Gaslighting

I recall years ago seeing a survey that concluded the most distrusted people in this culture are used-car salesmen (excuse me, previously-owned-car-salesmen) — followed closely by politicians. I dare say that after the recent election the ranking has switched: politicians must be in the lead, surely. Both are notorious for their lies and deceptions, though the politicians seem to be determined to set new records.

But, what precisely is a lie? We can say that a lie is a deliberate attempt to mislead. It involves intent, not just mistaken facts. When another study during the recent election showed that Trump had lied 87 times in a week and Clinton only 8 Hillary’s followers were well pleased — even though it was noted that she did lie. Now, we don’t know if it was lies, in either case, because we do not know what the intentions of the two candidates were. We cannot know — and it is quite possible that the candidates themselves didn’t know! (How many of know what our intentions are when we take action?) There’s a difference between confusing the facts and downright lying. It’s possible that either, or both, were simply confused about some fact or another. Heaven knows I do that all the time.

But the repeated pattern of distortion and falsehood suggests a deliberate intention to mislead. In Trump’s case we seem to have before us an inveterate lier, one who lies without knowing that he is doing so. It’s simply a habit. It has proved successful in his business dealings and it has become a part of his persona, such as it is. Tell them what they want to hear; it matters not if you lie like a rug. In Hillary’s case, it is not clear. Being a politician I dare say she has intentionally lied on numerous occasions — at times because she was guarding secrets at other times simply because she wanted to mislead. But Trump offers us a case study in what has been called “gaslighting,” a practice that is sure to lead us to the point where truth and falsehood will lose all meaning. A recent CNN story  helps us grasp the concept:

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.
If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day. Unless Trump starts behaving in a radically different way . . . , gaslighting will become one of the words of 2017.
The term comes from the 1930s play “Gas Light” and the 1940s Hollywood movie version (Gaslight) in which a manipulative husband tries to unmoor his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, by tampering with her perception of reality. He dims the gaslights and then pretends it’s only she who thinks they are flickering as the rooms grow darker.
That’s only the beginning. He uses a variety of truth-blurring techniques. His goal is to exert power and control by creating doubts about what is real and what isn’t, distracting her as he attempts to steal precious jewels.. . .

. . . The techniques include saying and doing things and then denying it, blaming others for misunderstanding, disparaging their concerns as oversensitivity, claiming outrageous statements were jokes or misunderstandings, and other forms of twilighting the truth. . . . When Trump says something that outrages a portion of the population and pleases one segment, he can have it both ways. Voters eager for a tough guy president may be happy with the bully, while those who don’t like it might be appeased by the denial. In the end, few people can keep up with all the facts all the time. And as he tries to undercut the credibility of serious journalists, he makes it even harder for everyone else to find an easy path to the truth.

The key lies in this fact: it’s all about power over others. It’s a shell game born of  Trump’s disdain for others and he plays it masterfully. This is a man who loves power and seems determined to do whatever it takes to increase his own and reduce that of those around him. He may not always intend to mislead — we cannot possibly know — but it is fairly clear that when he is confronted by bare facts that conflict with what he says he shows definite signs of one who is now faced with the problem of restating the falsehood so it appears closer to the truth, ignoring it altogether, or simply accusing his accuser of misrepresenting what he had said. It’s all a part of the gaslighting scheme and in the end we are the victims — as is the truth itself.

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Calm Voice of Reason?

Ben Carson, one of the many candidates for the Republican nomination for president, speaks calmly and with supreme confidence. He appears to be every bit the medical doctor dispensing a prescription to a sick nation. In an atmosphere charged with the electricity generated by such clowns as Donald the Trumpet, Dr. Carson strikes many as the sensible alternative. His popularity is increasing daily. But when one gets past the calm exterior one worries about the substance of his positions. He claims, for example, that women are primarily responsible for rape and that Obamacare is a form of slavery. Moreover, in a personal letter addressing me by my first name, Ben asked my support for his candidacy and noted that he opposes such things as Planned Parenthood, and

“believes in peace through strength. We must defeat our enemies before they become strong enough to destroy us. We must seal our borders right away.”

Now there’s a bit of paranoia for you and the typical Republican appeal to fear.  He believes the country needs a “spiritual awakening,” which (apparently) only he can bring about. Indeed, he has a number of strange views that worry those who seek to know where the candidates stand on critical issues.

In an interview on CNN following the publication of a recent book, for example, he advanced the notion that if the Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany Hitler would never have been successful in carrying out the “final solution.” As Yahoo News reports, in part:

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said. “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take guns first.”

The comments drew a swift response from the Anti-Defamation League.

“Ben Carson has a right to his views on gun control, but the notion that Hitler’s gun-control policy contributed to the Holocaust is historically inaccurate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the organization. “The small number of personal firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.”

What we are dealing with here is what logicians call “counterfactuals.” It’s impossible to prove or disprove counter-to-fact statements of the type “If the Jews had been armed the Holocaust very likely would not have happened” We can have fun with such statements, as many historians do in speculating about the past, but we must bear in mind that it is just that: speculation. Whether or not the Anti-Defamation League had responded as they did to Carson’s remarks, it is clear that those remarks are on the weakest possible historical grounds. They cannot be proved or disproved. The man seems to be enamored of unverifiable historical claims, however, since he said in the same interview that

 “passengers on Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11, helped avoid further tragedy by rushing the gunman.”

There is simply no way of knowing whether this claim is true or false. We might like to think it is true, but that is neither here nor there.

Thus, in the case of his claim about the Holocaust, the notion that IF the Jews had guns THEN Hitler would not have been so successful in carrying out his Final Solution is totally unfounded, mere speculation. One might be tempted to say it is irresponsible in the climate of the discussion (can we call it that?) of gun control in America in 2015. When the issue is raised, as it invariably is, in an atmosphere of heat and very little light, it is irresponsible to seek analogies with situations that never occurred —  suggesting what would have been the case if events had not turned out as they did in the last century.

Dr. Carson’s demeanor is reassuring and it is a pleasant change to hear at least one candidate speak calmly and assuredly about issues that confront us all. It is, in its way, a breath of fresh air. But when one reflects on what is said and not the manner in which it is said, one realizes that this man is not all that far from folks like Donald Trump at the far right of the political spectrum. Beneath the calm exterior one can sense an element of hysteria. We need to listen to what these people say and not be taken in by the fact that they seem self-assured and confident in the claims they make. Facts do not speak for themselves; they must be supported. Speculation is just that: it is not fact and it is ultimately groundless.

Losing His Cool

You remember Alex Jones, the man who wanted CNN’s Piers Morgan deported because he had the audacity to suggest that the United States needs tighter gun control laws. If we keep turning rocks over and idiots like Jones continue to crawl out it will eventually give conservatives a bad name. Assuming he ever had “it,” Alex Jones recently went on Piers Morgan’s TV show and lost it, as the following Yahoo News story tells us:

Alex Jones, the conservative talk radio host who launched a petition to deport CNN prime-time host Piers Morgan over the British citizen’s views on gun control, had what you might conservatively call a wee bit of a meltdown during an interview on Morgan’s show Monday night.

Jones, whose petition has generated more than 100,000 signatures since being posted last month on the White House’s “We The People” website, lashed out at Morgan over his public calls for tighter gun regulations in the wake of last month’s shootings in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people—including 20 children—were killed by a gunman at an elementary school.

“The Second Amendment isn’t there for duck hunting,” a relatively calm Jones said at the beginning of a two-part, 15-minute interview. “It’s there to protect us from tyrannical government and street thugs.”

This is interesting for a number of reasons. To begin with, the fact that Jones later in the interview lost his cool and started to blather suggests that he knew deep-down he is on very thin ice. The thinness of the ice is demonstrated by his ignorance of the second amendment to the Constitution. The amendment was not written to protect us from “tyrannical government and street thugs.” It was written to protect us from standing armies, including our own. It was intended to guarantee that every American male would have arms and could be called upon to protect his country from armed invaders. There weren’t many “street thugs” about in those days — and very few conservative radio talk-show hosts (lucky Colonials!).  And the tyrants had already been sent back to England, though there was always the possibility that their armies might return. Hence the need for a militia.

The depth of ignorance among the gun-rights movement is staggering but not really surprising, given the fact that Americans are generally ignorant about their own history. One wonders how many of those who rant about the second amendment have ever read it. It’s not that long and has few, if any, big words. As I have mentioned in previous blogs (for example, this one), the right to bear arms is connected logically with the need for a militia and the desire NOT to have a standing army. It says, in effect: because we don’t want to be an occupied country we require a militia and therefore insist on the right to bear arms. No need for a militia, no need for arms.

But on a deeper level, it is disturbing that a man like Jones who professes to be an opinion-maker in this country cannot carry on a civil discussion with a person who disagrees with him. Related to this concern is the notion that he would have Morgan deported rather than defend the man’s right to have a different opinion than his about gun control. What happened to the first amendment? That amendment guarantees our right to have opinions even if they are outrageous and even stupid — witness the radio and TV talk shows. Read the Bill of Rights, people.

But in the end, it’s all about civil discourse and our inability to carry it on without watching it degenerate into a shouting match. We take our clue from TV. We are indeed a violent people, as Jones says later in that interview, and we seem to be perfectly happy to admit it and even demonstrate it with disturbing frequency.