The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s word of the year, based in part on what people searched for the most, some would argue, has been relevant for millennia. But “Gaslighting” has gained currency in recent times — first as a way to describe the subtle ways in which people in relationships, romantic and familial, mislead others for their own advantage. An unfaithful partner may, for example, insist that there is no change in her behaviour, that the suspicions she is confronted with are the product of an irrational jealousy. In 2022, though, acts of undermining and lying are at gargantuan proportions. In the post-truth era of fake news and personally-tailored “facts”, gaslighting is also a political strategy and idiom.
Lost an election? It was stolen. Worried about the state clamping down on free speech? That’s fake news by foreign actors desperate to malign a country’s image. There is no poverty anymore, no matter the evidence of your eyes. And Great Leaders do no wrong. Perhaps the ancients had it right. The world is but a veil, a mundane curtain of lies, which must be pushed through to discern the Truth. And Truth, like moksha, is an amorphous and ill-defined state, easily manipulated for mundane ends.
It is important then, to spare a thought for the good people at Merriam-Webster and so many others whose job is to create and index meaning. In the Orwellian, post-truth world, their task is all the harder, where ordinary words and phrases like “election”, “dissent” and even “rights” are contested and derided. Maybe it’s best, as dictionaries often do, to stick to the most basic meanings of a word, and leave the lexical analysis alone. “Gaslighting”, then, is an act of lying, of being made to feel that the way you see the world is unreasonable, even insane. But perhaps, given that more and more people are searching for its meaning, there might be hope that facts and reason may prevail.