This commentary was published first in my Substack publication, “Phronesis in Pieces”–found at billschmitt.substack.com. If you would like to see more of that twice-monthly mix of news, commentaries, and resources for the pursuit of virtuous wisdom, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and receive a free-of-charge subscription.
When Merriam-Webster announced this week that gaslighting is its “word of the year” for 2022, it implicitly called for a moment of reflection that should send chills down the spine of America’s body politic.
The dictionary gurus have literally “spread the word” about a trend whose importance far exceeds an uptick in online research or a welcome addition to the public’s vocabulary.
I haven’t experienced such an uncomfortable wave of linguistic and sociological insight since Oxford Languages declared its 2016 “word of the year” to be post-truth. Indeed, the combination of these two award-winners speaks volumes about the need to ponder our confrontation with a kind of spiritual warfare being waged in the rhetoric of a polarized nation.
This week’s revelation is simple enough. According to an Associated Press report, Merriam-Webster discovered that lookups for gaslighting on its website jumped 1,740 percent in 2022 over the year-ago period.
“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language, and especially in the last four years, that it actually came as a surprise to me and to many of us,” Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski told AP. “It was a word looked up frequently every single day of the year.”
The dictionary definition for gaslighting calls it “psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
Such manipulation is not only a weaponization of words, but an attack against the sense of truth and grounding in reality which human beings need for the sake of a rational, meaningful life. It is a challenge in the pursuit of phronesis because it starves wisdom of its air supply and its ability to enlighten our endeavors.
No doubt one reason for the recent abundance of digital inquiries about this well-worn word is a widespread unfamiliarity with Gaslight, which many Americans might know as a theatrical drama from 1938 and a classic film from 1944. As CNN described the plot this week, “a nefarious man attempts to trick his new wife into thinking she’s losing her mind, in part by telling her that the gaslights in their home, which dim when he’s in the attic doing dastardly deeds, are not fading at all.”
The movie is a disturbing tale of emotional abuse and dehumanization imposed upon a woman, already vulnerable and weakened by an earlier trauma, by a husband to whom she has turned for love and renewed stability. Hiding his criminal intent, he replaces her access to others’ knowledgeable feedback with a home-bound artificial reality, filled with lies that negate her actual memories and affronts that decimate her reasoning and dignity.
To illustrate contemporary views of gaslighting, CNN’s writer mentions its occurrence in a film called Don’t Worry Darling and a series called Gaslit. The article’s two references to politics both refer to criticisms of President Trump, one from 2017 and one regarding “the severity of the January 6 insurrection” of 2021.
Without worsening divisiveness by connecting the word to more recent or specific political developments, one can surmise that the 2022 leap in lookups has arisen partly from large-scale concerns. People wonder if they are witnessing attempts at gaslighting on a macro level, as well as in the all-too-common instances between spouses or within families.
This is where we find the tie-in to Oxford’s 2016 verbal tribute spotlighting our “post-truth” society. The husband and wife portrayed in the film were living in a “post-truth” home with bygone illumination. That setting, where everything—or nothing— could be believed, became a performance space that set the perpetrator free to implement his plan. But, in the end (forgive a mild spoiler here), reality won. It always does.
Numerous people today believe that creating “post-truth” narratives allows extra freedom for establishing one’s own contrived reality, exercising power, taking credit, gaining favors, shedding accountability, making a good impression, denying problems, avoiding challenges and conversations, minimizing the need for deep knowledge or reflection, manipulating meaning, overcoming others, and claiming a kind of godlike creativity and admirability.
These aims have proven especially useful in the arena of politics. Our relationships in the public square have become more nervous and arms-length, like zero-sum contests of psychological and emotional strategy. Other realms of human interaction—religion, science, academia, news, entertainment, and pursuits of peace and justice—also have become more fractious and politicized.
Many lives are now less grounded in actual human encounters. Among relativists and narcissists, who may not agree on what is true, real, or meaningful, we tend to short-circuit conversations, reject learning from unacceptable facts and disturbing viewpoints, and try to impose our truths on others.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy encouraged vigilante enforcement of personal narratives in the legal language of a 1992 decision. “At the heart of liberty,” he wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.”
Like the unhappy home in Gaslight, this freedom becomes a trap where power is the only mediator and enforcement tool. The only two options are ongoing faux-conquests for the manipulators and a head-shaking fatigue for those who suffer, or opt out of, the manipulation. We have heard people use words that don’t have to be googled when they describe current situations as “crazy” or “creepy.”
We join the gaslit wife in fearing a downward spiral that could include many negative emotions, along with indifference, anxiety, clouded thinking, hopelessness, and a retreat into fact patterns for which we have no innate desire. These yield no integrity or love, which is the ultimate reality. It is hard to think of a solution other than God that could give us the strength to steer clear of this spiral toward evil, but how do we know He isn’t part of the mythology!
In short, as the “search” statistics of vocabulary stewards have shown us, a post-truth world paves the way for a world of gaslighting. Those who cling to the power for defining truth, or for forcing others out of the truth-defining process, are helping to disable a large portion of the population whom they see as enemies. Recall that the en masse googling for this year’s word surprised the online monitors, possibly because they now deem the phenomenon banal.
Reality gradually defeats the immoral mind games of every era, so no one should lose hope. But let’s also hope that, several years down the line, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will find neither of these digital developments: a world where practically no one is inquiring about the actual meaning of any words or facts, or a world where the most popular inquiry—perhaps a desperate, last-ditch plea from those in the afterglow of gaslight—will be a search for the word truth.
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