As accountability avoidance strategies go, gaslighting is remarkably flexible and effective. For those with the chutzpah to pull it off, it’s a pretty straightforward maneuver. Let’s say you get called out for dissembling, intentional misdirection or an outright lie. Gaslighting allows you to immediately deflect scrutiny and turn it back onto the aggrieved plaintiff: “I never said that!” you might retort, “You’re the one who doesn’t know how to listen (or read)! Why don’t you learn how to listen (or read)?!” Notice that the outrage accompanying your gaslighting gambit does much of the work here. The victim of your lie (or incompetence, or failure of whatever sort) is left reeling, instantly reduced to a defensive stammer by the sudden prospect that it is they, and not you, who has done something wrong.
And if your critics are thoughtfully self-reflective at all, as most normal people (god bless em) are, they will probably seriously consider that there might, in fact, be something wrong with their hearing (or reading skills). This is especially likely if you’ve enlisted a few cronies to help fuel your gaslighting efforts: to agree with you, even weakly, or to remain “neutrally” silent while you hack away at your accuser’s sense of competence, truth and reality. In fact, in group situations, be it work, school, or home, gaslighting works only if you’ve got loyal co-conspirators, comrades willing to support your version, no matter how patently implausible, mired in bullshit, or even demonstrably false. Fortunately, there seem always to be folks willing to adopt these supportive roles, at least if you occupy some position of perceived power. Team Gaslight will never be short of wingmen, flying monkeys, or cheerleaders so long as there are spoils to be distributed, either concrete or intangible.
Of course, gaslighting has been around for ages. To “gaslight” comes from an early 20th century film in which a gold digging husband pushes his wife to the brink of insanity, in part, by manipulating her environment, including the gas-fueled lights. Not surprisingly, gaslighting has long been a favored tactic of sexist abusers eager to erode women’s self confidence and self worth. In the past several years, though, as you may have noticed, gaslighting has become an ever more visible national pastime. Trickle down economics may be a myth, but trickle down gaslighting has been a raging success as the MAGA power bloc, blissfully unmoored from scruple or self doubt, repeatedly demonstrates. “How dare I?!” they bluster, “How dare YOU!! I never said that! And even if I had, why are you such a snowflake?” Never has the aspiring apprentice gaslighter had greater access to such a gloriously whinging cadre of manipulative masters.
Outraged gaslighting works precisely because it leverages and exploits a necessary and natural human interdependence with respect to naming and navigating reality. As a whole, we simply cannot function without some baseline of general mutual trust when it comes to pointing out errors or misjudgments. At the most fundamental level, survival and well being depend on our general ability to rely on one another’s honesty: “The road is clear for you to step out into.” “Your plane really will be taking off from a different gate than the one originally announced.” The happy consequence of this rampant, deep-seated inclination to trust, is that it’s often no more difficult to dupe others than to bludgeon baby seals.
To the gullible majority — the chumps you may live and work with — duplicity is still unthinkable enough you can probably repeat your schtick over and over before they catch on. In the meantime, you can sit back, relax, and watch them squirm. Precisely because so many “normal” people are inclined to self-reflect to avoid causing future harm to others, special, ambitious individuals like you are free to recreate reality as you wish. It’s simple, really: Whenever someone is foolish enough to identify your blunders or lies, just deny, filibuster, and point your wagging finger back at them. Chances are they’ll be immediately cowed by their own deeply internalized desire to avoid conflict.
And here’s some bonus advice that, when properly followed, can work for both gaslighting gals and guys: Don’t shy away from the waterworks. In the outraged gaslighter’s repertoire, often nothing has more impact than well placed, furiously indignant tears. You’ll know when you’ve timed and delivered them perfectly because a hush will fall over the room. And in that beautiful, miserable silence, most will suddenly pivot away from any focus on your mistakes. Many will scramble to escape the conference room or dining table, but in a gloriously perverse reversal, others will actually leap to your rescue and defense. This, of course, is exactly as it should be. Who do those loser critics think they are anyway?