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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I Hate Lucy

Don’t get me wrong. I used to laugh my head off at Lucy Ricardo’s shenanigans on the “I Love Lucy” show. But, let’s face it, that show may be at the roots of the culture of lying that has emerged in this country, especially off late. The humor on that show was based, almost without exception, on the deception and lies that Lucy perpetrated against Ricky. As a result of those lies she had her hilarious comeuppance, and all was well in the end. In any event, so many sit-come that have followed have adopted the same template: tell lies that generate embarrassing, funny situations and make sure the hero or heroine learns a lesson or two but all comes out in the wash at the end.

So what? Well, think about it. The entertainment industry has taken over this country and folks spend the better part of their day and night watching the tube. Sit-coms are extremely popular. If we put two and two together and make sure we don’t come up with five, we might infer that those shows permeate the tiny cells in our brains and plant seeds (if television waves can plant seeds). And those seeds give us the deep impression that lying is OK. We see it time after time on the tube. We know that the used car salesman lies to us. It’s a given. We know that going in and brace ourselves for the tall tales about the car we like driven by an old women and never over 30 miles an hour. And we know the man selling his house will simply not mention that the basement leaks every time it rains.

Politicians lie to us and we know it as well. It’s a given, just like the used car salesman, the house-seller, and whoever else has an item to sell. The politicians in particular are selling themselves and they will tell us what we want to hear in order to get our vote. We say we hate politics; perhaps it is because we all know that it invariably involves lying. One of the two candidates for president in the current race is the Champion of Liars. A recent count by the folks at the New York Times reveals that in a given week he told 87 lies to his opponent’s 8. Clearly, he is the Champion! But the fact remains that his opponent lies on occasion as well. Perhaps it is best to take what they all say with a grain of salt, as they say, and assume that we are being lied to all over the place.

The problem is that we need to know where those folks stand. We need to now if the car we buy will hold up after the warranty runs out and whether or not the leak in the basement can be stopped. We need to know these things and when we are told lies and we believe those lies we are the victims. How do we avoid that trap? Surely, we have some responsibility to learn the truth and separate that from the rest of the verbal detritus that spews forth from the mouths of those we would like to believe.

As I have noted in a previous post, when lies become the norm there is no longer any truth. Truth becomes whatever we choose to believe. I do think we have arrived at that point as a society. How else to explain the thousands of people who buy the swill that is being sold by the Champion of Liars? So many of us have become like the naive fools who bought snake oil from the man on the wagon at the fair years ago. There’s a fool born every day. Sometimes dozens of fools. How do we make sure we are not among them?

To begin with, we need to be suspicious about anything a politician tells us. We need to insist on corroboration from another source when a claim is made, a reliable source. We need to ask ourselves whether what he or she says is plausible? Does it make sense? Can the president, for example, have the power to accomplish all the things this particular candidate is claiming he or she will accomplish when in office? What evidence do we have that what this person says is true or that they are competent to hold that office?

The rule of thumb in critical thinking is that truth is a residue. If we can find a weakness in a claim, if we can find counter-evidence, that claim is almost certainly not true. A claim is true if, and only if, we cannot find reasons to reject it. This was the Socratic method and it has stood the test of time. But it takes work. It requires that we be suspicious. It takes careful attention to the claims themselves and a willingness to think through what the person says and reject those claims that are clearly false — even if they fit in nicely with our preconceived ideas. And that is tough. We do want to think that those claims are true that make us feel good about ourselves. But a claim is not true simply because we want to believe it. It is only true if it cannot possibly be false.

Ricky believed Lucy because he loved her and he wanted to believe what she said was true. He should have given it a bit more thought. But it wouldn’t have been half as funny. On the political stage these days, however, it is not the least bit funny and we have our work cut out for us.

It’s War!

I have a second email address that I tend to ignore for the most part until I realize that it is collecting over one hundred emails — mostly spam, of course. When I was emptying the trash from that site yesterday I came to realize that there were dozens of urgent requests from some group that calls itself “DCCC” wanting me to donate money to Donald Trump’s campaign. Oh yeah! You bet. Right away: I’ll get out  my checkbook. . . .

But as I gave some of the frantic notices some attention I came to realize an odd and somewhat disturbing fact: these people don’t see this election as a campaign; they see it as war! It’s Us against Them! It’s the little guy against the giant Establishment. They sprinkle their appeals with quotations from various sources on the “enemy’s” side that prove (to them) that the enemy is on the run. They are panicking! We are winning!

For example, one recent appeal quotes Barack Obama (their favorite hate target: he is the source of all evil, together with Hillary Clinton, of course) to this effect: “All the progress we’ve made is at stake in this election.” The DCCC see this as a sign that the “other side” is weakening and is in panic mode. Every time Fact Check is quoted to show that their leader has told bald-faced lies it is dismissed as a pure fabrication, a Lie to end all Lies. They lie, we don’t. They won’t listen to criticism of their leader because they know before time that whatever that criticism might be it is pure fiction. Their man can do no wrong.

Ironically, of course, the appeals are full of lies and distortions about how their leader is winning the war, though their minions cannot possibly recognize them as such because they see only black and white: US against THEM. They lie, we don’t. The thought that they are winning the war and that they have the enemy on the run keeps them energized and (I suspect) keeps the dollars coming in. Promises of doubling and tripling donations are sprinkled throughout the appeals that include the aforementioned lies and distortions about their leader’s winning ways. And the appeals have a frantic tone to them, designed to evoke emotional reaction, not thought.

The whole thing would be funny except for the fact that it is deeply disturbing. When, for example brilliant people like Stephen Hawking convince a couple of hundred reputable scientists to sign a letter to the American people urging them not to vote for Trump this is not seen as a weakening of their own lines; it is seen as a sure sign that the “other side” is on the run. “They,” one quickly realizes, is anyone who disagrees with them. And it doesn’t matter if “they” are reputable scientists, former Republicans, Pulitzer Prized winners, or even the Pope: they all lie when they dare to say anything critical of their leader.

This is not merely the refusal of someone to hear or read anything that might sully their leader, because they have determined that their leader defines the Truth — though this is certainly the case. This is not a matter of any attempt to draw rational conclusions from scattered, legitimate evidence. It is pure, unadulterated, visceral, hatred-driven determination to beat the opposition at any cost. And this is deeply disturbing because it suggests that these folks will stop at nothing to see their man win. And if he doesn’t win there will be Hell to pay, because it means that they have lost as well.

So much for the democratic ideal of open and honest debate among different political ideologies in an attempt to persuade voters to back their man or woman. This is the darkest form of warfare disguised as a political race — which Trump himself describes as a “movement.” He’s right. It is a movement, much like a cult. And reason and logic have no place at the table. It’s all about gut feelings, rage, hatred, and fear bundled up against the Establishment that has always been out to get those who are ready and able to do battle for their man.

The Real Victim

We have already heard the claim that this election is “rigged” and that Donald Trump may lose as a result. What this translates into it: My name is Donald The Trumpet and IF I lose it will not be as a result of my own failings as a person and a potential president, it will be because the Democrats have rigged the election.” In a word, it’s an escape clause that Trump has built into his ridiculous candidacy, because in his mind he cannot lose fair and square. The facts, of course, do not matter — though his claim is, indeed, based on the fact that the DNC managed to guarantee that Hillary would be their candidate and Bernie Sanders would not be. There is certainly some truth in that (if truth matters any more).

But it is a huge jump from that particular unpleasant fact to the outrageous claim that the entire election will be rigged to guarantee that Donald Trump will not be our next president. Why, we might well ask, should the Democrats bother to rig the election when the Trumpet is managing to undermine his own candidacy by continuing to shoot himself in the foot? If only he wouldn’t open his mouth, he might have a chance. But whenever he opens it another outrageous claim comes gushing forth and another doubter is born (we would hope).

To be sure, things have been done in the past to promote the interest of one particular candidate — Mayor Daily in Chicago practically delivered the election to John Kennedy back in the day. But there have been numerous other attempts, such as Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise certain voters (usually Democrats) and help the candidate of choice. And it would appear that Florida was pretty much delivered to George W. Bush by his brother not long ago. But to “rig” the entire election in favor of one candidate over another would appear to be practically impossible.

But that doesn’t matter, as we have learned. It’s not what is the case, in fact, that matters. It’s all about perception and the Trumpet is a master at deception — making the “truth” out to be whatever he says. He will say the word “rigged” enough to convince his mindless minions that it is a fact. And when he goes down in defeat in November (if he is not forced to resign sooner) he will shout “foul,” and his minions will rise up in protest. Let’s hope and pray that they not do so in violent protest — though I would certainly not bet against it.

The real victim in this race is not Donald Trump. If the real victim is not the Republican Party (which may well be the case) it is the truth. It is facts. It is what happens to be the case and not what people perceive to be the case. Truth is the real victim because the consequences of this transformation of lies into The Truth From On High are incalculable. The Donald will, as he says, take a long vacation and then probably work for Fox News and do the lecture circuit to help reimburse himself for the expenses he has incurred in this contest — and keep his face in the public eye. But what his mindless minions will do is anyone’s guess and those consequences follow directly from the rocks this man has turned over and the rage he has ignited in the hearts of so many people who might otherwise have simply remained mute. And, again, the truth will lie in tatters around our feet, unrecognizable and incapable of resuscitation. There’s the real victim.

Lies, Lies, Lies

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Truth becomes merely a word that is used by critics to shame their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the successful businessman standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he says alone, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our infallible Leader.

Delusions

In Joseph Conrad’s remarkable novel Victory he depicts a man by the name of Schomberg who owns a hotel on an island in the China Sea. He is a truly obnoxious man, large, heavily bearded, sweaty, and overbearing who lords it over his poor wife and anyone he takes offense to. He has become infatuated with a pretty girl who has come with Zangiacomo’s Ladies Orchestra to stay at his hotel and perform for the patrons. Schomberg’s wife is almost as repulsive as he is and he pines after the pretty girl whom the fates have brought to him; in Schomberg’s mind she is responding to his advances; he is winning the poor girl’s heart. He has visions of ridding himself of his wife, selling the hotel and running off with the pretty young girl who will love him all the more for taking her away from the tortuous life of a roaming violin player in an all-girl band. In fact, the young girl finds his advances positively nauseating. Please understand that Schomberg’s fantasies are all of his own making: he is repulsive to the girl who avoids him at every turn. When the girl runs off with a Swede whom Schomberg has already grown to hate, his imaginings take a turn toward total delusion with just a touch of paranoia. He is convinced the Swede tricked the girl somehow and stole her away just as Schomberg was about to triumph. His hatred grows beyond reckoning.

Schomberg is delusional. We can see that now because we see on every side around us a growing number of delusional people who have turned Donald Trump into their political savior, just as Schomberg turned the pretty girl into his personal savior.

In a delightful comic performance on HBO by John Oliver making the rounds on Facebook recently we were treated to the total unmasking of the Trumpet and his followers. A number of Trump’s followers were asked what they saw in the man and why they thought he would make a good president. They noted that he “tells it like it is,” that he is a “successful business person,” he is “tough,” and has “acute business sense.” To each of these claims, the comic destroys the fiction with the bare facts.  A number of his “success” stories are outright failures — such as his ventures into travel, magazines, vodka, steaks [!], and home mortgages at a time when banks were going belly-up due to housing failures. The man is not a successful businessman. In fact he has been bankrupt several times. He is convinced that the Trump label guarantees success, whereas in fact many of his ventures have been miserable failures — which, in every case, he blames on someone else. Fact Check notes that three-fourths of what he says is simply false. But Trump dismisses Fact Check as a “liberal” creation out to destroy him. He tells lies and creates fictions that he passes off as Truth From On High. Finally, he is not tough. He has remarkably thin skin, threatening those who oppose him with grievous bodily harm, law suits, or both. His reaction to criticism borders on paranoia.

The parallel is remarkable. Schomberg’s delusions are  mirrored in the minds and hearts of growing numbers of people in this country who flock to buy the snake oil Donald Trump peddles. They blindly accept his promises that the snake oil will cure all their ills while in fact it is vile smelling and will almost certainly make them sick. The truth is hard to swallow at times. But it is better to hold our nose and swallow it than to swallow the putrid liquid this politician is passing off as a panacea that will cure us all. It will not. It will only make us worse. Much worse.

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

There are a couple of excellent sources for checking the facts after political speeches and such “major” TV events as the current presidential debates. One of my fellow bloggers even gives a synopsis after the debates so we can see who told the biggest “whoppers.” This raises some interesting issues.

To begin with, both debaters tell falsehoods and half-truths and do so repeatedly. As one reads the fact checks one notes that while the facts have been checked before a number of the falsehoods are repeated even though the deception has been pointed out, perhaps several times. Strange. But more to the point is the obvious consideration that the average listener has no way to tell in the course of a debate or a political speech that a lie has been told or a half-truth has suddenly appeared from the politician’s hat. This is why the debates are so untrustworthy and leave us little else to go by except impressions. It really is all about theater — as I noted in yesterday’s blog. Consider the following fact check item:

Romney: It’s “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons”
The verdict: False
The federal ban on manufacturing some semi-automatic assault weapons that President Clinton signed in 1994 expired in 2004, and wasn’t renewed. There are other regulations and restrictions still in place — the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the Hughes Amendment in 1986, says Brian Bennett at the Los Angeles Times. But ”fully automatic weapons — guns that fire continuously when the trigger is held down — are legal to possess in the United States.”

How many people listening to a rapid-fire (sorry!) debate will know enough to realize that one of the speakers just told a whopper? And he did so on a vital and controversial issue that many people care deeply about, one way or the other. The matter of gun control is a hot topic and as a general rule very few people who argue with one another in bars about this issue have bothered to gather the evidence and check on their “facts” beforehand. That’s to be expected. But one does not expect this from seasoned debaters like these two politicians. Romney told the lie noted above, but Obama didn’t call him out.

How many people know that the second Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms is couched in language that makes it clear that the “right” is tied to a militia that was supposed to make it unnecessary to have a standing army? More to the point, how many people listening to this debate know that the federal ban on semi-automatic weapons was even signed in the first place, or by whom — much less that it expired in 2004? The central question here is whether or not this matters in the least. Will either of these men be asked to make important decisions on their feet? Does the quickness of their minds and a grasp of all relevantl facts really matter when important decisions will be made behind closed doors with well-informed advisers and time to reflect? Of course not. It’s about who presents himself better to the TV audience.

In any case what occurs in these events is that the politicians (all of them) have learned that if you say something with conviction and then repeat it often enough your listeners will accept it as true. The important thing is to have the “ring of conviction” in your voice and look the camera straight in the eye (as it were). It matters not whether what you say is true or false. No one “out there” knows what the hell you are talking about — and very few will bother to check the facts later on. So just let it go and let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. Truth be damned: it’s all about getting elected!