Gaslighting or Normative Disagreement?

Normative disagreement has many similarities – but also key differences – with gaslighting.

In the throes of conflict, even the wisest minds and best regulated nervous systems can be catapulted into chaos. Are we the “good one” or the “bad one”? Is our perspective right, or are we deceiving ourselves? Coming into contact with a perspective that is radically different from our own can be provoking, triggering, even traumatic at times.

The language of “gaslighting” has proliferated enormously over the past decade, likely because it validates the experiences of so many. “Gaslighting” refers a work by British playwright Patrick Hamilton, in which a husband convinces his wife that she is mentally ill by manipulating small aspects of the environment (including the gas-fueled lights) and then telling her that she is delusional when she observes the changes. Gaslighting is a common abusive tactic, and can be used in intimate setting but is also commonly used on a mass scale by political leaders as a form of social control. Gaslighting as concept is useful and powerful because it allows us to call out this tactic for what it is: a form of abusive manipulation.

Yet we run into trouble when we denounce all forms of disagreement or differing perspective as gaslighting. This is tempting, because almost all disagreement on important political and personal topics can be extremely provocative. Yet discernment between the two is essential: Normative disagreement can be negotiated, de-escalated, resolved through mediation. Gaslighting most often cannot, and requires a very different set of interventions. Normative disagreement can be healthy and even necessary for deepened intimacy and stronger relationship. Gaslighting destroys relationship.

Familiarizing ourselves with the basic features of both normative disagreement and gaslighting gives us both deeper understanding and a greater range of choice. With knowledge comes power, and with power, freedom.

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