Of the legion of ways that we, since the dawn of time, have devised to deceive ourselves and others, the insidious cruelty at the heart of the phenomenon called gaslighting is one of the most fascinating and destructive. Derived from the play Gas Light (1938), the expression is visceral, referring to the deliberate attempt by the villain to drive the heroine insane. Gaslighting is a useful umbrella trope for understanding many different kinds of damaging online behavior. Gatekeeping, tone policing, outright lying, and the demand to “do better” all constrain members of online communities through fear rather than love. Whether in private groups or in public threads, hapless and naïve Christians fall prey to intentional and unintentional gaslighting and often turn to gaslighting themselves when they fail to make themselves understood. The whining, crazed rage of the heroine in the 1940 film Gaslight, adapted from the play, well reflects the tenor and feelings of many people when they encounter the toxicity of social media.
They know something is wrong, they feel themselves going mad, but they are powerless to tell the truth, or even to trust their own perceptions.
Only by a renewed embrace of the objectivity of Scripture married to a biblical definition of love can Christians return to the sober reasoning of honest discourse. Where ideology clouds the perception of truth, Christians can measure everything by the light of Christ in the Scriptures. They need have no changeable orthodoxy, nor grasping appeals to gatekeeping, tone policing, or gaslighting. Rather, they might recapture the lost virtues of debate and a life-giving search for truth.
This Postmodern Realities episode is a conversation with Journal author Anne Kennedy about her article in the 43:2 issue of the Christian Research Journal, “For Our Lamps Are Going Out: Gaslighting in the Age of Social Media ”.
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