Freedom for the Power to be Believed: On Gaslighting

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By: Daniel 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 itOften it is considered a form of psychological abuseand as such we typically consider only what the effects of gaslighting are on the victim.

The phenomenon has been the subject of conversation in popular culture ever since, at least, the release of the 1944 film Gaslight. In 2016 a similar film called The Girl on the Train came out, and in 2020 — just this year — The Dixie Chicks released a song titled “Gaslighter” following the divorce of one of the lead singers from her husband (Ironically, in my view, the fact of her releasing such a song would itself count as gaslighting).

Broadly, the phenomenon of gaslighting tends to be discussed not just in cases of domestic abuse — as depicted in the aforementioned artworks — but also in the workplace. Indeed, Linkedin (the popular occupational networking platform) had an article published specifically about it, and the philosopher Berit Brogaard references phenomena very similar to gaslighting — what she called the ShapeShifter and Character Assassin —  in her 2017 article in Psychology Today. More recently, the subject has been scrutinized in academic literature, such as hereherehereherehere, and here.

In this essay I offer an account and analysis of gaslighting. I want to provide an understanding not just of what the gaslighter does and how it hurts her victim, but also what mistakethe gaslighter makes in choosing to act this way. I contend that what the gaslighter does is she speaks and acts for the approval of an audience, and not with her victim,in order to secure the power to be believed in cases of testimonial uncertaintyThere are two types of gaslighters that I’ll outline. The first is what I’ll call the quotidian gaslighter, who speaks for the approval of thought leaders, but not for the understanding of her victim. Thought leaders 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 thought leader 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. The second type is the pinnacle gaslighter, who is herself a thought leader, and speaks and acts for the approval of the audience that bestows her with the power to be believed. The pinnacle gaslighter speaks for the approval of legitimizers.

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

What is concerning about gaslighting is that it does three things to the victim, which constitute a form of entrapment. It doesn’t recognize the victim’s personhood, prevents his ability to associate with others, and stifles his freedom of expression. In this way, the wrongs of gaslighting constitute an unholy trinity.

In the end I show how being a gaslighter is a terrible mistake, and comes at a price: in cozying up to thought leaders, or speaking for the approval of legitimizers the gaslighter trades her freedomsof expression and association 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). Such an individual lacks integrity, and is aptly looked upon with pity.

  1. Uncertainty and Thought Leaders 

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 thought leader.

Thought leaders 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 thought leaders besides credentialed experts like Maudlin. An adult might render verdicts for disagreements between children, and a family therapist may resolve testimonial disagreement between members of a household. 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 pinnacle thought leader for normative disagreements. For factual contentions, academic experts from the most elite institutions are plausibly the ultimate thought leaders. When two pundits disagree about whether climate change is happening, an expert from Harvard might make a guest appearance. 

Thought leaders get their power from a public approval. For example, take a formal debate, in which the audience hears two speakers defend a position, and then issue a verdict on who is to be believed. If one speaker “destroys”the other, then after the debate he will be approached by members of the audience who ask him questions that they want answers to. His victory with the public bestows him with the power to be believed. It is likely that he will soon be invited to opine on a number of issues on television or formal speaking arrangements, further consolidating his power. Public approval is what legitimizes a thought leader’s power.

Thought leaders are entities that have power to be believed, then, and settle cases of testimonial uncertainty. Philosophers will likely be drawn to wonder which thought leaders 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 thought leaders. 

  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 toget 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 each other on stage, they speak for the affect on the audience.

One need not be an actor to understand this sort of thing. When a friend of mine 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 anymessage without considering first and foremost how it will look in a court of law, to a jury of one’s peers. From then on, when my friend has spoken to people through 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 thought leader — the court.

If you’ve ever been in the preliminary stages of an impending lawsuit, then you know how creepy it can be when an institution begins communicating to you 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 timeyou 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 a future jury, not for your understanding, and you know what he’s up to.

This is what quotidian gaslighters do, typically — though not always — after committing a shameful wrong toward their victims, in an effort to keep their misdeeds a secret. She may publicly call an individual sensitive at just the right time, and with just the right inflection, to gain favor with thought leaders. She may disagree with her victim constantly so that she can honestly cite that fact to a thought leader in the future. She may cry or yell at her victim in opportune circumstances, to get power on her side. If she is particularly aggressive, she will explicitly tarnish the reputation of her victim. The quotidian gaslighter speaks and acts for the approval of thought leaders, not for understanding between her and her victim. This neatly explains three core features of the practice.

First, the victim has the sense that nobody will believe him with regard to what has happened, and the treatment he is being subjected to. Since the victim knows — or will come to find out upon making an accusation — that the gaslighter has been and is cozying up to thought leaders, a victim of gaslighting loses hope about whether he’ll win out in the circumstance of testimonial uncertainty between him and she who wronged him. Since the thought leader’s verdict could also increasethe credibility of the gaslighter, an accusation may further entrench the difficulty of the victim’s plight.

Second, gaslighting always involves the perpetrator appearing upstandingto some relevant third parties. It is well known that until they are “outed,” gaslighters appear respectable. They might be of high social status like Sartre, 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 thought leaders, and so present themselves as quite agreeable.

Third, the victim is led to question his sense of reality. Thought leaders are entities with power, and so when they make a claim it has force. If a victim of gaslighting goes to a relevant thought leader to make an accusation, and he is 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 Sartre 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 (de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, My emphasis in italics).”

Sartre was a thought leader, and as such, he had the powerto 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 reasonsthat convinced her of her incorrect views indicates that Sartre’s de facto power as a thought leader 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 thought leader and is rejected, it can affect the conviction he has in his own beliefs.

What’s interesting about the case of Sartre is that since he was a thought leader — perhaps the pinnacle philosophical thought leader — we might wonder whether he could be speaking for the approval of one, since he has no need. To understand this pinnacle form of gaslighting, consider the tale that is told about how G.E.M. Anscombe once debated C.S Lewis on issues regarding apologetics. Apparently she publicly beat him so badly — humiliating him in front of an audience — that Lewis turned away from the subject completely, devoting himself to writing fiction from then on. One’s status as thought leader is dependent upon a public approval — a legitimizer.

If de Beauvoir’s reasoned concerns presented deepproblemsfor Sartre’s philosophical positions, his status as a pinnacle thought leader could be threatened. If it ever got out that de Beauvoir dismantled the foundations of Sartre’s views, he might suffer the same humiliation as Lewis. Best make sure she knows now just how wrong she must be and that her sense of realityis off, so that she won’t be moved to defend her positions to others, or God forbid, challenge him in public. Sartre, then, was plausibly speaking for the approval of the intellectual and general publics. Since these entities legitimize his power, when Sartre left de Beauvoir in a state of confusion, it is because he was speaking to retain his power to be believedand not for her understanding.

The gaslighter speaks for the approval of an audience in order to secure the power to be believed in cases of testimonial uncertainty. Either she speaks for the approval of a thought leader, or if she herself is one, she speaks for the approval of her legitimizers. The gaslighter does not speak to understand or reason with her victim.

  1. The Unholy Trinity

Gaslighting is horrific for the victim.

As a genre of film, one plausible answer about what makes something horror is that it depicts people who have either been put, or wander, into traps from which there may be no escape. Someone is lured to a secluded area and faces brainwashing from a manipulative community (Get Out). Someone is cursed and can’t shed it (The Ring). Someone is buried alive with no way out (Buried). For something to be horrific, then, is for it to involve innocent people being trapped, with no clear means of escape.

To be trapped involves at least three things, which we’ll unpack shortly. First, you are not treated as a person, as a trap is something we use on animals without rationalitynot people. Second, your ability to associate with others is in some sense hampered, being that you’re kept within the confines of the trap. Third, and perhaps in virtue of these facts, your freedom of expression is stifled; when you scream, nobody with the ability to help can hear you. At best, only others who are as powerless as you.

A person is an agent with rational standing; the sort of entity that is responsive to reasons. Persons can think about what to do or believe by weighing all sorts of different considerations against one another. You might chat with your girlfriend about whether this purchase of a pet will be a wise long-term move, i.e you might chat about prudential reasons. You also might discuss whether you should make this purchase, or instead give the money to a long-time friend in despair, i.e you might deliberate over moral and prudential reasons, among others.

Being a person affords you a level of respect and dignity that not all creatures have. Dogs cannot respond to reasons, and so are not persons. As such, if a dog barks at us all we can ask is, “What should we do with it? How should we treat this dog?” But since a person does respond to reasons, when he speaks we ought to take pause and consider his reasons. To do so is to speak with him, which all people deserve.

The gaslighter, in speaking for the approval of an audienceand not with her victim, fails to engage with him as a person, and so treats him as lesser. Consider how slaves were only able to express gratitude toward their masters but never moral resentment. They could say, “yes master,” or “that’s so kind of you, master,” but never “fuck you, master,” lest they be beaten bloody. As such, slaves couldn’t engage in moral discourse with another class of people, and were thereby treated as lesser by an entire groupWhen the gaslighter chooses not to talk with her victim and instead to speak for an audience, she makes her first move toward imprisoning her victim. She denies the individual’s personhood, treating him as an animal, and anyone with self-respect would legitimately resentthis.

But the gaslighter also stifles her victim’s freedom of association. Suppose that you resent your boss. She’s treated you like an inferior and you know she’s without scruples. When you discover that your coworker loves her, it is unlikely that the two of you will get along. If you don’t easily see this point, go ask a devout liberal if she will associate with a Trump supporter. Just as the employee who hates his boss dissociates himself from his coworker, the victim of gaslighting will find it difficult to spend time with anyone who approves of his gaslighter. 

But in gaslighting things are even worse, for whenever any member of the community expresses approval toward the gaslighter such praise is itself an act of legitimation for the gaslighter’s power to be believed.If I see that people like you, I’ll be inclined to approve of you myself. There is no reason to think that thought leaders don’t have the same inclination, or the publics which legitimize them. In this way,the victim finds himself confronted with people who reinforce the power of his captor with every word of praise they send her. Clearly, associating with anyone who holds your gaslighter in esteem will be a difficult thing, and so the victim becomes increasingly isolated. 

The jaws of the trap have begun to clamp down in restricting the victim’s ability to associate with others, but when the victim tries to get help he realizes that his freedom of expression has been stifled. Suppose that you are innocent of a crime, you know this, but have been found guilty in court and put in jail. What is important to you is that you be set free, your name be cleared publicly. In such a case, while you could get your fellow inmates to believe you, this wouldn’t help you reach your aim. After all, your fellow inmates are not only themselves locked up, but also are seen by society as akin to animals. They have no power to get you a new trial or garner the public’s confidence in your innocence. Telling them that you’re innocent might seem as helpful as screaming for help in a forest where only bunnies and cats roam about. You need someone with the powerto be believed to hear your plea, and to begin acting on it.

We’ve already noted that the gaslighter has at a minimum unjustly treated you as akin to an animal in not speaking with you, and at a maximum has committed a shameful wrong which motivates her gaslighting. Surely these things would elicit your resentment. As such, you want her power to be believed to be taken away so that she can face adequate censure — so that your resentment can be expressed —  and your association with others can begin once more. But your gaslighter has earned the approval of the relevant audience, and in having it, you can’t get anyone with power to hear your plea, viz, that your gaslighter is despicable. Indeed, if you go to thought leaders and they don’t believe you, your credibility suffers a blow, and you may begin to question whether your gaslighter is in fact reprehensible given their de facto power.

This breathes meaning into the relationship between gaslighting and silencing a victim, which can happen in three ways. First, the individual might simply self-censor and not speak at all, for fear of damage to his credibility as a testifier. Second, if he doesn’t self-censor, raises his case, and loses in testimonial conflict, he may come away without belief in the accusations he made. But third, an individual can be silenced by losing the means to amplify his speech. Suppose that you are trying to communicate with someone across a football field, and you pick up a megaphone to get a message to them. If someone were to slap the megaphone out of your hands, you would lose your means of amplification, and couldn’t communicate in the way you need to. Similarly, the victim of gaslighting can’t convey what’s true to anyone of relevance, and so his voice can’t be amplified by those with the power to have others believe him. 

The gaslighter’s victim is treated without dignity as a person, finds it difficult to associate with others, and has his expressive freedom restricted. This is the gaslighter’s unholy trinity of horror. This is the victim’s trap. I’m convinced that successful gaslighting is the stuff of resentful heart-attacks, or inclinations toward suicide, for human beings can only live in traps for so long.

  1. Freedom for the Power to be Believed

Socrates and Polus, In Plato’s Dialogue The Gorgias, at one point debate whether it is worse to suffer injustice or to commit it. After seeing how the gaslighter treats his victim, you might think the answer if obvious — surely the victim has the worse end of the deal. This may be true, but it is worth taking pause to ask what the gaslightersuffers in subjecting her victim to such treatment. What mistakes does she make, and what price does she pay, in cozying up to thought leaders? The gaslighter, I contend, is a sellout, making the mistake of trading ends for mere means, and so her soul lacks integrity.

We 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. People, relationships, and love are precious to us all by themselves. We don’t treat our love for another as a means to some other end, 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 to get something else. Having money doesn’t matter 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 you are an artist and, for ten million dollars, agree to produce only trashy pop music for the rest of your life, then you’ve traded your creative freedom for money. Since money is a mere means and creativity a valuable end, if you trade the latter for the former you’ve sold out, and would be criticized by the public for lacking integrity. 

Contra Orwell, power — the ability to coerce others to do what you want — strikes meas a means, albeit a very robust one. If you are extremely strong and can pick me up you have power, but do you have something intrinsically valuable? The answer isn’t clear. If you have knowledge you have power, but while the former is clearly valuable for its own sake, do we want to say that the accompanying power is, too? If power is valuable for its own sake, then this would constitute a reason by itself to be in favor of nuclear armament, but I think most of us would find this unpalatable.

With freedoms, on the other hand, things are different. If you have the freedom to express yourself we would all agree that you have something with intrinsic value. If you don’t have this freedom, we would mourn your misfortune, and 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.

The gaslighter, in speaking for the approval of thought leaders, constrains her speech and behavior — her expressions — according to what she believes will curry favor with them. The thought leaders could be the general public, it could be a court, it could be a political party, or a faculty member. It could be all four. 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 thought leaders will be on her side when or if she ever finds herself in a testimonial dispute. The gaslighter has traded her expressive freedom for the power to be believed.

But this isn’t the only freedom that the gaslighter trades. If the approval of her thought leaders requires that she not associate with certain people, she keeps her distance from them. Suppose you strongly desire the approval of a particular faculty member who says she doesn’t like so and so for such and such reasons. Naturally, if you strongly seek her approval, then you don’t like him either, and won’t associate with him. After all, if this thought leader sees you two getting together she may look at you askance, and you risk losing her approval. The dedicated gaslighter, then, trades two precious freedoms — expression and association — for the power to be believed. 

The gaslighter has sold out, and while she acquires power, it comes at a high price. If you trade your expressive and associative freedoms you are prone to find your life devoid of lively conversation and without meaningful friendships. It is for these reasons that I pity the gaslighter’s soul, for it is and surely will suffer the pains of committing an injustice. 

This article was originally published on the Blog of the American Philosophical Association

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