04. ‘Gaslighting narratives and narratives of gaslighting’ by Natascha Rietdijk

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04. ‘Gaslighting narratives and narratives of gaslighting’ by Natascha Rietdijk

Date Published: 29 June 2023

This video is part of the series of recordings of the workshop Extreme Beliefs and Responsibility, held at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on 29-30 June and organised by the Extreme Beliefs project. In this video you find a lightning talk by Natascha Rietdijk, addressing ‘Gaslighting narratives and narratives of gaslighting’.

Natascha Rietdijk is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Tilburg University and a member of the Tilburg Center for Moral Philosophy, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. Her dissertation explores the effects of so-called “post-truth” politic on epistemic agency. Using insights from the ethics of manipulation and social epistemology, it describes the ways in which certain forms of rhetoric and framing influence relationships of epistemic trust. She has published on populism and echo chambers, online affective manipulation, false balance, and gaslighting, and is interested in all matters relating to manipulation and epistemic autonomy.

At first glance, gaslighting and extreme beliefs seem to be unconnected, or possibly even in opposition. Gaslighting is commonly understood to aim at the undermining of epistemic self-trust. It manipulates targets into doubting their perceptions, memories, judgments, and experiences. Some gaslighters might even set out to completely break down their victim’s epistemic agency, the very foundation upon which beliefs are formed (Abramson 2014; Spear 2019). Extreme beliefs, in contrast, are typically associated with inflated or excessive levels of self-trust. Radicalization and echo chambers are thought to lead to unwarranted confidence in oneself and one’s beliefs (Sunstein 2017, Nguyen 2021). Where the victim of gaslighting suffers from self-doubt, the extreme believer is overconfident. While there is some truth to this line of thinking, it obscures the interconnections there are between these apparent opposites. In this paper, I will demonstrate that there are at least three roles which gaslighting narratives and narratives of gaslighting can play in the formation and reinforcement of extreme beliefs. First, gaslighting can be used as a tool to silence criticism and opposition. Within communities of extreme belief, dissent is not typically welcomed. Individual critics are sometimes pathologized as crazy, irrational, or paranoid. These are typical gaslighting dismissals which also serve to deter other potential dissenters. Oppressive regimes or ideologies like white supremacy often preemptively silence resistance by dehumanizing and pathologizing the oppressed (see Davis and Ernst 2017). Second, gaslighting can be used instrumentally to pave the way for strong leadership and radical beliefs. Gaslighting strategies like sowing confusion and disorienting by spreading counternarratives create a need for new clarity and grip. This need can be met by populist politicians and autocrats (see Pomerantsev 2020, Rietdijk 2021) or, on a somewhat smaller scale, by extreme belief systems and cult-like communities. Third, narratives of gaslighting can serve to legitimate and insulate extreme beliefs. Shane et al (2022) describe how the alt-right claimed widespread election fraud was being obscured through mainstream gaslighting. Such claims of gaslighting by outsiders can further reinforce dogmatism, radicalization and imperviousness to counterevidence. There are thus at least three ways in which narratives that gaslight or narratives of gaslighting can contribute to extreme belief formation. They may overlap – we can imagine a case in which a story about an elite gaslighting the community is used to gaslight that very community and any dissenters are branded ‘sheeple’ – and they may not be the only ways. There are a few important upshots for discussions on extreme beliefs and gaslighting. First, the two are not as distinct as they might seem at first glance. There are complex interconnections between gaslighting strategies or narratives and extreme belief formation. Second, the role or self-trust in extreme belief formation is not straightforward. The undermining of self-trust can for instance be an intermediate phase or an instrument for eventual radicalization and higher confidence. Finally, the various potential roles of gaslighting raise questions about responsibility for extreme beliefs. Gaslighting is described by Abramson (2014) as turning the victim against herself and forcing her to become complicit in her own manipulation. While this may suggest a kind of blameless complicity, perhaps it also points to possibilities for bolstering people’s agency and empowering them to resist both gaslighting and radicalization.