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The making of a suitcase word: "gaslighting"

Suitcase words are imprecise, mealy-mouthed pieces of verbal dreck whose purpose is to rouse emotion while masquerading as vectors of information. Yes, yes, this is itself an emotional reaction, and they can indeed be useful — follow the link to read how and why — but most suitcase words are useful for thought and dialogue in the same way that semi-automatic rifles are useful for pest control: caveat usor. Oncology is full of them — from immunotherapy to survival — but all examples I encountered there came to me fully packed, zippers bursting, ready to confuse. Live long enough, however, and you will see a suitcase word being formed in front of your eyes as you stare in horror, incapable to do anything but mourn the sacrifice off a perfectly adequate concept to the gods of sophism.

Take “gaslighting”. The term — this may be common knowledge by now, but it is worth repeating — comes from the 1944 American movie Gaslight Or maybe the 1940 British movie, or the 1938 British play — who knows? in which the husband of an heiress drives her insane by way of psychosocial manipulation — Wikipedia’s example is his secretly dimming and brightening the indoor gas-powered lighting but insisting that she is imagining it, making her think she is going insane. Note that there are three aspects to the original gaslighting:

  1. The manipulator originates the stimulus that is to be misinterpreted;
  2. The manipulator questions the victim’s initial interpretation, despite agreeing with it, or knowing it to be correct;
  3. The manipulator’s intention for doing this is to “drive the victim insane”, i.e. question everything else about their reality.

And let’s all agree that intentionally pushing someone into psychosis is a very bad thing indeed. The emotional reaction to the action of gaslighting is therefore deservedly negative, more so than plain old lying, bulshitting, or scheming for a different purpose.

The first aspect of gaslighting dropped off early on. The very first mention The link is to the Internet Archive version of a most excellent writeup on its etymology, now behind a paywall. of the term as a verb went “It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness”, which eliminated number 1 but strengthened the criteria for number 2: to be the gaslighter you should not only question the interpretation, but you yourself should interpret it as a sign or symptom of breakdown. Undeniably bad! And for decades the word lived quietly in psychotherapy circles as a helpful shorthand for a type of behavior, usually from an abusive spouse.

Then 2016 happened, and everyone is gaslighting everyone else: politicians are doing it to their voters, doctors to their patients, and parents to their children, when in fact what they are doing, respectively, is bulshitting, misdiagnosing, and following guidelines you don’t agree with.

And all this is in writing, supposedly the more formal of the methods of communication. In everyday speech, gaslighting gets thrown left and right for any behavior with which people disagree, and has become a stand-in for lying, bullshitting, or just plain old making me feel bad. Note that in each case you can see a kernel of a connection with actual gaslighting — usually it is the questioning part — but the supposed gaslighter’s questioning is genuine, and/or the intent behind the questioning is — possibly misdirected but also genuine — care for the wellbeing of their “victim”.

So, whenever I hear or read the word now I have to stop, think, and unpack it. What is the actual process it is trying to describe? Would a different word better describe that process without implying things that aren’t true? All good things to do when encountering any suitcase word. This is why I am slightly skeptical of speed reading. Did whoever (mis)used the word know its original meaning and broaden it to creatively express themselves, or did they have an agenda? Dismissing any argument which uses it would be the easy thing to do, and as most easy things also wrong: while its imprecise use may make me think slightly less of the person using it, they may still be making a valid point.

None of this is news: therapists have raised concerns about the misuse of the word and explained the issue much more eloquently than I just did, but also not as concisely, so if this piqued your interest this article quoting a few of them would be a good next stop.

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