On November 27, Merriam-Webster (MW) announced that their Word Of The Year was ‘gaslighting’. Defined by the dictionary as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s advantage”, searches for the term increased a huge 1740% throughout 2022. In particular, the term refers to coercive psychological control, most commonly in cases of domestic abuse.
In the mid-20th Century, the word was used specifically for gradual but persistent manipulation.Victims of gaslighting face severe psychological and physical degradation, often experiencing a loss of self-esteem, feeling as if they are experiencing some kind of psychosis or emotional instability, or that they are the root of all problems that they or their partner inhabit.
More recently, however, the definition has been loosened to encompass a broader range of topics and trends. The rise of the internet and the power that technological platforms have when it comes to the spreading of fake news, notably seen in the 2016 US Presidential Election and the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK, have meant that gaslighting can occur even between two people that have no prior connection.
According to MW, the use of gaslighting in both personal and political contexts makes it a more useful term than simply stating that someone lied or committed fraud, allowing people to indicate the enormity of certain actions.
Rarely for a Word Of The Year, there was no clear spike in searches for the term, with its popularity being consistently high throughout the last twelve months. MW’s Chief Editor, Peter Sokolowski, noted in an interview with AP News that the death of Angela Lansbury drove people to search for the term, with the actress starring in a film called Gaslight (1944). In said film, Lansbury played a young maid told not to pester the lady of the house, described by her husband as “high-strung”.
It is this kind of language that pertains to gaslighting, making people believe that either they or someone else are mentally unstable or problematic in some way. Terms such as high-maintenance or crazy, alongside accusations of being paranoid or overreacting gradually demean people until they believe that they are the problem.
An example of this came from an article in The New York Times from March 2022, which spoke of “medical gaslighting”. Doctors playing down serious symptoms, or even implying that they were “primarily psychological”, clearly falls into the category of gaslighting behavior as it made patients feel like they were a drain on time and resources.
At the root of gaslighting is an attempt to be in control or to have power within a relationship. As a result, those with power can continue damaging coercive behaviors with little opposition. An Al-Jazeera report from January 2022 compellingly placed this kind of behavior within the realm of environmentalism, describing the existence of “green gaslighting”.
Solutions that are proffered as ways to solve the climate crisis place emphasis on what individuals can do to help the planet, such as going vegan or converting to electric cars, with no real mention of how big business will reduce their carbon footprints to help stop global warming and a complete climate breakdown. Governments are equally as guilty of such gaslighting behavior, and the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic provides us with a clear sign of this.
The UK Government, for example, placed fault for the rising infection rates and the death toll at the door of scientific advice and those who did not follow Covid-19 guidelines, rather than taking decisive action to protect vulnerable age groups and thereby ease the burden on the NHS. When it was revealed by a Daily Mirror exposé that the Prime Minister and many high-profile Conservative MPs had been going to parties at Number 10 Downing Street, their gaslighting behaviour was revealed alongside it.
The ‘Partygate’ saga was not finally solved until Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister in August 2022, so this perhaps provides some explanation as to why gaslighting was such a prevalent search during the last twelve months. The power search is extant not only within the relationship between big business or the government and their citizens but also within everyday relationships.
In many ways, where gaslighting behavior concerning the climate or potentially restrictive government legislation is dangerous to society as a whole, it is everyday gaslighting that feels more damaging due to an individualistic persona that can point out specific personal flaws rather than sweeping generalizations. Gaslighting is therefore a worrying phenomenon. In and of itself, its popularity within global internet searches represents a very troubling insight into modern life, especially for those within groups already discriminated against.
There is a notably gendered aspect to gaslighting, particularly within cases of domestic abuse. Patriarchal stereotypes that paint women as overly emotional and at the mercy of hormonal fluctuations feed into preconceived ideas of gender inequality within society, leaving women more at risk of gaslighting and therefore of abusive behavior than men.
Work by Paige Sweet of Harvard University supports this idea, pointing to the fact that gaslighting is especially pervasive when abusers “mobilize macro-level inequalities” to undermine partners. This is unsurprising given gaslighting is, as mentioned above, all about power, and so leaves those already in a less secure societal position at greater risk.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated the gender pay gap in the UK to be on average a staggering 7.9%, whilst the overturning of Roe vs. Wade by the US Supreme Court in June 2022 took American women’s autonomy from them. An epidemic of sexual violence against women, which Rape Crisis UK estimates to affect 1 in 35 women annually in England and Wales, continues to make women feel unsafe in their daily lives, whilst women in Iran have been murdered for refusing to wear the hijab and comply with restrictive government policy.
Within this environment of patriarchal sexism and misogyny, it is made significantly easier for women to be made to feel lesser by partners or colleagues through gaslighting behavior. Historic societal norms that have sought to make women feel lesser than their male counterparts have bled into the private sphere and made gaslighting an almost accepted part of day-to-day life for many.
Across all levels of society, from all-powerful corporations to intimate personal relationships, gaslighting is mobilized as a way of winning the battle for power, a battle that leaves society in a precarious position. Hopefully, the increased attention placed on such behavior by Merriam-Webster and other organizations can initiate a response and rebuttal against this coercion.
Cover image available from Forbes
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