Freedom of Expression for the Power to be Believed: The Gaslighter’s Deal.

By: Varian Tippens

People speak of gaslighting quite often these days. So much so that I sometimes wonder if its the crime of our times which goes unregulated by law. Of course, part of the reason for its being under the legal radar is that its not clear what it is or how to spot it. Often it is considered a form of psychological abuse, and as such we typically consider what the effects of gaslighting are on the victim. But here I want to offer one understanding not just of what the gaslighter does, but also what mistake the gaslighter makes in choosing to wrong his victim. 

I suggest that what the gaslighter does is she speaks and acts for the approval of testimonial legitimators, but not for the understanding of her victim. Testimonial legitimators are entities that have the epistemic power to issue verdicts about testimonial uncertainties — situations in which two testifiers disagree about something, and there is no reason to believe one over the other. When a legitimator levels a verdict, it both provides a reason to believe one person over the other and increases the credibility of the testifier who wins out.

This way of understanding the gaslighter explains three core features of the phenomenon. First, that the victim has the sense that nobody will believe them with regard to the treatment they are being subjected to. Second, the victim is led to question their sense of reality. Third, that gaslighting always involves the perpetrator appearing upstanding to some relevant third parties. 

In the end I argue that being a gaslighter is a terrible mistake, and comes at a price: in cozying up to testimonial legitimators, the gaslighter trades her freedom of expression for the power to be believed. In this way, the gaslighter is a sellout — someone who has traded an end in itself (freedom) for a mere means (power).


  1. Uncertainty and Legitimators 

Suppose that you and I are Physics PhD students disagreeing about an issue in quantum mechanics, in front of a class. We are both well versed on the subject — testimonial equals — and can’t settle who is right. In such a scenario, we are uncertain, and so we might bring in an outside party with some expertise to settle the matter about who is to be believed. We might bring in a testimonial legitimator.

Testimonial legitimators are entities which have the power to settle testimonial uncertainty, i.e to deliver verdicts. Testimonial uncertainty takes place when two testifiers disagree about something, and there is equal reason to believe either one of them. In the case of our disagreement about quantum mechanics, we might bring in physics expert Tim Maudlin to settle the issue, and if Maudlin rules in my favor the class will take me to be a more credible testifier than you in the future, even if only by a little bit. If Maudlin rules in my favor consistently, I get a nice boost in credibility with my peers.

But of course there are many testimonial legitimators besides a credentialed expert like Maudlin. An adult might render verdicts for disagreements between children, and a family therapist may resolve testimonial disagreement between members of a household. A general public — i.e majority opinion — often serves to render verdicts as well, as evidenced by formal debates, where the audience hears both sides and issues a judgment. If the debate was well-balanced, the audience decision is reason to take one side over another. Philosophers will likely be drawn to wonder which legitimators have justification to issue such verdicts on which sorts of issues, but that is not relevant to the discussion at hand. All that is important is that there are de facto legitimators. 

Testimonial legitimators are entities that have power to decide who is to be believed, then, which can come in various degrees. For example, in the legal system there are lower and higher courts. A local court’s verdict can be overturned by a state court, and the supreme court — assuming no corruption —  is plausibly the ultimate testimonial legitimator for many normative disagreements. Perhaps academic experts from the most elite institutions are the ultimate testimonial legitimators for factual contentions. When two pundits disagree about whether climate change is happening, an expert from Harvard might make a guest appearance.


  1. Gaslighting

When performing a play in front of an audience, actors speak to one another on stage in the sense that they exchange lines of dialogue and gesture toward one another. But of course while they are speaking to one another, they are really speaking for the affect on the audience. After all, the way that they inflect their voices, the lines that they use, and the gestures that they make are all tailored to make a certain impression on the viewers. They hope that the viewers will leave the theatre after a standing ovation, with a mix of sentiments and thoughts. In this sense, actors speak to get the approval of the audience, not to understand each other. Indeed, it is conceivable that some actors could perform their lines without really understanding what they are saying to one another at all! While theatre performers speak to eachother on stage, they speak for the affect on the audience.

One need not be an actor to understand this sort of thing. When my eldest brother was in law school, he worked a brief stint at an Attorney General’s office. One of the things he did was review and file documents that were going to be used in ongoing or future litigation. Most of the documents he culled were digital ones: emails, texts, or instant messages. After reading through, and printing thousands of pages of private correspondence, he told me that he had learned something: never send any message without considering first and foremost how it will look in a court of law, to a jury of one’s peers. From then on, while my brother has spoken to people over email, he speaks for an affect on a jury. His digital correspondence will forever be tailored and constrained to ensure it will find favor with a particularly powerful legitimator — the court.

If anyone has been in the preliminary stages of an impending lawsuit, they know how creepy it can be when an institution begins communicating to them in this way. For example, suppose that you know a discrimination lawsuit between you and your boss is about to ensue, because you’ve had horrific relations. He has systematically treated you differently from other people in your place of employment, and it is well known. You begin to receive emails in which your boss — in anticipation of this litigation — begins publicly emailing you every time you violate some trivial rule, hoping he can justify why he’s been treating you differently to a court. Or he blatantly tailors all of his emails to make himself appear upstanding for anyone who reads them and doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the situation. He’s speaking for the approval of public opinion or a future jury, not for your understanding, and you know what he’s up to.

This is what gaslighters do. They may publicly call an individual sensitive at just the right time, and with just the right inflection, to gain favor with the public legitimator. They may disagree their victim constantly so that they can honestly cite that fact to a legitimator in the future. They may cry or yell at their victim in the right circumstances, to get power on their side. This, I suggest, is what a gaslighter does — she speaks and acts for the approval of legitimators, not for understanding between her and her victim. This neatly explains three core features of gaslighting. 

First, the victim has the sense that nobody will believe them with regard to the treatment they are being subjected to. Since they at some level know that the gaslighter has been and is cozying up to a legitimator(s), victims of gaslighting lose a sense of hope about whether they’ll win out in the circumstance of testimonial uncertainty between them and their abuser, when they level an accusation. Since the legitimator’s verdict will also increase the credibility of their abuser, an accusation may further entrench the difficulty of the victim’s plight.

Second, the victim is led to question their sense of reality. Legitimators are entities with power, and so when they make a verdict it has force. When a victim of gaslighting goes to a relevant legitimator to accuse their psychological captor and they are met with incredulity and rejection, this can affect the victim’s beliefs. Take the case of Simone de Beauvoir and her interaction with Jean Paul Sarte to illustrate the point:

Day after day, and all day long, I measured myself against Sartre, and in our discussions I was simply not in his class. One morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, near the Medici fountain, I outlined for him the pluralist morality which I had fashioned to justify the people I liked but did not wish to resemble; he ripped it to shreds. I was attached to it, because it allowed me to take my heart as the arbiter of good and evil; I struggled with him for three hours. In the end I had to admit I was beaten; besides, I had realized, in the course of our discussion, that many of my opinions were based only on prejudice, bad faith or thoughtlessness, that my reasoning was shaky and my ideas confused. ‘I’m no longer sure what I think, or even if I think at all’, I noted, completely thrown.” 

Sarte was a testimonial legitimator, and as such, he had the power to be believed with regard to disagreements between de Beauvoir and himself. In the end, de Beauvoir was made to question her sense of reality, being unsure of what she thought or whether she thought at all. That de Beauvoir doesn’t mention the reasons that convinced her of her incorrect views indicates that Sarte’s de facto power as testimonial legitimator played a role in changing her mind. This shouldn’t be surprising, either, for it is common that our minds are changed because of who is talking with us rather than what their reasons or justifications are. When a victim goes to a legitimator and is rejected, it can affect the credulity they have in their own beliefs.

Third, gaslighting always involves the perpetrator appearing upstanding to some relevant third parties. It is well known that until they are “outed,” gaslighters appear respectable. They might be of high social status like Sarte, who had clear respect from the general and intellectual publics, or if they are of lower social status, they are seen with favor — at the very least — from the members of their community. They’ve been speaking and acting for the approval of legitimators. 


  1. Freedom to Express and the Power to be Believed

It is clear that gaslighting is horrific for the victim. Indeed, it seems apt to  say the gaslighter places them in a certain position of not false imprisonment but truth imprisonment — the victim knows whats true but can’t get it out. But I’m more interested in the gaslighter, here. What mistake does she make in choosing to subject someone to such treatment, cozying up to the legitimator with power?

We all know, and learn early on, that some things are ends in themselves and other things are mere means. An end is something that is valuable for its own sake. In having it, manifesting it, or engaging with it, one obtains value. For example, love is one such thing. We don’t treat our love for another as a means to some other end, for it is valuable for us to have it for its own sake. A mere means, on the other hand, only has value insofar as it helps us achieve or get something else. Having money isn’t valuable in itself, but might be a means to the end of a loving relationship, and has value in this instrumental utility.

This distinction helps us to make sense of the notion known as selling out. To be a sellout is to be someone who has traded an end for a mere means. If I am an artist and I agree to only produce trashy pop music for the rest of my life, for ten million dollars, I’ve traded my creative license for money. Since money is a mere means and creativity a valuable end, when I trade the latter for the former I’ve sold out, and would be criticized by the public for lacking integrity. The gaslighter, I contend, has traded her freedom of expression for the power to be believed. In this way, she is a sellout.

Contra George Orwell, power strikes me as a means and not an end, albeit a very robust one. If I am extremely strong and can pick you up I have power, but do I have something intrinsically valuable? The answer isn’t clear. If I am not physically strong and can’t pick you up am I lacking something intrinsically valuable? Again, its unclear that I am. If I have knowledge I have power, but while the former is clearly valuable for its own sake, do we want to say that the accompanying power is, too? Of course, if you think that power is valuable for its own sake, then you might be in favor of nuclear armament. But this strikes me as unpalatable.

With freedoms, on the other hand, things are different. If I have the freedom to express myself we would all agree that I have something intrinsically valuable. If I don’t have this freedom, we would mourn my misfortune. Societies in which freedoms are curbed are ones we look on with deep concern. Indeed, it is precisely when quests for power begin to stifle freedoms that we take pause, and become alarmed, because human freedoms are surely ends in themselves, while with power it is at least less clear.

The account of the gaslighter outlined earlier helps us to see how she has made a terrible mistake in doing what she does. Remember that the gaslighter speaks for the approval of a legitimator, and so constrains her speech and behavior — her expressions — according to what she believes will curry favor with it. The legitimator could be the general public, it could be a court, or it could be a political party. It could be all three. But either way, the gaslighter has chosen to narrow the scope of her speech and action — to self-censor — in order to ensure that she will be believed in cases of testimonial uncertainty; in order to ensure that the power of legitimators will be on her side when or if she is accused by her victim. In this way, the gaslighter has opted to curb her freedom of expression, by self-censoring, in order to obtain the power of the legitimator. She has traded an end for a mere means; the gaslighter is a sellout

So, like the actors on stage who speak and act for an affect on the audience, the person who gaslights speaks and acts for the approval of legitimators. As such, the gaslighter doesn’t communicate with her victim or seek to understand him, but rather speaks over him, tailoring her speech for the legitimator’s sake. In doing so, she trades her expressive freedom for the power to be believed. This deal is one that only the devil would offer.

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