Judgments add fuel to fire

Next time you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day, watch the classic movie “Gaslight.” In the film, Gregory pulls a serious psychological number on his new wife, Paula, in order to cover up the murder of her aunt. He employs an array of psychological tricks against Paula’s mounting suspicions as she edges toward the truth. Paula’s apparent derangement is the product of her husband’s deft manipulations of reality, crafted to make her look delusional, crazy, off-kilter, and any manner of tin-foil-hat-wearing.

How intriguing that the central symbol of a Hollywood film — gas light — has become part of modern American political parlance, retaining its connection to the process of demonizing a person that Gregory used in the film. Today’s gaslighters attack opposing viewpoints by using verbal sleight-of-hand to make the people holding those viewpoints look foolish, unrealistic, backward. Crazy.

For instance, if you believe universal health care is a viable option, then you don’t understand how the economy works, or you’re a “pie-in-the-sky” Bernie Sanders socialist. Likewise, if you believe our founding documents mandate government on a small, local scale, then you’re nothing but a Tea Party numbskull. After all, weren’t last year’s Bernie supporters a bunch of clueless, lazy millennials? Aren’t people who favor small government just flag-waving hicks — not to mention bigoted rubes?

You see how this works? When cast so baldly, these claims seem outrageous, inflammatory, exaggerated even. How is it so many people are able to toss out these insults while preserving their self-image of reasonable open-mindedness? It always seems to be “them” that’s wrong. Maybe even crazy.

We do this all the time — observe people we don’t know, make conclusions we don’t have enough information to make, leading to judgments about what those conclusions imply, resulting in an assessment of that “other’s” worth. There’s a vocal segment of the “good” guys — taxpayers — that equates poor people with bloodsuckers. The equation starts with an observation: “I drive by and see these people sitting on their porches at one o’clock in the afternoon. I don’t get to do that, and I’m paying for these lazy people.”

That seems like a statement made of ignorance, or even pure bigotry. Ultimately, it’s a timeworn form of gaslighting, the essence of which is diminishing a person’s worth or their opinions by assigning an outrageous label to them. You look lazy, so you must be. Never mind that maybe the porch-sitters work at night, or work two jobs, or even three — a scenario I’ve personally encountered. Is that person entitled to a satellite dish?

False equivalencies are also born of gaslighting. A common refrain on the left last year was that “Bernie Sanders supporters are nasty.” Or “Both sides are equally mean.” Sometimes, Sanders supporters were actually labeled as privileged white millennials who don’t care about the struggles of women and people of color.

Clinton supporters hurled these claims from a position of power. With superdelegates, she started the race ahead. She was well-known. She had a war chest. Her supporters had the advantage of aligning themselves with the frontrunner. It’s easy to rain verbal abuse downward. It’s the labeling and the false equivalencies that give harsh rhetoric a gaslighting feel.

Another technique that can be traced directly to the movie is portraying your opponent as a screwball living in some fictional reality. Questioning changes in weather patterns or the appearance of clouds is likely to be met with a look of disbelief and a conversation-ending, “It’s always been this way.” More dramatically, all one has to do to be gaslighted as “tin foil” is recommend that the 400-year-old scientific method evolve past its outdated Newtonian infrastructure. Meanwhile, quantum physicists race ahead, quietly interpreting amazing new knowledge.

In politics, many people remain blind to the bipartisan convergence on matters of foreign affairs, health care, the economy — embracing instead the persistent myth that there are still significant differences between Democrats and Republicans and that there should be. The martial quality of this belief overshadows all pursuit of truth.

Any communication that sounds like “Your reality is screwed up; what’s wrong with you” is gaslighting. It’s harmful.

Let’s not do that to each other.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com