Someday in the future, some future semiotician or entire political psychologist — who may well be in school now — will look back on political communications in our era, when mass gaslighting became mainstream communication. The need to examine the language of our times is already discussed, though the urgency has been to deal with change rather than to understand it academically. The future will regard our times with uneasy wonder, but perhaps its citizens need not exert themselves unduly, because the past often anticipates the future.
Recently, I re-read for about the tenth time the introduction to Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, her first successful work — she did not even have an agent when Ace Books published it in 1969. The introduction was inserted in the 1976 edition, and is a straight-talking manifesto of fiction in general and science fiction in particular, and remains relevant half a century later. I also flipped through the pages of the book, and found something that that is not fictional at all, any more. The setting is a state on the distant planet of Gethen, whose society is ordered by “shifgrethor”, a very particular reading of prestige that would be appreciated by diplomats like Thomas Roe, who jumped through hoops that did not exist to secure a crucial firman from Jehangir (you can read a satire on it in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s collection of stories, The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, just out from Speaking Tiger.). Normal humans would find the relentless backing and forthing over prestige tedious and irritating, but that is what society on Le Guin’s planet uses to order itself.
Apart from shifgrethor, which the narrator, an ambassador from Terra, finds it hard to negotiate, Gethen is an easygoing place ruled by a mad monarch. “Argaven was not sane; the sinister incoherence of his mind darkened the mood of his capital; he fed on fear. But… his wrestles with his nightmares had not damaged the kingdom. His cousin Tibe was another kind of fish, for his insanity had logic,” wrote Le Guin.
Tibe wants to alter the interpersonal system of prestige into one of race pride, and, thereby, forge the nation into a powerful weapon of war. The nation does not have television or the internet, so “Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal [though] government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated… He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige… because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something that the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement of, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate.” The objective of these “fierce, dull speeches” is to force the people to “change a choice they had made before their history began” — the choice between civilisation and its opposite, conflict.
This passage about mass gaslighting using mass media, which occurs about a third of the way into The Left Hand of Darkness, cannot be quoted at length for reasons of copyright. But if you were to read it in full, it is an excellent description of the background noise of our lives, on the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. Gaslighting, the manipulative phenomenon named for the 1944 Ingmar Bergman film Gaslight, was brought into political discussion by Maureen Dowd, when she wrote of how the Clinton administration made Newt Gingrich look ridiculous to the extent that even his protests about being rendered ridiculous sounded ridiculous. But really, that was old-style gaslighting, with the focus on one target.
Large-scale gaslighting was waiting for many-to-many communications on feckless mass media and poorly regulated social media. Multiple reaffirmations across media encourage those who think for themselves to doubt their own ability, and it is supported by routine disparagement of their credibility and motives. The adjectives and tags that have developed over the last six years, and the changing terms of engagement, will raise a rich crop of doctoral theses in political psychology and linguistics in the future. By that time, it would probably be an intellectual curiosity, because politics should have started speaking in a reasonable voice again. It can’t be done in these terms for too long.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.