Gaslit at Every Turn

from by Hugh Macleod   In his comment on this cartoon, Venkatesh Rao wrote: “Organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs. Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.” 

This week two of my favourite journalists, Zeynep Tüfekçi (writing about missteps in managing CoVid-19) and Caitlin Johnstone (writing about the media’s endless parroting of pro-war military-industrial complex propaganda and talking points) have both been riffing on the subject of gaslighting. The more I think about and witness this behaviour, the more I begin to see it as the definitive pathological behaviour of a civilization in collapse.

A key part of it is denial of wrongdoing or of a problem, on the part of the gaslighter, but accompanying that is misinformation or disinformation designed to provoke doubt (in others) that that denial is misplaced or simply wrong. So for example:

  • Climate change deniers will argue using faked “research” by fake “experts” that shows that climate change isn’t happening, and they will confront all your arguments by asking why you are denying or dismissing “their” “research”.
  • CoVid-19 deniers, same deal: they will argue using faked “research” by faked “experts” that shows that CoVid-19 is a fraud/conspiracy/exaggerated, and they will confront all your arguments by asking why you are denying or dismissing “their” “research”.
  • People in authority, including disingenuous “experts” or “leaders” in positions of trust, in denying that they seriously fucked up (politicians, health leaders, corporation execs, cops, lawyers, consultants, marketers, PR spinners, banksters, coaches, gurus, cult leaders, celebrities, media “personalities” and all the other sociopaths in the diagram above) will shrug off responsibility for their heinous errors by saying that at the time, that was accepted, or the best that we knew then, or that they were misled or misunderstood, or that that’s not what actually happened at all, to shift responsibility to others or suggest nothing wrong has been done. Or they’ll even blame their abused, manipulated, misled, weak, vulnerable, gullible, clueless followers and victims for somehow “asking for it” or ignoring their advice.
  • Racism deniers will belittle evidence of, and outrage over, systemic racism using statements like these (collected by Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah):
    • If you protested peacefully, more people would listen
    • What I said/did wasn’t racist, it was…
    • Racism doesn’t exist anymore; it’s not like when…
    • It was just a joke, calm down
    • _____ people are racist, too
    • Why is everything always about race?
    • Are you sure that’s what really happened? Maybe…
    • Just to play devil’s advocate here…
    • In my opinion, they weren’t being racist; I think…
  • Sexism/misogyny deniers will use these same statements, just substitute the word “sexist” or “misogynist” for “racist” in the examples above.
  • Spousal and child abuse deniers will ascribe justifiable reasons for their actions, shift responsibility/blame to their victims, and deny what actually happened (the facts, not just the rationalizations for them), suggesting that the victim didn’t remember what happened correctly.
  • Substance dependency deniers, same deal: will ascribe justifiable reasons for their actions, shift responsibility/blame to someone else, and deny what actually happened (the facts, not just the rationalizations for them), suggesting that the witness didn’t remember, or the person dealing with the consequences wasn’t told, what happened correctly.
  • Those denying the atrocities of imperialism/capitalism will invent atrocities in nations not under imperial control (eg the trumped-up “genocide” of China’s ethnic Uyghurs) to divert attention from imperialist atrocities (eg the killing and starving of millions of Yemenis). They will shift blame (eg to previous administrations), deny the facts (or, since they have the power, suppress the facts). They will invent facts (eg the bounties Russia allegedly gave the Taliban to kill Americans in occupied Afghanistan) and use their control of the gullible media (the most “clueless” of all) to perpetrate them. And if you get bullheaded about imperialist/capitalist atrocities, they’ll accuse you of coddling and fraternizing with “the enemy” (as in “if you like them so much, why don’t you move to China/Russia/Iran/Venezuela/Cuba/Bolivia/Syria etc.”).

These are all forms of deeply mentally disturbed behaviour — sociopathy. And it’s behaviour that our modern culture has incited, tolerated, encouraged, reinforced and even rewarded. The biggest (and possibly most heartless) business failure in the entire history of human civilization was rewarded by being elected (and almost re-elected) president.

Let me reiterate, at the risk of being really annoying, that I don’t think anyone is to blame for this state of affairs. We do what we are genetically and culturally conditioned to do, and this has been the result. Georgia’s voter-suppressers will go on denying they’re racists. Biden will go on denying, as Obama did, that he is commander-in-chief of the most murderous government by far of this century, and is dangerously escalating the threats and violence on many fronts. Misogynist professors will keep on attracting adoring crowds of mentally disturbed young male incels while insisting their arguments are all about freedom of speech. This is what they’ve been conditioned to do.

We can become more aware of it, but we’re not going to change it. You can’t open up the minds of 7.8B people who are not well, and pour some magical healing salve on each of them, and end sociopathy. No one has that power, and the ones with the most power are the sociopaths.

And we are all sociopathic, even those of us who have been merely clueless all of our lives (doing our best “within the system”, like me), or the losers (as Hugh points out, he means ‘loser’ in the sense of having lost out on power, wealth, and opportunity their whole lives, and is not saying they’re stupid; in fact they may be smart for keeping their heads down and just doing what they’re told, without thinking too much).

The clueless and the losers are merely an order of magnitude less sociopathic than the real sociopaths who, according to their nature, have clawed their way to the top (or been anointed by their sociopathic parents or ‘leaders’), and who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the atrocities and damage that is rapidly collapsing our civilization.

But we had no choice in the matter. We are all doing our best.

So how did this come about? Well, let’s take a look at the prototypical narcissistic sociopath, be s/he organizational leader or just garden-variety big-fish-little-pond abuser. One source says they probably have developed these personality traits:

  • They think they’re unique, gifted, more ‘right’, and more important than other people
  • They obsessively and constantly crave appreciation, admiration, attention and power
  • They can’t handle criticism, losing, or not being in control
  • They actually have fragile egos beneath the uncaring veneer and are easily hurt, angered and humiliated
  • They take everything personally
  • They are inflexible in their beliefs and values and not open to different views or ideas
  • They show, and have, no empathy for others, since they find such feelings painful and useless; as a result they tend to dissociate from reality, and lash out at or distance themselves from people with whom they disagree

If this sounds like someone you know, it’s probably because, to some extent or other, these are the hallmarks of what I’ve called Civilization Disease (what Deena Metzger calls Extinction Illness), that afflicts us all. We are not well. You have to be crazy to survive in this culture.

But so what? So what if our culture systemically engenders and rewards sociopathy? What difference does it make in our efforts to avert climate and ecological catastrophe, or to overthrow the imperialist, globalist hegemony that hoards all new wealth and destroys ecosystems and societies in the process? What difference does it make in our efforts to cope with, and prevent recurrences of, pandemics, family abuse, systemic racism and misogyny, obscene inequality, conspiracy theories and cults?

Here’s a chart showing what gaslighters do, for example, to deny, refute and undermine policies and programs based on actual science:

image from wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Zeynep’s article, linked above, explains how much damage has been caused by this gaslighting about what we actually knew, a year ago, about CoVid-19. That’s on top of all the challenges we’ve had to face dealing with the known and unknown unknowns. The latter are inevitable; the former have resulted in millions of additional deaths. That’s why, even though we can’t blame the gaslighters for their mental illnesses, their gaslighting is such a tragic and devastating problem.

We’re facing the same challenge, and devastation, from climate and ecological collapse deniers, and from those who deny that the Biden administration has actually ramped up the atrocities of global imperialism (notably the horrific and continuing war in Yemen, the spraying of toxic chemicals on crops in Colombia, the dangerous escalation of warmongering and deceit about China, etc). Read Caitlin’s blog for that never-ending saga.

And these are problems we can’t “fix”. The systems of our civilization will continue to engender and reward sociopathy, and they are so vast and complex that only civilization’s collapse will, eventually, bring an end to them.

So what, then? You know I offer no answers or “solutions”, since there are none. But those of us predisposed by our conditioning to at least know what is going on, may just learn how gaslighting works — with such devastating effectiveness — and make ourselves less likely to be victimized, propagandized or bamboozled by it. And perhaps become more compassionate for its victims, and maybe even its perpetrators.

I have no idea how we will then live with ourselves. When it really makes no difference who we vote for, what groups we belong to, or what we do (beyond the very local level) as activists, what is the point in becoming a little less clueless?

Perhaps there is none. But those of us conditioned to want to know, no matter what, will, at least, know a bit more. As we all become chroniclers of civilization’s collapse, that, too, is the best we can do.

Perhaps we need a little symbol we can signal or send to each other that means “We are being gaslit“, that we can send each other as an expression of caution or compassion, and that can attach to all the mis- and disinformation we encounter from all sides. Maybe something like this?:

Maybe add this to the ten symbols for the types of science denial/disinformation shown in the earlier graphic, and let us use them as emoji-type labels we can append to articles as a kind of shorthand warning. Gaslighters are pretty merciless in their methods to manipulate us; perhaps we could use this shorthand to fight back.

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2 Responses to Gaslit at Every Turn

  1. The list of people includes those who deny that trans people are valid; as you said, ” . . . deniers will argue using faked “research” by fake “experts” that shows that climate change isn’t happening, and they will confront all your arguments by asking why you are denying or dismissing “their” “research”.”

    Great article, Dave!

  2. Bart Anderson says:

    You’ve described something real, and I agree that there’s no magic solution.

    I’m ambivalent about using psychological concepts like gaslighting to describe politics. Gaslighting is personal and evokes an emotional response. It’s helpful when describing narcissistic relationship. In politics, I think it pushes us into taking things too personall, thinking that these phenomena are uniquely bad now.

    May I suggest the concept of ideology, which Marxists and others use to describe this sociological process?

    Groups promote ideas that justify themselves. This process shouldn’t be surpirsing, and there’s no need to take it personally.

    We should expect it with any group. Sometimes the ideology is fiercely enforced (e.g. the military). Other times, much less so (universities and the press in democratic countries)

    The term “ideology” is broad, covering assumptions, cultural trends, infrastructure, etc., as opposed to “gaslighting” which is just one tactic. There are many historical examples, many analyses, ways to deal with it.

    As you imply in your piece, Dave, I think the phenomenon of ideology is inevitable. Death, taxes and ideology.

    Fortunately, there are ways to protect ourselves individually, and at times to reduce the more destructive aspects of it in society.

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