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.

“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

Three 20th century voices inform our understanding of modern American society

 

Three important, insightful voices from the last century may help us understand the social and political state of today’s America.

In his frighteningly prescient Preface to Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982 ed.), social scientist Bertram Gross identified two conflicting trends in American culture:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

In the spring I cited the rise of Donald Trump as the prime exemplar of the mainstreaming of Gross’s 1982 scenario. This dystopian reality is now before us, front and center, as Trump goes about the task of forming his new administration.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), the late Jane Jacobs — the brilliantly iconoclastic observer of urban and contemporary life — expressed fears that we are entering a new “Dark Age” marked by a sharp decline in core societal institutions and values. Here were the key markers behind her thesis:

  • Family and community — Consumption, consumerism, debt, and wealth supplanting family and community welfare;
  • Higher education — Higher education becoming a tool for credentialing instead of a process for learning;
  • Science — Denigration of hard science, along with the elevation of economics as the primary science shaping public policy;
  • Government — Ending the notion of government for the common good, replaced by government acting on behalf of powerful interests; and,
  • Ethics — Breakdown of ethics in learned professions.

Dark Age Ahead did not receive rave reviews upon its publication. As I recall, it was greeted with a sort of polite acknowledgement of the author’s concerns, along with a nod to her reputation and overall body of work. I felt the same way, too. But it turns out that Jacobs was merely a decade ahead of her time. Her analysis is now spot on, having anticipated our current milieu with scary accuracy.

For reasons I wish were not so, I believe that the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt also will be increasingly relevant toward understanding how individual behaviors impact broader concerns in today’s America. As I wrote in 2014:

…Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society.

Arendt’s work was deeply informed by European events during first half of the last century. In her Preface to Men in Dark Times (1968 ed.), an examination of how prominent European intellectuals, religious leaders, civic leaders, and activists responded to authoritarian threats of the era, she posited:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.

During the years to come, we’re going to need lots of “men and women, in their lives and works” (to borrow from Arendt) to shine a light on our society and to make life more humane, dignified, and inclusive. We don’t need more bystanders who submit passively to malevolent forces swirling around us, while hoping not to be among those swallowed up by them. This is a time for us to stand for something and be counted.

Renewing a commitment to bullying-free workplaces

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Here in America, it should come as no surprise that in survey data released by the American Psychological Association earlier this fall, “52 percent of American adults report[ed] that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress,” with the figures cutting fairly evenly across political lines. Many of these stressors and anxieties have continued in terms of the post-election aftermath and the evolving transition in Washington D.C.

Under such distracting (and, for some of us, distressing) circumstances, it can be hard to turn our attention back to the tasks at hand, which for many readers of this blog include preventing, stopping, and responding to bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. But that we must. As I see it, our basic agenda as we head into 2017 holds steady:

  • Engaging in public education about abusive work behaviors;
  • Educating and persuading employers and other employee relations stakeholders about the destructive effects of abusive work environments and the importance of effective prevention and response;
  • Expanding the pool of mental health providers who are competent and knowledgeable to assist targets of bullying and mobbing at work; and,
  • Enacting legal protections such as the Healthy Workplace Bill to provide targets with a legal claim for damages and to incentivize employers to take these behaviors seriously, as well as building a stronger safety net of public and private employee benefits to help those transitioning out of toxic workplaces.

And so the work goes on, fueled by a continuing recognition that building workplaces that value and practice dignity will benefit us all.

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

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Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

“How will we explain this to the children?”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kind

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Around the world, people are waking up to an electoral reality that for many was previously unimaginable. I can normally deal with being on the losing end of any election — it has happened, a lot — but the behaviors and qualities of the man we have just elected President fill me with despair and alarm.

On social media, I have read a number of posts and memes asking, in effect, how will we explain this to the children? In terms of long-term damage, it sends horrible messages to the children of this nation and elsewhere. In effect, we adults have proclaimed:

  • It’s okay to regularly engage in bullying, bigoted, and misogynistic behaviors;
  • It’s okay to openly brag about and encourage conduct that constitutes sexual harassment and assault;
  • It’s okay to continually issue threats of retaliation and retribution toward those who oppose or criticize you;
  • It’s okay to lie, get caught, and deny…over and over again;
  • It’s okay to hire people to work for you and repeatedly stiff them;
  • It’s okay to mimic and make fun of people with disabilities;
  • It’s okay to act perpetually aggrieved even when life has handed you every advantage.

Politics is a bloodsport, I get that. But what happened here was nothing within the realm of normal. In terms of the state of our civic life and any value we place on kindness and human dignity, America just lost a huge piece of its soul. Whether we can ever recover that piece is an open question. As we stare into the abyss that was the 2016 presidential election, we have no choice but to try, as if our lives depended on it.

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Note: I know that I will lose some readers over this post. For those who wish to praise or defend the virtues of the President-elect, there are plenty of venues with much larger readerships that will happily take your comments. I will be back to “regularly scheduled programming” promptly, but because the results of America’s presidential vote have violated so many of the values that inform my writing here, I have exercised my prerogative to make this statement.

Can America recover its dignity and find common ground after this presidential election?

A month from now, this horrible American presidential campaign will be concluded and the results should be known. Most of you aren’t surprised to know that I’ll be voting for the Democratic nominee, in large part because I dearly hope that the Republican nominee does not become our President-elect. Even if we manage to avoid that almost unthinkable result, however, I will not be cheering.

I wrote in the spring:

As this angry, vulgar, and often heartless American presidential campaign trudges toward its November 8 Election Day, I can’t help but wonder how we will start to pick up the pieces the day after.

This blog is mainly about work, workers, and workplaces. But the broader political climate certainly relates to jobs, the labor market, and employee relations, and that climate is quite dismal. Both the tone and substance of this campaign have been largely absent any sense of dignity, kindness, and empathy, and the interests of everyday workers and their families have been largely marginalized in the so-called debate.

To me this campaign represents the culmination of multiple breakdowns in our civic culture that started to brew during the latter part of the 20th century and have reached a fever pitch in the 21st. We have become unhinged and terribly polarized. We have lost our heart quality and compassion. We have lost our ability to communicate and to listen across partisan lines. A national election has become a dispiriting game show.

I carry these sentiments in light of exchanges with folks of different social, economic, and political stripes, including friends who may be voting in different ways from me on Election Day. The standard response is dismay, weariness, disgust, and/or alarm over this campaign season. However, will that understanding lead us to a better place, fueled by a commitment to jointly addressing the challenges that face us? I think it may depend on whether we can learn any lessons from this national embarrassment of the 2016 race for the White House.

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