At this very moment you are reading the words that I typed into my computer a few days ago. Here’s a word: “bottles.”
What will happen to your sense of reality if I can persuade you that you did not read the word “bottles” just now, that you imagined it? After all, everyone knows you have a thing about bottles, that you see bottles everywhere. That word did not appear. Check again and you’ll see that it’s not there.
It’s still there? Hey, really, what it says is “toggles.” Read it again.
This event, in which I try to persuade you that you are hallucinating or imagining, while you are certain that something happened, is known as “gaslighting,” a term that entered the psychological jargon in the 1960s. It originated in a 1938 play for the London stage by Patrick Hamilton titled “Gas Light,” which a few years later was made into a film in which Charles Boyer plays a husband who tries to make his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, think she is losing her mind – that she imagines the gaslights in their home are dimming and brightening, whereas it’s actually he who is making the lights flicker.
This is a very powerful form of psychological manipulation. The reason for its impact is that we act in accordance with our perception of reality – in accordance with the way in which we recognize that something happened or did not happen, that something is correct or not, that something is real or not. If I am able to control the way you perceive reality, I will disorient you and then I will be able to control your thoughts, feelings and actions.
According to the psychotherapist Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, the author of a 2018 book on the subject, people who make use of gaslighting tactics tend to lie crassly about things that obviously happened. They will instigate you against friends and family, while corralling people to work against you, and finally will disseminate accusations and hints that you are unstable.
Such people, Sarkis maintains, very often betray the person with whom they are involved romantically, while claiming that it was their partner who cheated on them. They tend to claim that their victims are manipulators, though it’s actually they who are doing the manipulating. There is a dual reason for this, Sarkis explains. They are trying to preempt (“If I accuse you of cheating, you won’t be able to accuse me of cheating – I beat you to it”) and, no less important, they are projecting.
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Neurotic projection is a defensive psychological mechanism: I can’t cope with my dirty deeds, so I project them onto the other – a solitary person, a group of people, even an inanimate object. It’s a mechanism of diverting guilt, which is why it dovetails wonderfully with gaslighting; it creates a reverse world, in which the accused accuses you of having done what he himself did.
Anyone who hasn’t yet discerned the contemporary context of the introduction has apparently not been living in Israel, or the world, for the past decade.
Let’s start with the world, more specifically, the United States. Surely there has never before been an occupant of the White House whose whole essence is gaslighting. A 2018 book by the political adviser Amanda Carpenter, “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us,” examines how U.S. President Donald Trump deploys this tactic.
Indeed, a Google search will reap hundreds, even thousands, of articles whose authors describe the tactics of deception and the attempts to create a reverse picture of reality as practiced by the president of the United States, whom Carpenter terms a professional gaslighter.
As she sees it, Trump’s efforts to deceive explains why he often begins a sentence with the words, “Some people say…” It’s not that he is claiming anything, he’s just repeating what it says in books, what he found in newspaper articles, what he saw on TV, what his advisers said. The claim is implanted in the public’s consciousness.
Surely there has never before been an occupant of the White House whose whole essence is gaslighting.
That’s how the Trumpist notion of the “deep state” – later imported to Israel – was born. It’s an all-embracing conspiracy that lacks concrete proof but that “makes sense” to some of Trump’s supporters. At present, equipped with almost zero concrete achievements, Trump will blame the mysterious others, the prodigious powers, for tripping him up, for impeaching him, undermining him, inventing accusations and testimonies against him.
Suffice it for a few conspiracy buffs to fall into this gaslighting trap, so that what sounded hallucinatory a moment ago will become the prism through which they perceive the world. Now what you have is a war between two groups that entertain opposite perceptions of reality. One group sees Trump and his incompetence as being to blame for the death of some 175,000 Americans from the coronavirus, whereas the other group blames the Chinese, who cooked up a virus in the laboratory and then sent it to the United States in order to prevent the reelection of the president who had slapped them with a series of tariffs.
Far be it from me to analyze the conflicted character of a president whose psychological problems have been foisted on the American people for almost four years, and anyway I’m not a psychologist. But I would say that there is broad agreement today that Trump is devoting at least part of his time to gaslighting the American public: “The virus will disappear,” “the virus is under control,” “we did a terrific job of stamping it out,” and so on and so forth. It’s endless.
Gaslighting: the local version
A slightly different version of the same phenomenon can be found in Jerusalem. It’s not surprising that the two personages get along well with each other. But even so, it would seem that Benjamin Netanyahu’s reasons for making use of gaslighting are different from Trump’s
Trump resorts to it because in his mind’s eye he is a hero, a strong, talented person, a winner who knows better than anyone. His mode of maintaining that worldview is to persuade everyone that this is the reality, which he then accuses everyone else of distorting.
Netanyahu, by contrast, projects his own deeds onto others, and thereby creates a reverse copy of reality. Seemingly, he looks through a window and describes the left-wingers with their bad faith who are demonstrating under his window, whereas in practice he could be looking into a mirror.
A brief examination of the whole gamut of accusations that Netanyahu is leveling against the left, the demonstrators, the opposition, the civil servants, the investigators – you name it – exposes a direct link between the allegations he raises and his own actions.
Here are a few examples. Netanyahu claims that the demonstrators are being financed by wealthy foreign agents. That’s amusing, given the connections between Netanyahu himself and tycoons who bankroll him and his flagrant lifestyle. The richest of them, Sheldon Adelson, has long funded publication of a personal newspaper for Netanyahu. The prime minister has got himself into a tangle many times because he tends to burden his rich friends with his expenses. His argument that foreign sources are funding the demonstrators is all the more amazing when we recall the reports to the effect that Netanyahu raised funds abroad for the protest of reservist soldiers against Ehud Olmert that began at the end of 2006. Netanyahu accused today’s demonstrators of plotting against him from the comfort of luxury hotels. Not long before, it turned out, Netanyahu himself celebrated his son’s birthday in a luxury hotel. Or maybe that’s just a coincidence.
Netanyahu accuses the demonstrators of subverting democracy, while his own actions – the prolonged attempt to undermine the judicial system, the brutal verbal attacks on police investigators, the threat against the state prosecution, the emasculation of the state comptroller’s unit, the enactment of laws enabling the Shin Bet security service to track citizens – are deleterious to democracy. He also makes a point of accusing the demonstrators of violence, but is mute when it comes to the documented violence of his supporters.
Netanyahu’s reasons for making use of gaslighting are different from Trump’s.
Netanyahu used to allege that Shimon Peres was wasting public funds on the President’s Residence. Meanwhile, he and his family are foisting their expenses, in Balfour Street and in his Caesarea home, on the public and then requesting a retroactive tax exemption, because otherwise, as his emissary, MK Miki Zohar, claims, he will become an “economic cripple” who will find it difficult “to live in dignity.” Estimates place the value of his assets and property at 50 million shekels (about $14.6 million); the minimum wage in Israel is 5,300 shekels ($1,555) a month.
Netanyahu continually accuses the media of spreading lies, when he himself has long spread lies, as documented in indictments, investigative reports and a host of statements that have long since been proved incorrect. Netanyahu accuses left-wingers of incitement to assassinate the prime minister, when… Well, it seems to me that the point has been made.
Netanyahu’s weak spot
Netanyahu, it’s important to say, is far more intelligent than Trump – though, admittedly, that’s not saying much – and I am certainly not claiming that the way he projects onto others his thoughts, desires and actions explains the totality of his words and deeds; he is gifted with more sophisticated strategic thought. But in the same way a poker player has behavior – a “tell” – he can’t control, which reveals when he’s bluffing, Netanyahu, too, has a weakness that exposes him from time to time: he projects.
A short, uncomplicated check shows that many times a tug on one end of a thread of accusations that Netanyahu is spreading every which way leads at its other end to a perspiring, frightened person: the prime minister himself. In this sense, Netanyahu is his own worst enemy.
Still, one has to admit that, like Trump, Netanyahu’s tactics sometimes do the job. He also gets help. After the prime minister paints an upside-down worldview, his mouthpieces echo the messages and try to instill them in the public consciousness. Cardboard cut-out ideologues such as Channel 13 news analyst Avishay Ben Haim hurry to back him up, enlisting pseudoscience to legitimize the reverse reality: Netanyahu, the Ashkenazi, the multimillionaire, the most privileged person in the country, who is standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, is the authentic representative of the have-nots, known as the “Second Israel.” If it weren’t so sad – well, it’s sad no matter how you look at it.
Gaslighting is not an act of fate. The way to resist it is to remind yourself what the facts are and what the reality is. The way to resist it is to reject fabricated narratives whose purpose is clearly to confuse and deceive and to divert attention from the important issues. The way to resist it is to understand that people who engage in manipulations with the aim of distorting reality, do so in order to pull you into an upside-down world where they rule, a world in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength and a mass demonstration harms our democracy.