Personal Health

A Gaslighter’s Favorite Trick: Fluid Hard-Lining

Black, white and gray all over; they're right and you're always wrong.

Photo Credit: Chompoo / Shutterstock.com

“Heads I win, tails you lose.”
“Not fair! You mean heads I lose, tails I win.”
“That’s what I said, idiot. Heads you lose, tails I win.”
“You mean tails you lose, heads you win.”
“Exactly. Tails you lose, heads I win.”

You can’t win with a gaslighter but not for lack of clearly delineated moral categories. Gaslighters have plenty of those. They’re preachy masters of black and white moral categorizing. They always draw tidy distinctions with sanctimonious authority, as clear as the difference between heads and tails.

Firm though their distinctions are, it doesn’t prevent them from being as slippery as they want. Drawing hard lines and then moving the lines fluidly to suit their whims is the gaslighter’s favorite trick. Gaslighters are rhetorical gerrymanderers.

Gerrymandering is, of course, a political term for drawing and redrawing voting district lines for political advantage. Gerrymandering has become such a problem in America that Obama declared ending it to be his post-presidential priority.

Democrats have done their share of gaslighting. These days the GOP is bent on doing more than its share. The Koch brother’s foundation has been funding aggressive campaigns to take over state government because whichever party holds office gets to gerrymander congressional district lines after the 2020 census. So far, the GOP has control of 35 state governments.

But gerrymandering is a far bigger political problem than this. In politics, there’s rhetorical gerrymandering too, as there probably is in everyday life.

If you’re dealing with an everyday gaslighter you’re dealing with a master of rhetorical gerrymandering, drawing hard distinctions between good and bad, that they then wiggle to their advantage. Let’s start with some political gaslighting examples since they’re so blatant and on everyone’s minds these days.

Make America Great Again, fake news, elites, and PC—these delineate clear categories. MAGA is always a virtue according to Trump and fake news, PC and elites are always vices. His supporters love his black and white clarity. His opponents, like me, think he’s a slippery con-man hypocrite. Why?

Rhetorical gerrymandering. Though Trump postures as the hard and fast authority on the difference between virtue and vice, he plays fast and loose with his virtue and vice category boundaries.

Trump can’t stand fake news. He draws a hard line against it. Hard though it may be, the line is completely flexible in his hands. Whatever flatters him is real news. Whatever insults him is fake news.

Same with PC. If it offends others they’re just snowflake, PC losers. If it offends him, it's not PC. Elite insiders? He draws a hard line against them, defined as anyone powerful who gets in his way.

Fake news, PC, elite: The categories are absolute but the lines are drawn by gut. It’s not difficult to pull off that kind of slipperiness if you’ve seen the light as he and his followers have. Here’s how that works:

You’ve seen the light. You’ve discovered that X is always good, Y is always evil. From now on, you represent X against Y. You are the very embodiment of X, so you needn’t bother defining X carefully. Just call everything you like X and everything you don’t like Y.

I always get a few angry letters when I pick on the GOP these days. I got one recently from someone who didn’t like me suggesting that if Trump irritates you, you should channel your frustration into wondering more carefully how to draw the line between jerks and non-jerk.

The reader was hurt and offended that I would suggest that Trump was a jerk. She said maybe we need a jerk as president these days to drain the swamp. A sentence later, she said that maybe I’m the real jerk for writing my article.

So which is it? Are jerks the heroes who drain the swamp or the evil ones who write articles that offend GOPC sensitivities? It all depends on how you define jerk.

My point here is that to gaslighters, a definition isn’t something to bother with. If you’re on the side of virtue against vice, however you label them, just trust your gut to label correctly.

Call it whatever’s popular in your tribe at the moment but slide yourself into the virtue tent and kick your opponents out of the virtue tent at every opportunity. You’ll get nothing but confirmation that you’ve drawn the right distinction because you’ll never experience self-doubt again.

And it’s not just the GOP. I live in Berkeley, California, where a recent fad was mindfulness, not as a useful daily meditation practice but as a way of life. Ekart Tolle was this movement’s early Donald Trump. He labeled virtue as mindfulness, spirituality, and being in the now. He labeled vice as ego. Having “discovered” these “true” labels, he then went around labeling whatever he liked as mindful and whatever he hated as ego. We ended up with a lot of mindful gaslighters in this town, quick to push you out of the tent as unmindful and egotistical if you got in their way.

In short, here’s the gaslighter big trick:

  1. Have an epiphany that makes it clear as night and day, what’s good and what’s bad.
  2. Draw a hard line between good and bad with a label for each. X is always good. Y is always bad.
  3. Trust your gut to label everything you like as X and everything you don’t like as Y.

Congratulations! From now on you’re always on the side of X-right and anyone who gets in your way is Y-wrong. That’s the gaslighting. You make anyone who disagrees with you wrong. Heads, the gaslighter wins, tails the victim loses.

A skillful gaslighter collects many X’s and Y’s all wielded the same way. Think of the advantage even with the handful from my reader. In so many words:

Show respect (good) for Trump. You’re being disrespectful (bad) to his supporters. He’s not “PC” (bad) but maybe it takes a “jerk” (good) to drain the swamp. Maybe you’re the “jerk” (bad) for showing “disrespect” (bad) to us. The “elites” (bad) deserve “disrespect” (good). That’s why we need a “disrespectful” (good) powerful (“elite”—good) “jerk” (good) as president.  

However you slice it, those who disagree with her are bad. That’s the gaslighting, making others wrong by use of fluid hardline categorization. Having multiple fluid hardline categories to wield, traps victims any way they turn. Heads I win, tails you lose, or tails I win heads you lose. No matter how you slice it, you lose.

Some popular examples of fluid hard-lining these days:

  • For libertarians: Liberty is good. Liberty is whatever I like.
  • For the religious: Faith is good. Faith is whatever I like.
  • For the spiritual: Spirituality is good. Spirituality is whatever I like.
  • For the anti-PC warrior: PC is bad. PC is whatever I don’t like.
  • For the “open-minded”: Open-minded is good. Open-minded is being receptive to whatever I say.
  • For the “non-judgmental”: Judgment is bad. Judgment is whatever I don’t want to hear.
  • For the conservative: Liberal is bad. Liberal is whatever I don’t like.
  • For the liberal: Conservative is bad. Conservative is whatever I don’t like.

One can be interested in any of these approaches without being a gaslighter. Gaslighting results from claiming to draw a hard line that you wield with fluid self-serving authority.

 

Jeremy Sherman is a decision theorist studying how life deals with dilemmas from the origins of life to everyday and political life. 

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