Gaslighting and recovery

Over the course of last week, after the last votes were cast in the 46th presidential election in the United States, many of us developed an increasingly problematic compulsion: a need to stay tuned to CNN’s rolling coverage, its interactive map and the graphics of votes cast that changed at glacial speed. For me, the bigger pull was the entirely partial anchors, who seemed to be unleashing four years of pain as the numbers started to turn in the Democrats’ favour. Having been dubbed the prime disseminators of ‘fake news’ by the Trump administration, they could not contain their anger about what had passed for political leadership and their hope about what was about to happen. After four agonising days, the moment of catharsis came on Saturday morning their time, when Pennsylvania fell to Biden, and the CNN anchor Van Jones delivered a tearful monologue:

‘It is easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids character matters. Telling the truth matters. Being a good person matters.’

Why would it easier to tell these apparently incontrovertible truths then than an hour before? Because the gaslighter-in-chief, who had spent four years undermining science, truth and empathy, dubbing news outlets who called him out the ‘lamestream media’, was about to be deposed and old certainties (those we took for granted before 2016) might return.

I haven’t quite been able to kick the CNN habit – partly because Trump has not yet conceded, and the votes in some states are still being counted (where are those tellers from Sunderland when you need them?). But also, because after such a prolonged period in which this truth twister had such incredible power, the reality of life without him is going to take a while to take in. Feeling safer again doesn’t just happen overnight. Because it isn’t just about him – if it were, his electoral loss would be like flicking a switch and we’d all feel like the world is the right way up again. We have been changed by his omnipresence: there’s a heightened vigilance, a loss of confidence in the order of things, a sense that fairness will not necessarily prevail. Day after day he denied that something evidentially truthful was in fact untrue (or presented ‘alternative facts’, as his adviser Kellyanne Conway dubbed the pronouncement that Trump’s poorly attended inauguration ceremony was, in fact, the largest crowd in inauguration history) and no-one could stop him. That is terrifying.

It will take time and a lot of political will to recover collectively from the post-truth era, just as it takes time and support for individuals to recover a strong sense of self after being ‘gaslit’ in personal relationships. The term gaslighting originated in a 1938 British drama that was twice adapted into a film in the 1940s (the image above is from the 1944 version with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). The story centres on a woman whose sense of self and ultimately her sanity is undermined by the tactics of her husband (including fiddling with the gaslights in their house to make her doubt her own sense of reality). The term has gained popular currency as a shorthand for aspects of coercive and controlling behaviour in relationships and has been used increasingly in political commentary since Trump’s election.

Despite Trump’s status as ‘the most tremendous gaslighter ever, probably of all time’, the tactic of grabbing political power by twisting or denying truth is not just the preserve of the American president. Our current political administration has repeatedly used assertion instead of argument without apparent consequence. While the tragic turn of events this year have at least chastened our government into a grudging respect for experts and evidence, their response to the advice they receive is to see how it plays out in the newspapers for a few days before taking action. Which is why I’ve been looking out of the same window in permanently locked-down Manchester since March and why so many people are still ill and dying.

Political gaslighting is not the preserve of ‘the right’. On 29th October, the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission published the findings of its investigation into anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. The investigation  ‘found specific examples of harassment, discrimination and political interference in our evidence’ and ‘a lack of leadership within the Labour Party on these issues, which is hard to reconcile with its stated commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism.’ Instead of an unequivocal apology to the victims of anti-Semitism and ownership of responsibility from all those implicated in the behaviour and culture cited in the report, what has followed is ongoing denial, deflection and claims of victimhood. The gaslighting of those who call it out continues.

Why am I writing about this on a counselling blog? There are many in our profession who believe that politics is or should be hermetically sealed from therapeutic work. I agree that differing political beliefs and world views are no barrier to a successful therapeutic relationship: to that degree, therapy is apolitical and political affiliation just does not matter. However, when aspects of political culture impinge not just upon policy decisions but on the integrity of the political system itself then the boundaries between political and psychological understanding are less clear. When those who have been ‘gaslighted’ by politicians and their followers continue to struggle to find a voice and support (because they’re still seen to have a political agenda, to be ‘weaponising’ the abuse they’ve suffered) it’s time for everyone, not just those closely involved in political life, to speak up.

Van Jones’s outpouring of relief that the emperor has been seen to have no clothes, at least by a significant enough majority of the American electorate, was a step on the road to recovery from the damage his reign has inflicted. But truth twisting and gaslighting is still alive, if not quite as well as it was, in our own political culture. If personal integrity continues to be put second to political expedience, our own Van Jones moment is a long way off. In the meantime, it’s time for my daily fix of those happy Democrats on CNN.

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