A Gaslight Unto the Nations: How a word became the cliché of the Trump years

A Gaslight Unto the Nations: How a word became the cliché of the Trump years, by James Megis.

Words are becoming weaponized, and the old-fashioned idea that we can reach mutual understanding through honest debate is breaking down. The excessive use of “gaslighting” is a case study in how political speech is evolving from a discourse of persuasion to one of demonization. …

Disagreements over political issues used to hinge mostly on factual questions. (At least that was the ideal to which both sides claimed to aspire.) Does a higher minimum wage help or hurt the poor? Will tax cuts boost inequality or lift all boats? Good-faith advocates for either side would marshal their evidence and make their cases. To be sure, some debates got nasty. But, underneath the vitriol, people generally accepted that winning the argument required having a more persuasive set of facts.

There is another style of argument, one that doesn’t trouble itself with pesky facts at all. British writer C.S. Lewis dubbed this style “Bulverism,” after a fictional character he called Ezekiel Bulver. He imagined Bulver as a child overhearing his mother dismiss a point made by his father with the words, “Oh you say that because you are a man.” At that point, Bulver later recalls, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of your argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.”

Lewis conceived Bulver as a stand-in for the Freudians and Marxists of his day who dismissed their opponents’ positions by attributing them to deep-seated — even unconscious — biases. If you disagreed with a Freudian, you were “projecting” or “in denial.” Question the inevitability of socialism and you were just a victim of “false consciousness” showing how deeply you’d been brainwashed by capitalism.

If we were to drop Ezekiel Bulver into a modern-day Twitter debate, he would feel right at home. Bulverism is now the norm. Political debates have become like sumo wrestling: The goal is to knock your adversary out of the ring. Why argue with your opponents when you can muscle them clean out of the conversation? So partisans begin every argument by attacking the other side’s character and motives. …

For those on the left, having the wrong skin tone or sexual leanings is enough to deny you a seat at the table. New York Times editorial-board member Sarah Jeong famously complained on Twitter about “Dumbass f—king white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” No need to listen to them, obviously, they’re no better than dogs. …

Haidt and Lukianoff believe that today’s students are being taught to reject rationalism in favor of “emotional reasoning,” a concept they borrow from cognitive behavioral therapy. If we aspire to a rational mind set, we try to align our opinions with the facts we encounter in the external world. But emotional reasoning demands we do just the opposite: We believe that our subjective state —fear, anxiety, anger — should define external reality. For example, young people schooled to be alert for “microaggressions” are being encouraged “to start with their feelings and then justify those feelings by drawing the conclusion that someone has committed an act of aggression against them.” If we feel that someone’s opinions have traumatized us, then, by definition, that person has done us harm.

In this worldview, words are not separate from actions. Instead, hurtful words are seen as concrete threats to one’s well-being. This is why, when college groups protest against a controversial speaker, they often say the speaker intends to “enact violence” on some members of the school community. They don’t mean this as a metaphor; they actually believe words can be as injurious as fists. In this context, to say someone is gaslighting is to accuse that person of quasi-criminal behavior. No wonder so many students feel they are protecting their community when they try to deny controversial speakers a “platform” from which to speak. …

Google famously fired engineer James Damore after he wrote a memo arguing that the paucity of women in the company’s engineering departments might have more to do with voluntary career choices than with discrimination. It was an unpopular position, but one for which he provided an array of scientific evidence. Damore’s critics didn’t much engage with the substance of his arguments. Rather they focused on his intentions and character. “You’re a misogynist and a terrible person” was one of the more succinct formulations of that rebuttal.

The biggest political schism today is between those who believe the PC fantasies (which are politically convenient for the left) and realists (who rely on evidence and can see that the fantasies are nonsense).

So the big picture is that the PC left is gaslighting society, furiously denying and suppressing the evidence to get us normals to believe their self-serving fantasies. Effectively the are saying “who you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”