Last month, the American short story writer Carmen Maria Machado spoke out about a disappointing interaction she had once had with the author Junot Diaz. She took Diaz to task regarding his male protagonists’ relationships with women, and was met with a ‘a blast of misogynist rage’. Diaz ‘went off’ at her ‘for twenty minutes’, ‘raised his voice’, ‘became enraged’ and ‘slid into bullying and misogyny’. An audio recording of the Q&A subsequently emerged online which appeared to contradict her account: Diaz, it seems, had been robust but courteous. Last week, Machado published a series of tweets complaining that social media users’ comments about the recording made her feel ‘gaslit and insane’. She lamented the fact that these comments prompted her to briefly doubt her own recollection of events: ‘That’s the power of gaslighting, I guess.’
What is ‘gaslighting’? The term originates in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, about a man who deliberately tries to convince his wife that she is losing her mind. It denotes the practice of seeking to make someone doubt their perception of objective reality in order to psychologically manipulate them. From the outset its meaning was synonymous with gendered abuse, and the term is often used to describe situations in which the testimony of a domestic violence or sexual abuse complainant is being dishonestly called into question in order to undermine their resolve. It is a very specific term for a very specific thing.
Increasingly, however, the term’s usage – particularly on social media – appears to have expanded to encompass pretty much any situation in which two people are in disagreement over the interpretation of a given set of facts. This elasticity is sustained by the fact that, technically speaking, more or less any difference of opinion might legitimately be framed as a dispute over objective reality.