Something I frequently see is people using the phrase “gaslighting” to describe argument tactics in one-off online conversations.
The problem with this is that gaslighting is something specific: the act of deliberately manipulating a person to doubt their sanity and judgment over a period of time. It’s not questioning someone’s judgment, it’s not calling someone’s credentials into question, it’s not a bad faith argument, and it’s not telling someone to “calm down” or tone policing them, all things I’ve seen called “gaslighting” over the last few years.
Why do people call these things gaslighting?
Well, we don’t really have a better phrase to describe the fairly widespread phenomenon of someone (usually men) being wrong with confidence, and then trying to prove that by acting like the person they’re talking to (usually women) are crazy.
“[incorrect rebuttal, indication that the speaker is crazy for thinking that statement is true]”
“Stop trying to gaslight me!”
Questioning someone’s sense of reality instead of questioning their facts is definitely an emotionally abusive argument tactic in some cases, but it’s not the insidious, deliberate manipulation that is gaslighting.
Gaslighting is getting someone to question their *own* judgment and sense of reality, not questioning it for them as part of an argument.
It reminds me of a months-long argument I had with an ex of mine, after we broke up. He’d bought himself a bed frame, I moved in with him, we moved to a new house together, and then he broke up with me and moved out, leaving the bedframe behind. A year later, he asked for it back, explaining that it was his and had always belonged to him. We went back and forth for months – he argued that he’d bought it and that he never agreed to give it to me, I argued that he’d moved all of his stuff out and left the bedframe behind, indicating that he no longer wanted it… It honestly led to the end of our friendship, as well. But the big divide – the reason it was such a fierce argument – is that I thought that he was wrong, and he thought that I was crazy.
But he wasn’t gaslighting me.
He wasn’t deliberately trying to manipulative me into questioning my own judgment. He was certainly questioning my judgment, but his goal was to bring me around, not to get me to stop trusting myself.
Now, sometimes people do experience gaslighting outside of long-term romantic relationships. Victims of organized mass harassment, which frequently occurs on platforms like Twitter, can be gaslit through deliberate actions by a group of trolls or harassers. People in long-term online friendships can be gaslit online. We’re currently experiencing nation-wide gaslighting by our own government, who lie daily to the press, deny truths, and question reality on all fronts.
Another thing I see online that I’d call gaslighting is when someone stands up for themselves against a bully or harasser or troll in a conversation, and the harasser’s response is “you’re being abusive to me!” Being called abusive is (often) a huge blow, especially for empathetic and moral people, and that word will make good people stop and reassess their actions. Were they being abusive? Did they act unacceptably? Should they not have stood up for themselves? Did they hurt this person? The action of calling someone abusive in a bad faith argument causes most people to do a 180, and immediately begin doubting themselves. It has the same kind of high-impact effectiveness that manipulation in a long-term relationship has.
I’m not saying that gaslighting isn’t actually gaslighting when it’s ineffective. If someone is deliberately trying to destabilize your mental health and you *catch* them, they’ve still tried to gaslight you. But it’s worth using the word carefully. It’s a terrifying tactic used by narcissists and abusers who try to break down their partners or victims to get them to rely entirely on them, and to get to have control over another person’s existence. When it’s used in response to abuse or harassment (usually online) that isn’t specifically gaslighting, it loses some of the power that it has to name an experience.
And I’m not saying that online abuse or bad faith arguments and manipulation aren’t serious, or that they shouldn’t be fought back against. Just please, use your words carefully.