into believing that she is going insane. Compare gaslighting n.2

The title refers to the husband's adjustment of their home's gaslights to flicker and dim at unexpected times. Compare gaslight n.

transitive. To manipulate (a person) by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.

J. E. Lighter Hist. Dict. Amer. Slang (1994) I. 868/1 records an oral use from 1956.

1961 A. S. C. Wallace Culture & Personality 183 It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness.

1965 Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (The Grudge Match) (transcript of TV programme) 12 Nov.Duke. Maybe..we can get through to the Chief. Frankie. How do you mean? Duke. I mean psychological warfare... The old war on nerves. We'll gaslight him.

1977 Kennebec Jrnl. (Augusta, Maine) 22 Jan. 12/1 ; Starsky & Hutch begins as a straight story..then turns into a revenge tale, then who's gaslighting whom.

1987 National Lampoon Dec. 16 You gonna be gas-lighted by dese spooks.

2000 Spectator 1 Apr. 72/2 He ‘gaslighted’ Christina, humiliated and mentally tortured her, and shamelessly went after her money pretending to be investing it for her.


The Blame Game and its Irish connections

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