To get our creative juices flowing for our latest issue, the Vector editors watched “Gaslight,” the 1944 film that’s the namesake for the term “gas lighting”—which I’m sure you’ve heard of or witnessed yourself if you spend any time in internet comment sections or heard U.S. President Donald Trump rail about “fake news.”
In fact, the election of Trump has ignited an interest in the topic. According to Google Trends, searches for “gas lighting” reached peak popularity in the days following Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017.
Gaslighting is a tactic for twisting perspectives. The goal is to make someone buy into an alternate belief system by undermining the current one they hold. This can be done by presenting yourself as a better source of knowledge, by disputing definitions or factuality of events, by insulting or shaming the person whose perspective you’re trying to change. These things aren’t done with the spirit of debate in mind, but to strong-arm your own worldview.
The movie depicts this battle for truth by a husband, Sergius Bauer using the name Gregory Anton (played by Charles Boyer), exhibiting classic abuse tactics to make his wife, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) question her understanding of reality. He insists that he’s acting in her best interest when he prevents her from seeing “busy body” neighbors; he says a letter she found never existed; he calls her forgetful and tired until she starts to believe it; he raises his voice in anger when she questions his claims.
The tipping point is when the wife notices the dimming of the gaslight each night—a sign that her husband has turned on the gas in the attic as he secretly rummages around for her deceased aunt’s valuable jewels. When she mentions the dimming lights, no one seriously believes what she is seeing with her own eyes. So she starts to accept she is losing her grip on total reality—just as her husband wants.
Beyond the namesake for the phenomenon, the film also portrays a few roles necessary in the task of undermining reality. There is, of course, the person responsible for the lie, fully aware of their untruth and using it for a specific purpose. That is the husband. But while he is responsible for making the lights flicker, it is the supporting cast who denies their flickering and makes Paula question her own senses. The two maids he employs, and demands loyalty from, uphold the husband’s narrative for personal motivations. One of them, a sultry tramp played by the Angela Lansbury, sees herself moving into the master’s chambers if she can secure her mistress’ deportation. The other is aging and simply cannot hear the noises her mistress complains of but is more willing to accept Paula’s insanity before her own failing senses.
Successful gas lighting convinces people to ignore reality as they see it. It makes people believe in an alternate truth.
The movie encapsulates a lot of conversations about truth that are happening today—especially concerning how much facts matter when developing ideas around what is true. In Gaslight, easily observable facts are made fuzzy by constant questioning. Today, Donald Trump is constantly rejecting well-supported facts the media reports by questioning their validity or the motives of reporters. Supporters that want to believe him are quite all right with this.
Their worldview—their personal truth, what they feel is right—is more important than reality. To be fair, that’s not a fault of Trump supporters exclusively, but a bias most people hold when it comes to topics they feel personally invested in or attached to. But the fact that a sitting president is blatantly taking advantage of this tendency, and that outright lies are being dismissed or excused by Trump supporters of all kinds, is something that we aren’t used to dealing with.
We want to explore truth in this issue because it’s a topic us editors are talking about together all the time. In the post-enlightenment age, the answer of what is truth seemed easy: the facts. But what Gaslight and politics in the age of Trump show, is that when it comes to worldviews—the “personal truths” that people believe about the world and themselves—the facts aren’t what’s determining the answer.
--Madeline and Monica