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Gaslighting & The Illusion Of Post-Truth

It became noticeable because of one of the scenes of the 1944 Oscar-winning film Gaslight, starring Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman (August 29, 1915 – August 29, 1982), based on a 1938 play by English playwright and novelist Anthony Walter Patrick Hamilton (March 17, 1904 – September 23, 1962). In that movie, Gregory Anton tried to prove that his wife Paula had psychological problems, in order to embezzle her wealth in Victorian Era London. There, in the film, Gregory tried to establish that Paula was gradually becoming forgetful, as she used to hear footsteps upstairs, and see the gaslights turning dimmer. Gregory convinced Paula that it was nothing, but her imagination. In reality, the sound of footsteps or the dimming of the light was absolutely true, as Gregory used to search for his wife’s jewellery upstairs. However, he deliberately controlled the environment in an attempt to weaken his wife emotionally.

This was an example of Gaslighting, at an individual level. However, the concept cannot just be confined to Victorian London. Instead, Gaslighting exists all over the world. After securing its place in plays and films, the concept started influencing the field of psychology in 1969. It entered our drawing rooms about six years ago, during the rise of 45th US President Donald John Trump. Trump and some other politicians contributed to this immense change in the history of Human Civilisation. Interestingly, the character and variation of Gaslighting also changed in 2015-17. The concept of Gaslighting went beyond the individual level, and gradually became a collective concept. It has not only engaged many simultaneously, but also successfully spread the illusion of Post-Truth throughout the society.

Perhaps, the phrase Post-Truth is the construction of a new consciousness in recent times. There is nothing new in this concept, as Post-Truth has been applied for a very long time. However, the credit of this remake goes to some politicians, including Trump. In 2016, Post-Truth found its place as the Word of the Year in Oxford Dictionary, which can be said to be indicative of the dynamic nature of modern civilisation. The appearance of this new theory of Post-Truth is abstract. Although some people have managed to realise a little bit of this world, the majority is still struggling to understand the creation and technique of this delusion.

In such a scenario, the word Gaslighting has gotten a wider meaning, with Merriam-Webster dictionary defining 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”.

In December 2016, American journalist, feminist and political columnist Lauren Duca (b. February 24, 1991) wrote an op-ed article, titled ‘Donald Trump is Gaslighting America‘, in Teen Vogue. In her article, Duca argued that Trump, the then President-elect, was relying on deceit to undermine the truth so that his critics would question their own judgement. In January 2017, Frida Ghitis, the World Affairs columnist and analyst of CNN, described Trump as Gaslighter in Chief. Trump not only created an atmosphere of Post-Truth, but also attacked the media for spreading Fake News. Experts reportedly identified his creative technique to suppress facts as Gaslighting. They have opined that the British Government, too, adopted a similar strategy ahead of Brexit.

In 2018, the word Gaslighting was one of contenders for the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Along with Fake News, Conspiracy Theory, Twitter Troll and Deepfake; Gaslighting has emerged as a significant word of contemporary times. According to Merriam-Webster, usage of this term has increased 1,740% in the past one year.

Hence, Gaslighting is not just an event, but also a method. It is a well-planned strategy, involving confusion, lies, deception, isolation, denial, accusations, and many more. This is like an Orwellian World, with Collective Gaslighting taking a new shape in the Post-Truth atmosphere. In this world, words, like Election, Opposition, Rights, etc., have gradually turned into mockery. Branding any information as Fake News helps one undermine the Freedom of Speech, and there is a method to do this. Else, it would not be possible to convince a lot of people to believe that. Collective Gaslighting is an effective means of this.

Trying to promote Fake News as Real News is another form of Gaslighting. After losing an important election, one can brand the poll as rigged. However, it will be difficult to convince voters. It would only be possible by nurturing Collective Gaslighting for a long time. Many US citizens still believe that Trump had actually won the 2020 Presidential Election.

There are mainly three types of Gaslighting… creating counter-narratives, countering critics and denying simple facts. A passenger aircraft of Malaysian Airlines was destroyed in the sky of Ukraine in 2014. Some media houses reported that Russian-backed separatists had destroyed the plane. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has created various stories about this incident over the years. Once, Moscow said that Ukraine was responsible for this. Later, the Russian officials claimed that it was fake news. Sometimes, they stated that the real target was President Vladimir Putin. Natascha Rietdijk has described these counter-narratives as a technique of Gaslighting.

During the tenure (January 1, 2019 – December 31, 2022) of Jair Messias Bolsonaro as the President of Brazil, there were repeated accusations of systematic destruction of the Amazon rainforest. As expected, Bolsonaro denied the allegation. This continuous denial is also a form of Gaslighting. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, statesmen, like Trump and Bolsonaro, repeatedly tried to dismiss the virus and its destructive power as fake news. It is another form of Gaslighting.

It is not always possible for common people to distinguish between Truth and Lie. To prevent Gaslighting is not easy, either. Some believe that the proper way to prevent Gaslighting is to create a well-planned and appropriate echo. Often, the echo cannot destroy the original sound completely. Rather, it creates a new social conflict, and misleads common people.

In the labyrinth of a critical period of human civilisation, the spontaneous light of life becomes dimmer. In this light darkness, the gray world of Post-Truth gradually pervades. The widespread usage of the term Gaslighting in recent times suggests that the conscious people are gradually realising the modus operandi of Collective Gaslighting, apart from discovering its intimate connection with Post-Truth and realising how Gaslighting inflates the bubble of Post-Truth. It can be considered as a bright spot in a gray period. Paula may regain confidence one day, and not trust Gregory, anymore.

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