Friday, March 10, 2017

Gas-Lighting America

I think it's important to remember where we were before the election--to bookmark it--because we will have to find our way back in the dark.

As I recall, we were dealing with racial injustice, sexual harassment, climate change, and terrorism.

We could no longer believe that racism had ended with the election of a black (or mixed-race) president.  We saw black teenagers being manhandled, brutalized, and killed;  we saw black drivers interrogated and shot; we saw and heard black people in custody being abused or denied urgent care, with fatal results.

There were protests, reprisals, and recriminations on all sides.  In some places, law enforcement introduced sensitivity training, and took steps to build positive relationships and trust among the communities they served.

There was tension, struggle, and anger...

But at least the issues were real.

The video recording of Trump's remarks about women, and the dozen or so women who came out afterwards alleging Trump's unwanted sexual advances, and the disparaging comments (some of them extremely vulgar) that he made about Megyn Kelly, Alicia Machado, and Hillary Rodham Clinton ("such a nasty woman") prompted broad discussion of sexual misconduct, especially with regard to powerful men and their sense of entitlement over women's bodies and social credibility.

This too was a far-reaching issue, a real issue, with implications for all women. The discussion extended to university campuses, where rape and sexual harassment remained a persistent threat; and to women serving in the armed forces, where women are still expected to pay for the privilege of serving with their bodies and their silence.

Before the election, the United States was focused on real problems--most of which our society and institutions had had for a long time, but which had gone ignored until there was so much evidence (especially on social media) that the reality of women and black people's experiences could no longer be denied.

The burden of proof falls hard on black people, immigrants, women, and victims of childhood abuse, to prove that their experiences (of racism, sexual harassment, of being cheated, mistreated, exploited, raped, and hurt) are real.

For example, defending a rapist, an attorney tries to discredit the victim's assertion that intercourse was rape, and not consensual. The lawyer tries to persuade the judge or jury that the victim's experience was other than what she says and thinks it was.

In other words, the lawyer needs to  gas-light the victim--make it appear (at least for the jury or judge) that her view--her truth--is wrong.  Perhaps she has a vendetta, perhaps she has alternative motives, perhaps she is a slut...She can be anything but a rape victim.

In JUST MERCIES, Bryan Stevenson writes that six black witnesses testified to the alibi of Walter McMillan, and their testimony was discredited.  The damning testimony of three much-less-creditable white witnesses prevailed. The six black witnesses simply did not have as much social credibility as the three white witnesses. It was not their statements, but themselves--their perception of reality that was discredited.

By denying the truth of their experience, the six black witnesses, as well as McMillan, were effectively gas-lighted by law enforcement and prosecutors.

Walter McMillan's case was eventually overturned on appeal, but not before he had spent six years on death row.

Gas-lighting is a term that I learned just a few months ago. It is a very useful concept.

If someone's gas-lighting you, the most effective thing you can say is, "Stop gas-lighting me!"

Because they are no longer arguing about the matter at hand. They are now trying to convince you or others that you're wrong because your  whole perspective is unreliable. They are trying to discredit you entirely.

They're saying that your judgment is impaired, and nothing you can say on the subject under discussion should be taken at face value.

If you can't recognize when you're being gas-lighted, you might go on arguing your point without realizing that no one is listening to you anymore.

If you've been successfully discredited, it won't matter how eloquently you argue, because now they think your judgment--perhaps even your sanity--is impaired.

For example, I was in a committee meeting, making what I thought was a good point, when a man sitting next to me responded by saying, "Yes, we all know how passionate you are about [Ms. Smith]."

Nothing I could say after that comment would matter. Whatever I said would be the words of a passionate, overwrought, irrational woman.

Without having to address what I was saying, he had managed to discredit me (not my argument), entirely.

I felt betrayed.

I don't think that he realized consciously that he had nuked me in this way--that he had ended a bilateral discussion with my annihilation. But that is what he did, nonetheless.

Gas-lighting can only occur when one person has more social standing or credibility than another person. It cannot happen between equals.

The man who gas-lighted me clearly had more social credibility than I had.  I might have prevailed in a debate, but I could not, in that social setting, resist the effects of him gas-lighting me. The group accepted his verdict without question. I was impassioned, and that was the end of it.

Mainstream literary critics, who represented and dictated social norms, essentially gas-lighted James Baldwin when they called him an angry young man. If you believe that someone is writing out of anger, you take what they say with a grain of salt. It undermines the validity of their opinions and their experience.

Donald Trump said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot someone, and get away with it.

While that may not be entirely true, he has proven again and again that he can say and do outrageous things and get away with it.  He has a lot of social standing through lawyers, money, and power.  He also relies on a loudly enthusiastic voter base, which you may characterize as you will.

Because he is now in a position of even greater power, it is incredibly difficult to discredit his point of view, however bizarre it may be.

Can we imagine anyone of ordinary means, any black person, any woman, behaving in such an outlandish way and not being socially dismissed?  It's inconceivable.

On the other hand, Trump gas-lights whomever he pleases: Hillary Rodham Clinton is a nasty woman; Barrack Obama is a Moslem, the founder of ISIS, and a spy; and Megyn Kelly is deranged, because she's having her period.

But it doesn't stop there. He also gas-lights the media. CNN is fake news.

He gas-lights the public by telling us lies that directly contradict our experience of reality. Millions of people voted illegally. The sun came out for his inaugural speech. No President since (who? Reagan?) has won an election by such a wide margin of electoral votes. Millions of people turned out for his inauguration.

We know that none of this is true, but that no longer matters. Our experience and our truth is not as important now as it was before the election. In this way, we have all been discredited.

As long as the Republicans rally around Trump's version of truth and reality--in the interest of consolidating their power--you and I (Republicans and Democrats) will continue to live in Crazy-town, where there truth is entirely relative to power.

However you feel about public health, abortion, LBGQT, Black Lives Matter, global trade, etc., etc., to me, it all boils down to one thing: How do you feel about being gas-lighted by your own government?

How do you feel about all of us, our experience, what we know to be true, the whole enchilada, being discredited and replaced by one man's bullshit?

Doesn't that describe an authoritarian regime, when only one person's truth is what matters?

As long as power rallies around Trump, we will continue to be gas-lighted.  Our truth will matter less and less, if at all. Our issues, once real, will no longer be our issues, but someone else's agenda.  (Carbon dioxide does not contribute to climate change. We will spend our resources investigating Trump's claim that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower. We will focus on Trump's absurd tweets.)

So, let's try to remember where we were before the election, because that's really important.  We were struggling with some very difficult and complex issues that had no easy answers. On the other hand, they were real issues, and real problems, and they were ours, and we were addressing them with open eyes.

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