Why We Need to Consider Gaslighting at the Social Level

And how it marginalises sections of society.

Posted Jun 15, 2020

Gaslighting is usually thought of at the personal level—where one person forces another to question their reality. It is an effective technique to place the gaslighter in a position of power. Exactly the same thing takes place at a cultural level. 

Most of what we hear and read about gaslighting is in terms of how one person “gaslights” another by using emotional bullying and manipulative techniques. There are many ways to go about gaslighting—including lying, reinterpreting the past and ridiculing someone else’s opinion—but the end goal, if you like, is to force the person on the receiving end to question their own version of reality and to effectively silence them into accepting (or at least being unable to openly disagree with) the gaslighter’s version of reality. 

Although much of this takes place behind closed doors, gaslighting is played out in the public arena and involves keeping a marginalised or disempowered section of society in a weakened position. 

At the point of writing (June 2020), protests have been taking place around the world following the death of George Floyd. Some of these protests have culminated in forcibly removing the statues of Confederate generals and men who built their wealth on the slave trade and calling for the removal of others. People have been calling for the removal of these monuments for years, in some cases.

Retaining these monuments—when they are a daily reminder of the atrocities which were carried out in these men’s names and which are highly offensive to some sectors of society—is a form of gaslighting. It’s a way of communicating to a black person whose ancestors died on the ships coming from Africa or who were forced into slavery, that your experience is less important than mine.

The rhetoric is, why are you so upset about something which happened hundreds of years ago? Why are you so emotional and overreacting? Let the past lie. It’s exactly the same tactic which is used by gaslighters whose partners call up a previous incidence of abuse as being “irrelevant” to what’s happening now.

It’s estimated that 1.8 million people died on the ships which carried them to the New World, with a further 10.6 million becoming slaves. Although figures vary, it’s estimated that at least 6 million Jews were systematically murdered during the Holocaust. Would anyone support the erection of a monument to Hitler (or be upset if it was pulled down)?

Another example of cultural gaslighting is the way women have been treated at a cultural level. Up until the last few years when so many “acceptable” behaviours have been publicly called out as being completely unacceptable, when women spoke publicly about sexual harassment, they were made fun of. They were told it was “just a bit of fun,” that they were overreacting, and that it didn’t mean anything.

By denying women the right to express their own opinion (and I doubt, at any point in history, any woman has enjoyed getting her bum felt up by her boss as she walks past), women were gaslighted using the old technique, “You're overreacting. You have a problem." Gaslighters love turning their bad behaviour onto the other party. Sexual harassment is just one of the many areas in which women’s attempts to express their experience has been used against them.

These are just two examples of cultural gaslighting. Whenever we ridicule, deny, or silence another group on the basis that we inherently have the greater power, we are engaging in gaslighting behaviour. Because this type of behaviour doesn’t have to involve full-on aggression or confrontation, it can so easily go under the radar and we can look like the good guys while we’re subtly subjugating someone else. The next time you’re tempted to accuse a group of people of being over-reactive or too sensitive, ask yourself whether you could be getting sucked into social gaslighting.