Gaslighting and the Gospel … on Post-Pandemic Faithfulness
April 28, 2020 – David R. Weiss
This is a longer than usual piece. These are other than usual times. I hope you’ll read it all the way through because I think it’s a pretty important one.
I’ve seen a number of my friends share an article on Facebook: “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” by Julio Vincent Gambuto. It’s a provocative, insightful essay. In this companion piece, I want to lift up several of his insights and then carry them a bit further in terms of Christian faith. However, I think this essay is important to anyone of goodwill, so I hope you’ll stay with me all the way through. Here’s my thesis: Progressive Christians have distinctive resources that can help us resist the gaslighting about to hit us—and our readiness to resist may be how we awaken the Gospel in our midst in this moment.
I’ll begin with a pretty thorough explanation of gaslighting (which may be an unfamiliar term to some of my readers). The more fully you understand this concept, the more you’ll follow everything else that either Gambuto or I are saying. Then, after a quick summary of Gambuto’s piece, I’ll turn to my own thoughts.
Gaslighting: it’s a word from another era recently in vogue again, but not at all self-evident in its meaning—unless you know its origin. Who even uses gas lights anymore? The term originates in a 1938 play, Gas Light, later made into a 1940 British and 1944 American movie sharing the same title, but with the space now removed: Gaslight. The plot—set still earlier in 1880—involves a husband who is determined to make his wife question her sanity by making subtle changes to their home and then denying that anything has changed—insisting she is imagining them. The title refers to his deliberate dimming of the gas lights in their home, all the while convincing her that the lights are bright as ever and that she is losing her grip on reality.
Hence the definition of gaslighting: when one person or party presents false information for the purpose of making someone else question—and ultimately mistrust—their own perceptions … and accept the presented reality as true.
As in the play/film, gaslighting is common in abusive interpersonal relationship, where one person may use it to undermine another person’s self-esteem and thereby control them in the relationship. Gaslighting, as a descriptive term, does not necessarily denote pre-meditated intent; plenty of abusive persons gaslight almost by instinct or reflex, likely without full awareness of what they’re doing. And in some relationships gaslighting moves in both directions.
However, gaslighting also occurs outside of personal relationships. It’s a common tactic in religious cults and is often used by other authoritarian leaders. In these cases the victims are an entire community led to surrender their own reality to the one chosen for them by the leader. Jim Jones (of the 1978 Jonestown massacre) and David Koresh (of the Branch Davidians and the 1987 Waco siege) were cult leaders who gaslit their followers—successfully and tragically destroying their ability to perceive reality for themselves—with deadly results. Similarly, gaslighting is readily apparent in much of the state propaganda of Russia and North Korea, where leaders define reality for entire masses, even when that reality is in stark contrast to what is objectively available.
Gaslighting is also a favored tactic of narcissists, who compulsively seek to arrange the world to meet their needs. Unfortunately for us as a nation, we currently have a president who is a self-avowed narcissist. (Not that he admits to this, but his self-aggrandizing narcissism runs so rampant in his public words and actions that he seems almost eager to have us notice.) From his first claim of a record-breaking crowd at his inauguration to the now more than 18,000 false or misleading claims made by him (as tracked by The Washington Post), our president has been gaslighting the American public with a torrent of false claims all the while insisting that his words alone match reality.
While this creates endless opportunity for derision among many of us, it also creates right here in America—at least among his base (and no less than in Russia or North Korea)—a population that willfully surrenders their own interest in taking any objective measure of reality and readily accepts the measure provided by the president. We saw that with the foolish ferocity evident in the wave of “Liberate” protests. Although not directly organized by the president, his nonstop gaslighting from day one of his presidency and through his response to the pandemic clearly shaped the people willing to attend these protests, and his tweeting about them is itself an instance of gaslighting. It’s fair to say that, under Trump, the entire GOP and a host of far right, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups have entered into a tacit agreement to gaslight the American public around issues of our common life.
Okay, that’s gaslighting. It’s not pretty. It’s not healthy. (It is, sadly, all too common.) And there’s one other expression of it that sits at the heart of American life—having become as American as apple pie over the last century: advertising as the defining, functional feature of a consumer society. And this gets us, finally, to Gambuto’s essay. (I’ll return to advertising below.)
Gambuto observes the following: the pandemic has given us an undeniable glimpse of an alternate reality, a different pace of life—a different pace of production-pollution-consumption. He calls this “The Great Pause,” during which we have seen bluer skies, heard more birds chirping, and sensed what life might be like were we not so driven by the busyness of our lives.
(Set aside for a moment the several glaring exceptions to this. Clearly, this is no Great Pause for the sick and dying—or for the healthcare workers involved in their care. And this is no Great Pause for those at home in quarters now dangerously close because of relationships—even with oneself—marked by emotional/physical violence or illness. Or for those whose lives were already so framed by economic precariousness that any pause at all meant something more than passing hardship. These latter two are perhaps real gaps in Gambuto’s angle of vision, but their absence in his essay does not weaken its claim.)
Here’s his claim: Having just experienced firsthand—as an undeniable reality known by some/many of us during this pandemic—a version of a “better world” (cleaner, quieter, in many ways more hospitable to human life despite the awkwardness of our distancing), we are about to be gaslit. As the economy opens back up, we’ll be relentlessly invited-urged-pressured to overwrite the reality we’ve just experienced … and race to buy our way back into the ‘normal’ life we had pre-pandemic. The corporate sponsors of that once-normal world will do this with an onslaught of ads (augmented no doubt by political ‘patriotic’ rhetoric) that subtly ask us to reject all the better-ness of the world we’ve just experienced during The Great Pause. We’ll be urged to deny—by the very act of rushing to buy our way back to ‘normal’—that we just experienced something unexpectedly refreshing and more life-giving than the non-stop consumption that benefits our corporate sponsors and their political allies.
Note that the non-stop consumption that defined the pre-pandemic ‘normal,’ is, by any rational account, destroying the planet’s capacity to support human life (and countless other life forms as well). Indeed, unrestrained global development (a near-sacred assumption of free market capitalism) presses humans ever further into once wild ecosystems while also pressing animals ever more densely into industrial livestock operations—and both of these pressures press the likelihood of pandemics ever more deeply into our future.
But this awareness would be undeniably bad for business. So it will be Big Business’ first order of business to gaslight any such awareness to smithereens. This isn’t new. Advertising has operated on a basic model of gaslighting for almost exactly 100 years. It was in the 1920’s that ads shifted from a singular promotion of the practical function of an items to linking items (cars, cigarettes, clothing, diamonds, beer, soft drinks, you name it …) to the emotions of our social lives.This has always been gaslighting. It is the subtly manipulative, increasingly savvy pressure to overwrite what we know (by immediate experience) to be the sources of human well-being … with mere stuff. Shiny and new, bells and whistles, yes, but nonetheless mere stuff. And the stuff doesn’t lie. The ads lie.
There is a whole other level of lie at work as well. The nonstop proliferation of stuff-to-be-sold requires the nonstop exploitation/destruction of the natural-animal world and the nonstop exploitation/oppression of our fellow humans. So, in the background of advertising’s gaslighting, upon which is built our shiny consumer world, there sits also both racism (its own gaslighting project championed in a thousand ways to tell us we are separate “races”) and ecocide (a cultures-wide gaslighting project that overwrites the deepest truth of our being-in/with-nature).
How have we not seen this before? Gambuto says—and he is largely right—we’ve simply been too busy. Our own lives are too haggard by trying to work enough to earn enough to buy enough to do enough to have enough to be happy. And however much of this busyness is well-intended, it keeps us from ever noticing or attending to the multiple ills around us, the growing fractures in our natural world, and the escalating tensions in our social world. We are simply too busy. Yes—And. We are intentionally kept too busy. Suppressing wages and unions, burgeoning student debt, evaporating health coverage, and the rise of the gig economy (read: the infinitely precarious economy)—these things, coupled with the insatiable appetites sown by advertising, are designed to keep us too busy.
In his classic text, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer recounts the purpose behind the endless marching of Nazi soldiers. It dulls the mind, preventing any individual thought. So does ceaseless scrambling to work to earn to buy. We have been gaslit fervently (that is, not by accident or merely by an inner impulse wrapped in religious credo—although that is surely at work, too) for at least 100 years by advertising. The alliance between corporate/wealthy interests, willing politicians, and marketing forces that have known exactly what they were being paid to do has had as it primary goal to overwrite the reality of human life that is ever aching within us simply to be known. (This is why so much money is spent on developing ads; it is no simple match to plant a lie within our very appetites.)
And Gambuto, in his essay, admirably highlights much of this … and pleads for us not to allow ourselves to be gaslit this time. He rightly declares there is too much at risk to simply slide back into ‘normal.’ At both the level of global ecology/climate crisis and the social ecology of our lives, we have providentially glimpsed the chance to live differently. And we may not get another such glimpse shy of the first wholesale collapse of social systems as the climate crisis begins to tear our social fabric in ways that will make this pandemic seem like little more than a nasty allergy season. In other words, if we buy into the “Ultimate Gaslighting” about to be rolled out, we will be choosing the deadly mediocrity of more stuff over the myriad more life-giving ways of inhabiting the world.
But what if we instead decide, as Sonya Renee Taylor so eloquently puts it: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
We can choose to stitch that new garment … or we can allow ourselves once again to be gaslit. The stakes could not be higher. For our corporate sponsors—or for us. And, as critical as it is for us to choose to stitch that new garment, it will be a far harder choice than the one made by thousands already to stitch facemasks. Because this choice will garner little praise and much antagonism—at least at the start. It will threaten the assumptions and practices of our economy and our politics and our society and our culture … and our religion. Except—
Buried in our Christian tradition (and, no doubt, in other traditions as well) is a truth claim capable of harnessing and unleashing the energy required to stitch that new garment. We call it “gospel,” and although the word is heard often enough today, I am here to tell you that the full power of the gospel has only rarely been embraced unreservedly in human history. And while it may be audacious to think this moment, here and now, post-pandemic—I mean right HERE, right NOW—is somehow a moment in history when gospel erupts, well, yes, that is audacious. But it’s also now or never. We likely don’t have another chance coming our way. We get gaslit this time … and the planet will be in flames before we come to our senses. So there’s nothing left except audacity right now. This is it.
Remarkably, the earliest layers of our tradition saw this challenge quite clearly. When Paul declared that in our struggle to be faithful, we contend not merely with flesh and blood—not merely with the frailties and temptations of our own humanity, nor merely with the malice of others—but against “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12), he was speaking to this moment. He was, of course, speaking to his moment first and foremost, but his words echo with truth we need today. Paul recognized the human capacity to set up empires, societies, cultures, and the like—including the contemporary intersection of wealth, corporate/political interests, and advertising—that function as whole systems with an inertia greater than any individual person—an inertia that seemingly takes on a life of its own, manifesting an institutionalized energy that will seek to gaslight us in the days ahead … despite the fact that such gaslighting carries within it the seeds of our own destruction.
But the glimmer of hope here is that Paul spoke not as one resigned to defeat, but as one confident that the power of the gospel was greater than the principalities and powers. They deserve to be regarded with sober recognition. Even as the gospel is embraced with faithful audacity.
The gospel—the astonishing good news—is the recognition, announced from beyond us and echoing from within our lives, that we are beloved by God. Each one of us. Bar none. Each corner of creation. Each ecosystem and habitat. Each plant and creature. Each human being. Beloved. BELOVED! This dawning recognition—proclaimed in the words and deeds of Jesus—carries within it the pattern for that new garment that Sonya Renee Taylor foresees. This dawning recognition, as it fills our souls, challenges every false claim made by the forces that wish to gaslight us yet again. It so fills our vision that we see clearly how interwoven the whole of reality is. And it so fills our hearts and our minds that we not only disavow those forces beyond us that speak lies, we even challenge the lies and the habits that have been sown into our psyches and rooted into the routines of our daily life.
I hope I’m not understating what we must do. We must remake pretty much everything. And there are powerful forces with smiling faces and glitzy ads (and some glowering faces and fear-mongering words, too) that will promise us anything if we just return things to ‘normal.’ Still, when Jesus says, “Repent, for the kin-dom on God is at hand,” he means—against the backdrop of the gaslighting principalities and powers of his day—precisely this: “Turn around, for the infinite belovedness of all is here at hand—close enough to touch.” If we welcome that gospel—that world-altering good news—into our lives, we will be able to stitch that new garment. Not one by one. But together, leaning on one another, learning from one another, upholding one another.
This isn’t only a Christian possibility. Written as it is into the very fabric of reality, it’s open to anyone willing to be grasped by an utter reverence for the wonder of all that is. I just happen to know that the Christian tradition has its own distinctive energy for bringing that reverence into being and to bear on the world. For Christians, in the days ahead we will either be gaslit, or we will open ourselves more deeply than ever to the gospel. One or the other. And this isn’t about working out our salvation (which is clumsily vague language anyways). But, no. The belovedness that the gospel declares is already given. Absolute. Unconditional. Secure. Instead, the choice we face is about working out the fate of the world. For ourselves. Our children. And far beyond. The power of the gospel, refracted through our lives, is the saving of this world.
We are about to experience the ultimate gaslighting. And behind all the shiny things to be dangled in front of us, lies once again—as always—the desecration of all that God loves. Gaslit or gospel? A whole aching world awaits your choice. And only one will help you stitch that new garment. I hope I’ll find you stitching alongside me. It’s a big garment. And it’s going to take all of us to stitch it. Together.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.