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What Gaslighting Actually Means

Initially, the term meant to induce mental illness through repeated manipulations, though now the meaning has evolved to more broadly indicate making someone question their perceptions of reality.

In recent years, the term “gaslighting” has suddenly come out of nowhere to populate our everyday discourse—even though many of us don’t even know what a gaslight might be, much less what the word actually means.

And it turns out that we’re often using the term wrong, throwing it around whenever we think someone might be less than truthful with us—when the term has a more precise meaning, one that has evolved over time.

To help us keep clear on the language we use, LA Progressive maintains a Glossary, containing a great many political terms used in our articles. We encourage you to check it out—and also send us your suggestions for terms we might want to add.

So what, then, does it mean to gaslight someone and where did such an odd term come from?

Here’s what our Glossary says:

Gaslighting - a term used to characterize a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator tries to get someone or a group of people to question their own reality, memory or perceptions. A form of abuse that involves a person or group of people who intentionally attempt to cause others to doubt their sanity.

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The term got its start with a 1934 British play, “Gas Light,” by Patrick Hamilton, which was made into a 1944 film, “Gaslight,” starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotton.

In the play and film, the husband tricks his wife into believing she is mentally ill by making the gaslights—the lighting that illuminated their apartment—waver or flicker whenever he left home. Subjected to his doubts and insinuations time after time, she begins to think she might indeed be crazy.

Initially, then, the term meant to induce mental illness through such manipulations, though now the meaning has evolved to more broadly indicate making someone question their perceptions of reality.

As one current example, look at all the talk of rising crime rates. Right-wing Republicans, centrist Democrats, and every police chief from Key West to Anchorage tells us we should have our hair on fire about out-of-control crime. Be afraid, very, very afraid! And don’t dream of “defunding the police.”

But it’s gaslighting, pure and simple. Yes, some kinds of crime—robberies, for instance—have risen a bit during the pandemic, but overall, crime remains at record low levels. For example, Los Angeles had 387 murders in 2021. Bad as that is, we had over 1,000 homicides annually all through the 1990s.

And all the Republican talk about stolen elections and voter fraud is another very effective example of gaslighting—which a third of the country swallows hook, line, and sinker. Actual actual fact-based investigation shows that such talk is nothing but a lie. But repeated over and over and over, it makes a bunch of us doubt what our lying eyes are telling us.