How to disarm manipulation and gaslighting, personally and politically

The Jan. 6, 2022 insurrection is a ‘flashpoint’

May 30, 2022 10:00 am

Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We all know that domestic violence is a common occurrence in Iowa and elsewhere, but statistics are sobering, with one in every four women having experienced it in their lifetimes. Some 1.3 million women are victims of such violence each year. Women aged 20-24 are at greatest risk.

Tactics of abusers involve manipulation and gaslighting.

According to WebMD, manipulation “is the exercise of harmful influence over others,” with perpetrators attacking another’s mental and emotional states to get what they want. Gaslighting is defined as “an insidious and sometimes covert type of emotional abuse where the bully or abuser makes the target question their judgments and reality.”

We often explore these concepts from an individual and psychological perspective rather than from a political and ethical one. The former remains of great concern, and victims of domestic violence need our support and resources.

But an ethical perspective is key in understanding what is at stake personally and collectively.

To fathom the impact on our psyches, we need to acknowledge the human condition whose dual aspects are consciousness and conscience. Consciousness is awareness of our physical environs, actions and words. Conscience is awareness of right and wrong.

Manipulators seek to obliterate the conscience of another person so that he or she cannot tell what is right from wrong. When that happens, the manipulator gains power over the victim.

To do so, manipulators study their intended target, taking inventory of their deepest desires, values and beliefs. They then use these against them. If a person desires something, the manipulator will hold that over their heads. If a person believes fervently in something, a manipulator will pretend to as well, only to deceive their victims later.

In essence, manipulators know how their victims will respond in a given situation and so devise a strategy to set a plan in motion. Typical tactics to control a person include deception, lying, exaggeration, silent treatment, anger and, above all, fear.

Whereas manipulation targets the conscience, gaslighting targets consciousness. The term comes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Gaslight” (1944) about a husband with a secret who slowly drives his wife insane.

Gaslighters claim to know a person better than they know themselves. They assert the abnormal is “normal,” so the person questions their sanity. Gaslighters overlook their own misdeeds but expound on transgressions of their victims, triggering depression. They force them to lie repeatedly so that they no longer know truth from falsehood.

Malignant narcissists are both manipulators and gaslighters.

Author Lisa A. Romano has a useful video on how to disarm a malignant narcissist. She asks us to accept the fact that we cannot control someone else’s reality. So when confronted by a narcissist, she deploys these phrases:

  • “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • “I can accept your faulty perception of me.”
  • “I have no right to control how you see me.”
  • “I guess I have to accept how you feel.”
  • “Your anger is not my responsibility.”
  • “I’m not going to argue about this anymore.”
  • “Your perceptions are your perceptions.”

Given the state of partisan opinions in our country, with one party diametrically opposed to whatever the other party promotes, voters are being manipulated and gaslighted to such extent that many no longer can trust their judgment or discern fact from fiction.

The Jan. 6 insurrection is a flashpoint.

We all saw what happened at the nation’s capital that day. The House Select Committee has been investigating and elaborating on that tragic occurrence. The first of at least eight public hearings are scheduled beginning in June.

Some Republican lawmakers have claimed it was a regular tourist day while others refuse to call it an insurrection. Perhaps the latter is up for debate. But if you believe U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Georgia, that this was a “normal tourist day,” you’ve been gaslighted.

Social media played a role in triggering the insurrection. Tweets assembled, incited and directed the mob. This is not an isolated occurrence as the use of technology in this manner dates back to the 1999 protest of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

Protesters used cell phones to organize and vocalize their agenda, which included workers’ rights, sustainable economies, and environmental and social issues. Tactically, they used technology to circumvent police trying to control the mob.

The Jan. 6 insurrection is complicated, involving conspiracies and false claims. Voters not only were manipulated and gaslighted by politicians; they were prompted and triggered by technology.

Nevertheless, we will argue and debate the 2020 presidential election for years to come, with slim prospect of changing minds at home, school and work.

But we have a personal obligation not to allow politics to undermine our conscience and skew our consciousness.

Take another look at those phrases that Romano recommends and apply them to politics.

  • “I’m sorry you feel that way about [my/your politician].”
  • “I can accept your faulty perception of [my/your candidate].”
  • “I have no right to control how you see [my/your party].”
  • “I guess I have to accept how you feel about politics.”
  • “Your anger about [my candidate/party] is not my responsibility.”
  • “I’m not going to argue about this anymore.”
  • “Your perceptions about [my candidate/party] are your perceptions.”

They work.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.