Merriam-Webster has announced that “gaslighting” is the official word of the year for 2022. Indeed, the term “gaslighting” and various examples of it were part of a popular meme that circulated the internet last year. This suggests that many people all over the world had reason to pay attention to gaslighting last year because it had affected their lives in one way or another.
What, then, is gaslighting? Evan Hecht, writing in USA Today, provides a concise definition from the Newport Institute that gaslighting is “a form of manipulation where the manipulator attempts to make their victim believe what’s happening to them isn’t actually happening and their reality is untrue.”
The term "gaslighting" derives from the 1944 American film "Gaslight," directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, which was a remake of the 1940 British film of the same title. Both movies were inspired by a 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton.
In “Gaslight,” a wicked man tries to make his wife believe she is going crazy so that he can steal from her. Every time he turns on the lights in the attic to search for valuables that rightfully belong to his wife, the gaslight downstairs becomes dim. When his wife notices it, he convinces her that she is hallucinating. Gradually, she comes to believe that she is insane. “Gaslighting” thus comes to mean manipulating someone by deception.
If you are weak-minded and not confident in yourself, you may be vulnerable to gaslighting. For example, your partner can be gaslighting you, even though you have seen him cheating. He might try to convince you that what you have seen is only your imagination, so that you will be confused and end up believing what your partner said. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is very common today, and not only in personal relationships.
Politicians are especially good at gaslighting. Some political leaders feed the people with fake news or wrong information and try to convince them it is true. They constantly tell lies to deceive and manipulate the people. They even shrug off criminal charges or criticisms against them as fake news or political persecution. Then, naive people come to believe what those lying politicians claim, not knowing they have been deceived.
Other politicians argue we are now living in a postmodern era where there is no absolute truth. They say there is no such thing as true or untrue, good or evil, sometimes even going so far as to say that good things can be evil, and evil things can be good. According to them, even totalitarianism can be good, and the countries of liberal democracy and capitalism can be evil. This, surely, is nothing but sheer nonsense and sophistry. Unfortunately, their gaslighting tactics working with many naive people.
Such politicians misunderstand postmodernism completely. The postmodernist perception of “no absolute truth” is about criticizing the tyranny of claims of absolute truth fabricated by power and knowledge. It does not renounce truth itself. The world would be in total chaos if there were no distinction between true and untrue.
Korean politicians are no exception. They, too, have been gaslighting us for a long time. In the past, for example, whenever election season came our right-wing military dictators would announce they had found an underground tunnel dug by North Korea to invade the South. People suspected the dictators had found the tunnel long ago, but kept it confidential until election season came, in order to make scared people vote for them.
After the democratization of South Korea, our left-wing politicians made us believe that unification by the South was just around the corner because of the Sunshine Policy. That could be gaslighting, too, because they gave us false hope, knowing fully well that North Korea had never given up the dream that unification would only happen under the terms of the North.
More recently, some of our politicians are gaslighting us by insisting that populist policies are good for all of us, and they will not affect our economy. When we point out the danger of populism, our politicians say it is only our imagination. Other politicians assure us that they can build a society of equality and social justice for all, while they clandestinely enjoy the exclusive privileges of power and wealth.
In his novel “The Crying of Lot 49,” Thomas Pynchon warns that politicians never assume responsibility for what they have done, such as imposing their own wrongful ideology on the people or misleading the country in the wrong direction.
We should be keenly aware and remain vigilant in order not to be victims of gaslighting. We should not let those malicious people manipulate us. We should be able to see the reality and truth, instead.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.