As someone who writes about honesty and deception, I felt a spark of hope Monday when I found out that Merriam-Webster had made «gaslighting» the official word of the year for 2022.
Maybe, just maybe, people are finally ready to engage with dishonesty and how it operates in their lives.
But for God’s sake, why did it take so long?
We have to engage with issues like gaslighting, including all the ugliness of the ways it’s been done in the past and the ways it’s still happening today. And, here’s the real problem, the ways we do it ourselves.
Gaslighting, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “the act or practice of seriously deceiving someone, especially for their own benefit”. Our friends at the dictionary choose each year’s word based solely on data: this year there was a 1,740% increase in searches on the Merriam-Webster site for the term gaslighting.
But the term arose from a movie that came out in 1944. “gaslight”, set in the 1880s when lamps ran on gas, shows a husband manipulating his wife into thinking she is crazy. Her goal is to commit her to an asylum, find the jewelry her aunt had hidden in the attic, and claim her fortune as her own. Whenever she’s in the attic looking for the jewelry, she turns on the lights, which, the way the gas works, causes the light to dim in other parts of the house. But he repeatedly tells his wife that he is imagining the dimming.
Personally, I first heard of the term a decade ago, when a friend of mine was going through a divorce. “She’s cheating on me,” she told me, explaining the film’s plot and how the term evolved to describe lying and manipulative behavior like her husband’s.
Today, gaslighting can mean everything from disregarding someone’s feelings and experiences to performing psychological manipulation on a large scale that causes people to question what they know to be true.
It’s a term that works both macro and micro, both in conversations about national security and in the DMs of 12-year-old girls (I have one, so I know that firsthand). It is the feeling of being let down, lied to, and completely ignored on purpose for self-interested and dishonest reasons.
No wonder, a lot of people searched for this word in 2022.
The Americans surely had reason to use it during the Hearings on January 6, featuring his explosive testimony about former President Donald Trump’s master manipulation of the American public, claiming he won an election he lost. And when Republicans blamed marijuana as not enough people going to church — basically everything but guns — for gun violence and school shootings.
Then there was the annulment of Roe v. Wade, with red state after red state, including my own from Ohio, trying to pretend this is what most Americans want, when very clearly not. And, of course, it was needed once more when the former president incoherently announced that he would be running again in 2024, and it occurred to random people everywhere that there must be some perfect word to encapsulate his deranged and deceitful behavior. during the last decade.
But that’s the thing. This behavior has been evident for all that time, since at least Trump’s false and racist insinuations that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, when all the evidence before our eyes confirmed that it was.
So while gaslighting is very 2022, it could also have been the word of the year many times before now, in fact, in almost every period in American history. It was certainly appropriate in 1492, when the messages Europeans conveyed to the inhabitants were things like: “All your worries are in your head! We’re just looking around real quick.»
And in 1776, when the Founding Fathers wrote a very eloquent document which said that all men were created equal, while about a half a million people were enslaved.
and when the Indian Removal Act of 1830 approved, sold to indigenous peoples as a totally fair and reasonable deal that was really in their best interest: if they only handed over «some» of their land, they got to keep the rest.
We are only in this particular country, at this particular time, because of the coordinated gaslighting efforts of past individuals, administrations, institutions, and history book publishers. The irony, of course, is that a large part of our population cannot accept this fact, so they must gaslight to try and hide it.
What a mess. Thanks for bringing it all to light, Merriam-Webster! It would be much easier to focus on the other popular searches of 2022, such as «Queen consort.”
But we have to engage with issues like gaslighting, including all the ugliness of the ways it’s been done in the past and the ways it’s still happening today. And, here is the real problem, the ways we do it ourselves.
That’s how it is. You and I.
That’s why I wrote a book about paying attention to your own honesty. Yes, other people lie, and gaslight. Much. But what does honesty and dishonesty look like in your own life?
as i have reported beforePeople constantly say that honesty is the most important virtue, but in my experience interviewing dozens of social scientists and philosophers who study honesty, most people don’t really want to think about it too much other than to notice dishonesty in their eyes. around or use the web to look up terms.
So listen critically? Yes. Fact check? Yes. Expose the gaslighters? Double yes. And then look inside yourself. Sometimes «You see it, you got it» is annoyingly accurate.
If we all did this, maybe the word of the year for 2023 would be self-awareness.