Gaslighting is pernicious. The term comes from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, which is about a husband (Jack) who slowly convinces his wife (Bella) into believing that she is going insane.
The play is set in their house, where Bella treads on eggshells. Jack flirts with other women but when Bella calls him out, he says she "reads meanings into everything". He disappears without telling her where he is going.
At night, he secretly visits the top floor of the house and turns on the gas lamps there, which causes the lights below to dim. When she says the lights are dimming at around the same time every evening, he insists she is imagining it.
Gaslighting is not only lying or manipulation, it’s also persuading someone that everything is their fault. Those on the receiving end of it feel anxious, sad, angry and confused. Why? Because they are being psychologically abused in a coercive and insidious way which makes them gradually feel as though they can’t trust their own mind or what they know to be true.
Being gaslit makes you question yourself. Did that really happen? Maybe it was all actually my fault? It’s disorienting, which is why lying and twisting the truth is now officially defined as a form of domestic abuse.
Gaslighting is not only lying or manipulation, it's also persuading someone that everything is their fault. Those on the receiving end of it feel anxious, sad, angry and confused.
This is as true in politics as it is in our personal lives. I doubt that politicians lie or misrepresent the facts any more than normal people do but, quite rightly, we hold them to a higher standard because everything they tell us sets the tone for our collective shared reality.
As Britain’s official death toll from COVID-19 passed Italy’s for the first time at the start of May, the government flat-out refused to acknowledge this horrific milestone. "We won’t get a real verdict on how countries have done until the pandemic is over," the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the daily press briefing.
The British government, under Boris Johnson’s leadership, has overseen the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe. While it’s true that comparing different countries is fraught with difficulty because the way deaths are recorded differs, the truth is that, if anything, we aren’t recording enough deaths because we are only recording those where the deceased has tested positive for the virus and, as we all know, we’ve simply not been testing enough people.
The UK now has the second highest number of recorded coronavirus deaths in the world, behind the United States which has more than 90,000. And we’re a far smaller country.
But it’s not only our death toll that is progressing beyond other countries in Europe. While Spain and Italy have decided it’s not yet safe enough to reopen schools, children here were expected to be back at their desks on 1st June until the backlash from teachers became so severe that the government was forced to admit it might not work.
The official coronavirus advice has changed from "stay home" to "stay alert" which is so bad that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland aren't using it.
You absolutely smashed this impersonation of Boris Johnson @RealMattLucas 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/u5knkdgwRa— The Viral Group (@TheViralGroupUK) May 10, 2020
It means that you can go out but only if you’re exercising and, even then, you should still be social distancing. You can see people but try not to do it too much and stay away from them when you do. You can go to natural beauty spots but it’s probably better not to. You really ought to wear a mask but you’re not going to be forced to. You can go to work but we’d really rather you worked from home. If you must go to work, please don’t use public transport, even though you probably don’t have a choice.
People said the messaging was unclear. It wasn’t. The government was clearly saying this: the economy is now the priority and we’ll figure out the continuing cost to human life.
Boris Johnson was telling us that it’s all on us, as individuals, now. If we succeed, great; if we fail, more’s the pity. We must now take responsibility for ourselves, for our actions and for the people around us. If we slip up then we might just end up in a row with a neighbour or experience the public shaming of a paparazzi-style picture under a "Covidiot" headline on the Daily Mail’s website.
Gaslighting isn't just something that happens in our personal relationships, it can be a collective cultural phenomenon too.
The prime minister left us in no doubt: we are now relying on what he called "good solid British common sense" to see us through phase two of the coronavirus response. That means you can do what you want but you will spread the virus and hurt others if you don’t follow the rules. The subtext? How do you sleep at night?
Gaslighting isn’t just something that happens in our personal relationships, it can be a collective cultural phenomenon too. We saw that during the EU referendum, when Johnson deliberately misused official statistics as he campaigned for Brexit. The Leave campaign, of which he was a leading member, told people that leaving the EU would return £350 million a week to the NHS even though it wasn’t true. Afterwards, they pretended they had never actually meant it.
This sort of politicking makes society at large feel unstable in the way it does an individual when it’s happening behind closed doors, at home. It turns mistakes into fake news and discredits inconvenient truths. It isn't the first time in recent history that those in charge have been accused of gaslighting. As Teen Vogue incisively pointed out in 2016, the psychology of gaslighting could explain how Donald Trump was deliberately destabilising the truth in America.
As COVID spread silently through the country, the prime minister boasted about shaking hands with people during a hospital visit even as his advisors issued a public warning against it. As wearing face masks became mandatory elsewhere in the world, the British government refused to recommend it. Even though the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization joined France in adding the loss of smell and taste to their official lists of COVID-19 symptoms, the UK held back until this week.
That we are supposed to pretend that the way our government handled this crisis has nothing to do with the death toll is ridiculous. That there was no alternative, that they ignored the advice of scientists they didn’t agree with until it suited them.
There is something hypermasculine about it all, too. Who can fail to notice that the majority of people who address the nation from behind a podium displaying the changing advice are men? They stand before us advocating "common sense" when we know they have not done the same.
Everything politicians tell us sets the tone for our collective shared reality.
Is it any wonder that confidence in the government has fallen? It is anxiety-inducing. We are all questioning our own versions of reality, feeling the weight of the responsibility placed upon us. When we knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing – staying at home – it was far easier.
Now, too many people face impossible choices. Even more so if you have no choice but to go to work – because you are a key worker or, simply, you need the money and your place of work has reopened. What we know to be true – that a pandemic is still in full swing – and what we are being told – that things are getting better, that we are beating the virus – feel at odds, and we’re being told to shoulder the blame.
History is always written by those who have power and we are watching as the narrative they’d like to be remembered is crafted, day in, day out. But as anyone who has ever experienced gaslighting and questioned their own version of reality eventually comes to realise, you saw what you saw. You heard what you heard. You know what you know.
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.