One of the more pernicious quirks of English usage to arise in the past few years is the employment — by a remarkably large number of people, it seems to me — of the term “gaslighting” as the default explanation for disagreement. Nobody just disagrees with me anymore, they’re trying to gaslight me.
I’ve noticed this, too. In most cases, I agree that speculation about the “true” motives lurking deep within someone’s heart of hearts is a waste of time. I suppose we all love solving mysteries, and it’s especially satisfying in an argument to not only defeat your opponent, but to forcibly strip him of his flimsy rationalizations and leave him not only wrong, but naked and humiliated. It’s usually enough to focus on someone’s words and actions and leave motives out of it. However, I’ve often seen “gaslighting” used in a particular context this summer — namely, the insistent efforts by mainstream journalists to tell readers and viewers that they are not, in fact, seeing what they’re seeing. Whether it’s journalists literally standing in front of burning buildings and rioting crowds while insisting that the “protests” are “mostly peaceful,” or blaming the violence on imaginary right-wing mobs, or even employing obvious double-standards regarding which mass public gatherings during a pandemic are worthy of praise and which deserve censure and scorn, it’s hard to escape the sense that this is something more than the usual political spin, more than typical dishonesty. I expect to be lied to by politicians, but however naïve it may be, I still expect journalists and public health experts to do their jobs without trying to shape and control a political narrative. It feels manipulative in a way that straightforward dishonesty doesn’t.
The other buzzword that I’m sick of seeing is “grift.” Again, it’s not enough to accuse someone of basic stupidity or dishonesty; we have to make them even more contemptible and accuse them of doing it all purely for money. Evidently, no one says what they really think; they just let their rhetoric follow the money. I don’t know about you, but little white lies, or lies of omission, are about the best I can do. I can’t imagine what kind of mental effort it would take to adopt an entirely fictional persona and inhabit it during business hours, before clocking out in the afternoon and returning to my “true” thoughts and feelings. Does this kind of raw cynicism ring true to anyone’s experience? Or, like a good horror story, does it just thrill us to imagine that other people are secret nihilists?