“Gaslighting” has become shorthand for a form of emotional and psychological abuse that leads someone to question their capabilities, experiences, memories and ultimately, their grasp of reality. Its roots lie in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, also known as Angel Street in the US, that became the two 1940s movies entitled Gaslight. In all three, a manipulative husband messes with his wife’s mind to the extent that she begins to doubt her own sanity. One of his unsettling tactics is to regularly dim the gas lamps in their home and convince her that she is imaging it.
Gaslighting is usually associated with one-sided relationships between couples, in which one systematically undermines the other’s self-confidence, independence and ability to take decisions. More recently, it has become apparent that groups as well as individuals can be victims, and gaslighting has become a recognised destabilising political tactic.
Political gaslighting usually involves the manipulation and misrepresentation of facts, denial and downright lying to control people, their beliefs and actions. It’s often used to divert attention from political and governmental failings by systematically attacking and discrediting opponents. Gaslighting is easier and more effective where there is an imbalance in power in relationships between individuals but also between political forces. A governing party for example, that controls or is supported by swathes of the media will find it much easier to blacken and undermine opposing groups and ideas.
The phenomenon was identified in an article by psychologist Christi Taylor entitled, Gaslighting; The Political Tactic of our Time, and published on the open platform, Medium. In a similar vein, Robin Stern in her piece The Gaslight Effect claims that never before have we seen the scale of “serial lying” that “involves consistent denial and obfuscation”. Both detail ex-president Trump’s instinctive gaslighting of opponents who challenged his views or position. As president, Mr Trump regularly characterised opponents as “nasty”, “liars”, “not very smart”, “fat”, “slobs”, etc. Mexicans and Latinos in general were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”. Mr Trump also gaslighted critics and scientists to divert attention from his disastrous mishandling of Covid that possibly cost thousands of American lives. Mr Trump displayed all the hallmarks of the serial gaslighter, through repeated use of negative stereotypes, by trivialising and underplaying other’s concerns, by denial and refusal to engage in meaningful debate.
Of course, gaslighting has been employed much nearer home. Indeed, the Scottish experience suggests that entire nations can be gaslighted. What’s more, we don’t need outsiders to inflict it upon us, we are more than capable of gaslighting ourselves. During the 2014 independence campaign, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were central to a gaslighting campaign that essentially set out to undermine national confidence and self-belief. The strategy was similar to that of the manipulative husband in the Gaslight movies, leading his wife to doubt her competence and ability to take decisions and organise her own life. Gaslighting was central to Project Fear, drawing on massive whoppers like “The Vow” and “Vote No” if you wish Scotland to remain in the EU”. The implied message being the dependency culture is so ingrained in Scots that we shouldn’t be out on our own and couldn’t survive without our friends in the south. And it worked like a dream.
The 2014 referendum was never going to mark the end of the independence debate and if anything, gaslighting on both sides has become even more intense. Unquestionably, many issues such as the currency, a national bank and trading relationships with the remaining UK require calm and rational debate. Gaslighting however, is the very antithesis of rationality. It’s not built on facts but relies on making others feel collectively stupid, inadequate and insecure. It corrodes personal and national self-esteem, self-confidence and belief that lie at the heart of all confident and successful countries.
I recently watched again the BBC documentary, Finding Jack Charlton. It’s not an easy watch as Jack descends into the twilight world of dementia. What was uplifting however, was the part he played as a football manager and as a remarkable man in helping Ireland feel good about itself. It’s that “can do” attitude that has made a huge contribution to Ireland’s ability to modernise and reinvent itself. I couldn’t help contrast Irish positivity with some of the online reactions to Scotland’s elimination from the Euros. Mystifyingly, some interpreted the Croatia result as a kick in the teeth for the independence movement in general and the First Minister in particular. The gaslighters probably failed to spot the irony that Croatia, population around four million and with far fewer resources than Scotland, seems to be getting along just dandy. Scottish gaslighting is also tainted by more than a hint of misogyny. Irish female leaders such as Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese are treated with almost universal respect in marked contrast to the cowardly abuse directed at Scottish female politicians of all parties.
Scottish gaslighting is all about making others feel inadequate and bad about themselves and what they are capable of. Its essential negativity is summed up in the cliché that Scotland is too small, daft and poor to go it alone. There must be something in the water that makes Scots more stupid and incapable than the inhabitants of Denmark, Finland, Norway, Ireland, New Zealand and many other thriving, small countries. In fairness, gaslighting is not confined to any one political group or philosophy. We can only hope that something so corrosive is not irredeemably embedded in the national psyche. If so, whether in or out of the UK, we are all worse off if we allow the negativity of gaslighting to undermine our collective self-esteem and confidence in our own capability.
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