Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream

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Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the term “gaslighting” is now going mainstream. The American Dialect Society has declared it one of the “Words of the Year,” defining it as “psychologically manipulat[ing] a person into questioning their own sanity.” Wikipedia may not be as academically authoritative a source, but its current explanation of gaslighting is right on point:

Gaslighting . . . is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. . . . Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I’ll get to the Trump connection in a minute, but for now, a bit of background.

Origins of the term

It starts with an old movie.

I first became familiar with gaslighting several years ago when folks in the workplace anti-bullying movement used it to describe crazy-making behaviors at work. In my December 2012 piece about gaslighting as a form of workplace bullying (which has become one of this blog’s most popular posts), I shared Dr. Martha Stout’s explanation of the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

In the movie, Bergman’s psychological deterioration accelerates when she cannot get anyone to believe her claims.

America’s Gaslighter-In-Chief?

Gaslighting started to appear in the mainstream media last year, largely associated with Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail. Last spring, for example, U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer wrote an insightful piece about Trump’s gaslighting behaviors via his campaign tactics and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

The gaslighting tag continues. Here’s a snippet of Frida Ghitis’s commentary for CNN about Trump’s behavior, published earlier this week:

Is Donald Trump really a “big fan” of the intelligence community, as he claimed on Twitter, or did he disparage intelligence professionals when he repeatedly referred to them and their work in sneer quotes about “Intelligence” briefings and the “so-called ‘Russian hacking'”?

Did Trump mock a disabled reporter, or did your eyes, and the Hollywood elite make you think he did?

Did he convince Ford not to move a car plant to Mexico, saving American jobs, or was it all a fabrication for publicity?

Did he win the election with a historically narrow victory, or did he score a “landslide”?

. . . Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident.

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.

Trump’s behavior has pushed buttons on a very personal level as well. After the election, Suzannah Weiss, writing for Everyday Feminism, invoked gaslighting in describing how Trump’s candidacy was a triggering event for abuse survivors and now relates to our political future:

As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.

. . . Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.

Lately even the academicians are getting into the act. For example, English and journalism professor Ben Yagoda (U. Delaware) delves into the history and use of the term, leading to Trump, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:

The new prominence [of the term] came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

Significance for workplace anti-bullying movement

It appears that Donald Trump’s gaslighting behavior was not simply for the campaign trail. As Frida Ghitis writes in her CNN piece, “If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day.”

How will this modeled behavior impact the workplace anti-bullying movement? Will Trump actually validate gaslighting and bullying behaviors, in essence sending a message that if it’s appropriate behavior for the President, then it’s right for everyone? Or will the nation recoil at this recurring manipulative, deceitful conduct and realize that we need a lot less of it everywhere, including our workplaces?

These questions of personal conduct have quickly transcended political lines. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes for the Washington Post:

Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.

Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.

On page one of the local paper…

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The Northwest Indiana Times reports that a “recent survey of Northwest Indiana public employees found complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and drinking in the public workplace.” Bill Dolan’s front page article in the paper’s Friday edition highlighted the results of  a survey of some “1,500 local government employees in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties” of the Hoosier State.

I grew up with the Times as a kid living in Hammond, Indiana. As I wrote in my last post, I’m now spending a few weeks at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, as a Visiting Scholar in Residence at VU’s School of Law. Imagine my surprise when I opened the local paper over breakfast at the roadside hotel I’m staying at to see a headline mentioning bullying at work.

As someone who has been in research, public education, and advocacy work concerning workplace bullying since the late 1990s, I am always looking for signs that bullying at work has become mainstreamed as an identifiable, nameable, employee relations concern. This is evidence of that occurring. Fifteen years ago, I doubt that a front page sub-headline of the local northwest Indiana paper would’ve included such a reference.

Indeed, during my trip here, I’ve talked to several college and high school classmates who have experienced bullying behaviors at work, sometimes seriously so. During these discussions, I no longer have to go into a lengthy “Bullying 101” intro before they start telling me their stories. Putting labels on human behavior can be tricky and sometimes contentious business, but it can help to validate experiences and create a framework for understanding them.

Disney fires, then rehires, intern who shared alligator directive

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Weeks after a toddler was dragged into the water and killed at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, a Disney manager posted this sign for its employees and interns:

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As reported by Travis M. Andrews for the Washington Post, Disney college intern Shannon Sullivan faced a crisis of conscience: “Sullivan thought the world should know, both about potential threats and about the company asking her and her colleagues to deny them.”

She shared her objections with others, though the story does not explain how she did so. Apparently stymied, she posted the picture above on Twitter, realizing that she was jeopardizing her place in a highly sought-after internship program.

Her supervisor soon learned of her tweet. Sullivan was fired from her internship and led off the premises.

When the Orlando Sentinel became aware of Sullivan’s termination, it contacted Disney management for comments. Andrews reports on what happened next:

The next morning, Magic Kingdom Vice President Dan Cockerell visited Sullivan himself to offer her internship back, which she accepted.

Disney removed the offending sign, claiming it was never authorized, the Associated Press reported.

So how about some lessons from this little story?

First, bravo to Shannon Sullivan for her courageous decision to speak out. True, we don’t know how she effectively expressed her concerns within the organization before going public with her tweet. Nevertheless, she was willing to sacrifice a plum internship for the sake of honoring her sense of right and wrong.

Second, a jeer and a partial nod to Disney for its handling of the situation. Clearly some manager at Magic Kingdom screwed up badly by posting a sign that valued superficial customer relations over guest safety. But at least a Disney exec, after the company was contacted by a newspaper, made the right decision and handled it personally.

Third, kudos to the Orlando Sentinel for showing us once again the power of the press. It’s not the biggest story to hit the media, but it’s important enough to get some coverage.

News of the day: How much do we need to know?

It starts to pile up!

Among my staples

How closely do we need to follow the news of the day? How much and what types of news should we be tracking in order to be informed citizens? How does general awareness of current events relate to our effectiveness in performing certain jobs?

Folks, I confess that I ponder these questions more often than the average bear.

As an academician and lifelong learning junkie, I read/review/skim a lot of news and commentary. The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Economist, and Guardian get a lot of my attention. I like The Week for a quick flyover, AlterNet for progressive politics, and Business Week and Yahoo! Finance for business news. WBUR, the Boston NPR station, wakes me up in the morning. I also like a variety of general and specialized periodicals, with a nod to the Atlantic.

I still have plenty of print subscriptions, but like many I increasingly rely on the Internet. (I have many online subscriptions and make donations to favorite non-profit news sites, as I believe that good journalism and commentary should be compensated.)

As for television news, I largely skip it. The typical 11 p.m. local news show doesn’t do much for me. I have scant use for most cable news coverage as well. While many readers can probably guess that I’m not a fan of Fox News, I rarely watch the more liberal MSNBC, either.

In any event, with all these subscriptions and online bookmarks, I am not a master of the universe when it comes to current events. My understanding of domestic politics is far better than my grasp of international relations. With the latter, I’m much keener on making big picture historical connections than on being able to recite the latest goings on in the world’s hot spots.

Furthermore, I wrestle with a broader philosophical point: Knowledge is not wisdom. While ignorance is not wisdom, either, one can easily load up on facts and be short on understanding. Being able to tick off the day’s major news events does not substitute for that deeper comprehension.

On the whole, we Americans, especially, would benefit by having deeper knowledge and wisdom about history and current events. Our civic IQ is not very high, and our nation and world would be better places if we could improve it.

A journalist writes about being savagely cybersmeared

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Folks who work in the public eye — writers, creative types, media personalities, public officials, etc. — face the special risk of bullying, mobbing, harassment, defamation, violence, and stalking from members of the public, who may include readers, customers, and others affected by their work.

If you’d like to understand more about the impact of these behaviors, then journalist Dune Lawrence’s (Bloomberg Businessweek) bracing first-person account is worth your while. Lawrence experienced a two-year ordeal of defamatory trolling at the hands of a man named Benjamin Wey, who currently awaits trial on federal securities fraud charges. Here is Lawrence’s lede:

I saw the photo first, me in a bloody wash of red with “RACIST” pulsing over my face. A couple of clicks brought me to this:

“In the darkest shadow of Bloomberg’s glossy office building in Manhattan, you may find a woman by the name of Dune Lawrence—a ‘journalist’ who has built a career on writing salacious articles about China.”

Lawrence had interviewed Wey on his business dealings for pieces she wrote for the magazine, and when her coverage raised uncomfortable questions, he retaliated by attempting to destroy her reputation via online means.

We often think of cyberbullying and related behaviors in the context of school kids, but they are hardly limited to such settings. Furthermore, they are often very destructive. As I wrote in 2012:

A new study of British university employees concludes that targets of workplace cyberbullying often fare worse than those who experience traditional bullying. Victoria Revay reports for Global News…:

In three separate surveys, 320 British university employees were asked to document their experiences with cyberbullying. The study results showed that victims of cyberbullying tended to have “higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction” as compared to traditional bullying.

According to Revay, human resources professor Aaron Schat of McMaster University in Canada, interpreted the results this way:

He says the challenge with cyberbullying in the workplace may be that it lacks a so-called safe haven, or a physical area where the victim can take refuge to avoid the bully. He says this may also be the reason why victims feel more emotionally distressed.

I have kept my summary of Lawrence’s experiences to a minimum, because her story should be read in its entirety in order to be fully grasped. This is a frightening tale of one person’s extraordinary efforts to use the Internet for spreading baseless lies and rumors about another, in ways that created significant difficulties and embarrassment for the target of his behavior. 

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Related posts

The trolls in the “cheap seats” (2016)

On being a globally oriented citizen

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and the Economist!

In reality, however, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my fantasy baseball teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

By contrast, I know a good number of people whom I count as genuine global citizens. Whether they travel around the world or not, they have a genuine international orientation that gives them a broader perspective on this planet we inhabit. Some, like my friends and colleagues connected with the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, devote significant energies toward furthering peace, social justice, and humanitarian initiatives around the world.

How can we become more globally oriented citizens? This question has been crossing my mind frequently during the past year, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks around the world. Many of us should embrace a broader worldview, thus contributing to a more informed citizenry as a result. Sure, we can attend to our own little corners of the planet, but let’s also look at the world beyond our immediate surroundings.

This could be as simple as paying closer attention to news developments from around the world. It may mean bringing a more inclusive spirit to our lives, one that celebrates variety and diversity and naturally builds bonds with people from other cultures. At its most challenging levels, it can involve trying to understand and address the seemingly intractable differences that are causing so much strife today. For as President Kennedy said in his compelling 1963 speech on the urgent need to curb the nuclear arms race:

And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

The trolls in the “cheap seats”

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Among the greatest threats to healthy dialogue, creativity, and risk-taking in our society today are what Dr. Brené Brown refers to as the voices from the “cheap seats.” No, she’s not taking a shot at folks who score inexpensive tickets to sports or cultural events. Rather, she’s referring to those who relentlessly, sometimes maliciously, and usually anonymously criticize and belittle those who are attempting to “dare greatly” by playing bigger and putting themselves in the public eye.

Yup, we’re talking about the internet trolls who hide behind a cloak of anonymity to post unwarranted putdowns and mean-spirited, snarky comments and reviews. We’re talking about those who take to Twitter to ridicule, humiliate, and threaten others. And we’re talking about those who bizarrely assume knowledge of personal characteristics and motivations about people they’ve never met and then head to the comments section to trash them savagely.

All too often, the voices from the cheap seats succeed at shaming and intimidating. Dr. Brown discusses her own fears and apprehensions about the voices from the cheap seats in her online course, the Living Brave Semester, which I’m currently taking. It’s a remarkable admission from a strong, independent, and brilliantly insightful individual whose work has reached millions of people. (Her celebrated TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has drawn nearly 24 million YouTube views.)

The Internet has revolutionized contemporary life, sometimes in very good ways. But it also has given rise to a lot of online bullying, incivility, and just plain meanness, sometimes fueled by the ability of the perpetrators to hide their true identities. Twitter has become a favorite spot for such exchanges, challenging people to pack as much vitriol as possible into short posts.

There are no quick fixes for this state of affairs. Humane education about how we treat each other is a core mega-need. Growing a thicker skin is important for resilience purposes. Picking one’s social media and online venues carefully can make a difference as well. Personally, I have endeavored to avoid Twitter like the plague, even while knowing that others have found it a useful communications tool. There’s way too much ugly stuff going on in that medium for my tastes.

The tone of civic discourse in America today tells me that at least for those of us in the 50 states, the voices from the cheap seats aren’t going away anytime soon. Changing that hardened dynamic will require courage, commitment, and — to quote my favorite President, Abraham Lincoln — the better angels of our nature.  

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