Gaslighting 101

There are people who are so good at manipulating others that they can make you believe black is white, up is down, or that something you personally experienced did not occur at all or did not happen the way you remember it did.

No, it’s not hypnotism or magic. It’s a psychological technique called gaslighting. By lying, denying, misdirecting, and contradicting, the perpetrator undermines the victim’s belief in an effort to destabilize and manipulate them.

American social worker and feminist author Florence Rush, who wrote a book about child abuse in 1980, said the word “is used to describe an attempt to destroy another’s perception of reality.”

Gaslighting is used by abusers as part of their strategy. A womanizing husband will insist to his wife that he came home earlier than she remembers, or a molester will convince his child victim that what he is doing is actually something that the victim wants to happen. Victims are left doubting their memories, beliefs, knowledge, and experiences, until they question reality and accept their abuser’s version of it.

Perpetrators not only use the technique in their personal relationships, but also in their professional dealings. It is glaringly obvious when a politician or elected official employs it, because then it comes to the attention of members of the public, who share their analyses and opinions using social media, often resulting in a collective condemnation of the erring official’s behavior.

Here’s a case of gaslighting in the political context. At a Palace news briefing last July 16, Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo had the effrontery to claim that President Rodrigo Duterte “never was bastos,” and that his lapses into rude and crude language were “intended to make people laugh, never to offend.”

Panelo made the remark in relation to the President’s signing last April 17 of Senator Risa Hontiveros’ Bawal Bastos Law, also known as the Safe Spaces Act.

The law, Republic Act No. 11313, penalizes sexual harassment-related actions including wolf-whistling, catcalling, persistent telling of sexual jokes, leering and intrusive gazing, taunting, unwanted invitations, and online sexual harassment.

Reminded that the President himself was prone to making off-color jokes and misogynistic and homophobic remarks, Panelo defended the former’s behavior.  

Iba naman ‘yung pambabastos eh,” he said. “You women should know that. Iba ang dating ng bastos saka ‘yung nagpapatawa lang,” adding that proof of the inoffensiveness of Duterte’s sexist jokes is that his audiences respond with “hearty laughter.”

But the rape jokes and such are bastos. Panelo’s insistence that they aren’t is gaslighting. He is trying to convince us that wrong is right or at the least harmless, just because people laughed. Laughter, in such a situation, is not proof of the humor or harmlessness of the remark, but an affirmation of the divide between the powerful and the powerless.  

Most likely some people laughed because they did not want to embarrass the President, were trying to gain his favor, or were reluctant to be seen as unsupportive.

Power relations becomes a factor in such situations, where the President as the highest-ranking official in the land holds influence or command over everyone in the room.

The difference in status between president and audience members is so great, and power distance—the strength of societal social hierarchy and the acceptance of lower-ranking people that power is distributed unequally—so vast in our culture that it’s practically assured that many, if not most, will guffaw at Duterte’s bad jokes only for the simple fact that he is the president.

Panelo is toeing the patriarchal line when he gaslights the public about Duterte’s sexist behavior. They both belong to a generation that takes male privilege for granted, and they are unused to having their behavior questioned, particularly by women – as Panelo said, “You women should know that.”

In line with this, women are often the targets of gaslighting. Philosopher Kate Abramson explained in a 2014 journal article, “It’s part of the structure of sexism that women are supposed to be less confident, to doubt our views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions, more than men.

“And gaslighting is aimed at undermining someone’s views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions. The sexist norm of self-doubt, in all its forms, prepares us for just that.”

On the bright side, the discriminatory attitudes of people like Panelo and Duterte are slowly but gradually being swept away by feminists and egalitarians, borne on the tide of the #MeToo movement and other initiatives that push back against male-dominated and anti-women societal norms and practices.

Proof that the change is happening can be seen in the current paradigm shift in Philippine culture that now calls to account errant officials, a task made easier by the ubiquity of and ease of access to social media.

In other words, gaslighters in government are going to find it more difficult to get away with it.  

Sexist jokes are dumb, pointless, and creepy—just like the men who tell them.  /FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: Florence Rush , Gaslighting , Sexist joke , Rodrigo Duterte , Kate Abramson , Anti-Bastos Law , Risa Hontiveros

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