The 1938 play Gas Light tells the story of a man who contrives to make his wife believe she’s losing her wits by dimming the gas-fueled lights in their home on the sly and insisting that her perception of the dimmed lights is a misperception. In our times gaslighting is widely recognized as one of the principle strategies employed by narcissists to undermine and control the people with whom they have relationships. By assuming an air of authority and calling into question the feelings, intuitions, interpretations and responses of their intimates, the narcissist maneuvers to make their unfortunate victims doubt their own sense of reality, thereby psychologically disempowering them so that they will go along with the narcissist’s hidden agenda of domination and emotional exploitation.
What plays out at the interpersonal level of human interaction can be magnified to apply to the collective level. And has been. Across the globe, here and abroad, the diabolical tactic of gaslighting is a key feature of the disinformation playbooks of state authoritarian forces. The aim is to undermine any reliable public standard of truth by which these bad actors can be called to account. In situations where they can’t supplant the truth with their lies, they settle for generating doubt about what is true and what is not. That allows them to escape accountability by creating a narrative in which it’s a matter of competing interests vying with one another for dominance rather than a matter of lawfulness, honorable action, and objective evidence.