By: Stephen McAlpine
The word of the year is… (drumroll please) “Gaslighting”. Or am I just saying that to control you?
No, seriously, “gaslighting”, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary is the word of the year. That’s a good indicator of the conversations going on in the world (or at least the Western world). Sadly, “hunger”, “poverty” “sex slavery”, “war”, “graft” and “corruption” are still holding their own in many other parts.
But here, in the West, we have “gaslighting”.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “to gaslight someone” and wondered where it comes from. Well it’s fame comes from a 1944 US version of a UK movie of the same name – yep it’s called Gaslight – in which a man drives his wife slowly mad.
Now many a man has done that, and no need to make a movie about it, but this one was special. You see, he did it deliberately. He controlled and manufactured situations, including accusing her of stealing his watch, and then “finding” it in her handbag in front of guests.
The title comes from the fact that the husband’s hidden life (no spoilers here) involved him rummaging around in the attic, and when he switched the gas lights on in the attic, the drain in gas flow to the main house dimmed the lights downstairs. When his wife asked if he thought that the lights had dimmed, he told her she was imagining it.
Launder, rinse repeat. Result: she started taking leave of her senses.
So that’s the word of the year and that’s the etymology behind it. Why do we use the title of a 1944 movie today?
Gaslighting is a term employed today to describe a certain type of toxic leadership or individual leader, in which someone—usually a person questioning a problem or concern in the leadership—has the tables turned on them. When they challenge something, they are told they are imagining it. When they point out a problem, the come back is often “Can you see how you might be the problem in this situation?” Stuff like that.
When a narcissistic leader is involved in gaslighting, it can often be a proactive move on their part, where they challenge you—a junior staffer or even a peer/colleague—and insist that you have something going on in your work that only they can see is wrong, and that you are blind to.
They may insist that no one else has a problem with the work (or that no one else has a problem with them pointing out their issues), and bit by inexorable bit, you wonder if you are going crazy. I mean how can they not see that you are doing your work? How can they not understand that you are totally fine with completing tasks that are required of you? (And in saying all of this, I’m probably remiss in issuing a number of trigger warnings (“triggered” is sure to be word of the year some time soon).
The most common place, sadly, that gaslighting seems to occur, is not in the workplace, but in deeply abusive relationships in the home. In a sense the movie picked it early. Psychology practices are full of weeping women who have been gaslighted by their partners, and who are only barely believing that they are not themselves mad.
Of course, we live in what is termed a “psychological age”, in which our most authentic selves is the self we wish to craft within us. In an age in which our most true self is our interior self, then any challenge to this interior self is going to be as much of a threat to us as a physical threat.
And it has to be said that the term “gaslighting” has been thrown around a lot. That doesn’t mean that it is not happening, but we do need to be careful how we use it. If it’s weaponised, it can—ironically—be used by manipulative people to shut down any critique of their behaviour by someone who may be pointing out an obvious problem or flaw. I’ve seen that happen too. It makes clear and distinct leadership hard, especially if you have to deal with a person who is under-performing or undermining norms in the workplace.
But I’ve heard of—and actually experienced—gaslighting, enough to know that when it happens to you, you can be truly shaken by it. You end up like the wife in the movie, being completely unsure of yourself. You see, that’s the point of “gaslighting”. It’s not about making you unsure of the other person and their motives, it’s about making you unsure of yours. And when that happens you can be putty in the hands of a narcissistic gas-lighter.
Sadly, as someone who works in a church, I’ve heard—and again, experienced—gaslighting. And it does make me wonder where those who follow Jesus, who warned us about how we used words time and time again. What makes it worse is when leaders who are too scared to deal with the gas-lighter end up being unwitting, and sometimes willing, accomplices of the person doing the gaslighting.
Here’s the thing about Jesus though. He would challenge those of his followers who do gaslight people. When we read in the stories of Jesus’ life (the Gospels), how he engaged with his words, we sense his authority, his incisiveness, his command of narrative, his bravery to speak truth to power, his majestic ability to heal, calm storms, raise the dead, with his words.
But also to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captive, forgiveness to the sinful, judgement on the unjust, love to the hateful, comfort to the mourning. Everything about the words of Jesus went in the opposite direction of “gaslighting”. When his enemies sent officers to arrest him for apparently fomenting rebellion, even those men returned to their bosses empty-handed and stated “No one ever spoke like this man!”
The New Testament calls Jesus “the Word” (John 1:1-5) – God’s original voice that brought about the creation. He could have used his words powerfully to get what he wanted. He could have been the ultimate gas-lighter because it was in his power to be so. Yet every word he used he used for the sake of other people. I can’t say that of myself, and no doubt I’ve manipulated people with my words. You can probably think of times that you have too. But not Jesus.
And if, as he also said, what’s in our heart comes out of our mouths (Luke 6:45), then what we say proves who we are. And everything Jesus said proved what he said of himself to be so! And who do I—and billions throughout history—think Jesus was and is?Well, the ‘light of the world’ who speaks truth for the sake of others, rather than being the gas lighter who speaks lies for the sake of himself.
This Christmas, with a freshly minted—and toxic—reminder of the concerns our society has around narcissism, bullying and lies, it’s great to be reminded of one who only spoke to illuminate the truth for the sake of others, and not to manipulate it for his own sake.
His words of hope are unlikely to place highly in the cutting edge of popular vernacular, but will always stand the test of time when fairly hopeless words are shaping the conversation.
Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.
About the Author: Stephen McAlpine is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and loves to write about theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.