Gaslighting – The Moralization of Abuse in Modern Politics

Wow, this political season has been…enlightening? Like all the seasons before it, I am sure, as the opinions reach their feverish pitch, and the vitriol flies. ‘Tis the season. And yet, it feels different. I’m older, for one. More weathered, certainly, but not jaded.  Not yet, at least.

I am, however, disturbed by the content of the media, of what I hear on NPR, and of what I see on my social media, posted by my dear friends who are, to their core, good people.  Intelligent, reasonable, kind people. Yet, I keep looking, aghast, thinking, “Do they not see it? Do they not feel it?” It peppers my news feed. The “Think Really Hard“, “Hey, Progressives, Your White Privilege is Showing“, or the “Ethicists Say Voting Your Conscience is Immoral” articles that are flooding my feed. Their insults indicate only lazy, privileged millennials would try to vote for a radical, never mind the increasingly harsh realities facing millennials. I see the way even the media has portrayed Sanders supporters, before, during, and since the convention has wrapped up, and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth and a familiar wrenching feeling in my gut.

And I realize: they don’t see it.  These subtle psychological violences have become so standard, that we don’t see them if we don’t know what to look for. They’re so subtle. The way Bernie supporters are referred to as “mobs” or “rabble”, as if they’re an unthinking crowd in the face of the logic.  If we speak up, we’re accused of being “whiners”, “losers”, or “too sensitive”, all of which is a broken record to me.

As most around me know, I grew up in a broken home. I don’t really mince around it, aside from that I share little pieces at a time, keeping the hurts that hurt the most close to my heart, until it bubbles over. But as I see the headlines roll by, the brow-beating, the finger wagging, the judging, and the “Get in Line and Sing Her Praises, or You’re Working for the Devil!”, then I take a step back , aghast.

On NPR during the convention, I listened to reporters refer to Sanders supporters as “rabble-rousers.”  I heard a BBC reporter talk about the Clinton supporters calling “those people” things like “losers”, “whiners”, and various other insults under their breath, and watched, disheartened, as the supposed “compassionate left” skewered people for crying when their leader spoke and nominated Hillary Clinton for presidency. I’ve watched the words the mass media uses, since Bernie started running for presidency, constantly demeaning him and his supporters, relegating them to a lower rung of society. I’ve watched all this with a familiar trembling and helpless rage.

This verbal and psychological abuse bothers me immensely because I’m no stranger to abuse. After years of therapy, the support of a loving husband, his family, and my many amazing friends, I’ve come to recognize that what happened to me growing up isn’t normal. It’s not okay.

I’m also used to being put on the precipice of having to make choices I don’t want to make. Growing up, I was constantly faced with three options whenever some “concerned” citizen decided to report my mom to the authorities, because she was struggling, working, and trying to raise 4 kids alone, having kicked our abusive dad out of the picture:

  1. Continue to live with my mom, who loved me and my siblings beyond reckoning, even as we watching her mentally decline from her bipolar disorder into schizophrenia.
  2. Tell CSD (as the Children’s Welfare Division was called when I was growing up) that our mom was declining, and go live with our abusive father, who locked me in closets for entire days and whipped my feet with belts to watch me dance because, well, isn’t it hilarious to watch her dance? Never mind the tears I shed quietly when he broke the toilet with my 4-year old sister’s head because she didn’t understand what he meant when he kept yelling, “You make a better door than a window!” (i.e. sit down, don’t stand in front of the TV), a crime which was punishable by being pulled by the hair and tossed into the lightless bathroom and banished for the remainder of the movie. I was told I’d join her in the dark bathroom for a “time out”, if I didn’t stop crying.  I couldn’t stop, but I learned to bite my fist and hold my shoulders against my knees so he wouldn’t see them shaking.
  3. Foster Care. This might not seem terrifying to many folks, because there are good foster parents out there. There are. But when I was little and went to soup kitchen with all the other poor people who worked multiple jobs but still couldn’t feed their families, I heard the stories. One boy wouldn’t talk about it, but when foster care came up, his eyes went wide and he started shaking. Another little girl, only 7-years-old, spoke nonchalantly about her foster dad raping her. She didn’t use the words “rape”, but she said it hurt less than the beating that would happen, and he gave her toys afterwards, so it could be worse.  I was terrified of the potential abuse, but more than that, I was terrified of being separated from my siblings and from my mother. I could endure anything, so long as I didn’t have to endure it alone.

And in the current climate, I see the conversations in the headlines, and I remember those conversations with my father.

“But, I saw you hit her.”

“You don’t know what you saw.”

“But I heard what you said to her.”

“You don’t know what you heard.”

“After you raped her, you would call and play ‘Listen to Your Heart’ on the telephone at 1am and 3am and 5am…”

“You’ve been listening to your mother’s lies…”

“… She wasn’t the only one who picked up the phone…”

“The truth will set you free.”

The truth will set you free. How often did I hear that, often leveled at my mother, as he shaped and warped her realities with his own lies, his own (sometimes pleasant) distortions?  It could be a soft caress of the hair, with a subtle two-sided compliment, something to both make her feel special, loved, but also worthless, like no one else would ever want her. It would be the twisting of conversations, so she never got to talk about the things she wanted to talk about, never got to finish a sentence, or to feel like she had anything important to say. And I, ever the wall-flower, listened. I listened to my father promise her things, I watched the hope spring in her eyes, then I listened as he talked about her to other people, softly whispering, lest she hear, terrible things. He told all my neighbors that she was crazy, that he was the abused one. That her outbursts were craziness, not her being pushed too far until she finally exploded, don’t worry, don’t worry, no need to call the cops. She’s just crazy. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She never went to college. Look, she’s got throw up on her still, and she hasn’t even brushed her hair today. She’s the unstable one, not the police officer, neat and clean in front of you, with the pleasant smile and charming voice, so conspiratorial and alluring.

And they believed it. They bought into it. He twisted her words, promised her things, said things, then told everyone around that he’d never said those things – she was imagining it. And she, so long voiceless, deprived of social contact, would look confused, as everyone around her laughed and thought how right he was.

I wish I could say it now, and have her hear, but I heard those promises, Mom. I heard the things he told you, in those secret whispers. There was a time, before we lost you, when what he said wasn’t true.

So, when I see the injustices in the  media, the overwhelming disgust poured on people who are legitimately fed up with a system that has evidently never represented them? I feel that silent rage. I feel my limbs go weak, as they did when I hid under the table and I heard those quiet manipulations. I see in the demeaning, ridiculing, judgmental posts, in the headlines that decry the movement as just “rabble”, who if they’re just “smart enough they’ll get in line”, I see the faces of all my neighbors looking silently, contemptuously at my mom. Their faces, accepting the truths presented to them by the loudest voice, while shutting out the voices of the angry and oppressed. I see the justifications, “Oh, those Bernie or Busters are all just privileged white men, you know it.”

I know my truths. And I know when I see someone being treated unfairly, whether it is the sexism hurled at Hillary, or the sheer silence Bernie faced while creating a landmark campaign that saw thousands turn out at events that were barely reported on by the mass media.

To be silent, to accept the status quo, is to be complicit. I am not saying how I will vote come November, since there is no question that one candidate has no qualms bullying small business owners, minorities, and anyone who disagrees with him.  I don’t agree that we can compare Hillary to Trump, since that’s like comparing apples to some truly rotten oranges. I do agree whole-heartedly with Terrell Starr: we need to hold the democratic party accountable. And for that, we need to STOP berating people, we need to stop shaming people, and actually have a discussion with those who feel betrayed by the democratic party.

Be Kind
And, even if you feel the other person doesn’t deserve it. The angriest people are sometimes the most hurt.

12 thoughts on “Gaslighting – The Moralization of Abuse in Modern Politics

  1. Indeed RRW. I believe that a lot of the abuse is a result of the difference in bank accounts – or at least the effects of the difference in bank accounts. Which means that money is now being seen as the ruler by which worth is measured and action determined. And that money migrates to the rich from the middle and lower classes in an uncontrolled capitalist economy. Think about it – if your Mom had had unlimited financial resources of her own would you have been abused?would you have been dismissed? would you have been demeaned? I think not. This effect is growing and will continue to grow as long as we continue to allow capitalism unfettered reign. Don’t get me wrong I think capitalism makes the most productive, healthiest, energetic economy but it has to be monitored and controlled. And those who benefit the most – the wealthy – are not interested in changing.

    We can rail against abuse and immorality and all the other ills of society but until we address the financial imbalance created by capitalism and the attending stratification of resources, we are wasting our collective breaths. And changing capitalism, while a long term endeavor, is quite simple in execution – steps like making all companies profit share a fixed amount and classifying basic services like health care and education as social responsibilities to be provided free to the individual, etc.

    This movement of wealth always towards the wealthy was first acknowledged and warned by Socrates ,2,500 years ago.Continual warnings have been uttered through history even by presidents such as Thomas Jefferson. Most recently major think tanks sponsored by the rich and various government bodies have all been hollering the same thing – we have to change or there will be revolution as the poor can no longer feed their families and the rich have so much they cannot possibly spend it all.

    That said, it at least in part explains the backlash voters who support Trump because he says he is different than the regular politician – which he is – however he fails to mention that he is a malignant narcissist who no more cares about America than any Russian citizen does. Trevor Noah nailed the concerns about Clinton when he said that she has no convictions and stands for nothing but at least that is better than standing only for herself, as Trump does.

    Change needs to happen in our economic system in order to address the moralization of abuse. Meanwhile fighting the good fight keeps the nightmares at bay.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Paul, your comment is amazing. You have pinpointed exactly why narratives about “personal accountability” get under my skin. By making failure and success a personal instead of addressing the broader picture, they fail to address the profound, systemic nature of inequitable distribution of resources, and all the countless devastation wreaked by that.

      Right now, liberals here argue with each other over how people should vote with 93% overlapping positions. “Close enough!” shout those who demand votes for Clinton. “No, thanks,” reply those like me who see that the majority of suffering flows from that 7% divergence, generally around distrbution of wealth. So much suffering springs from trickle-down policies supported by this potential future admnistration that there is nothing “only” about this 7%.

      Capitalism did nothing to help my mom. As it exists here, it deprives countless people of any opportunity to know lives outside poverty and abuse. When I then hear people I know and love whose families have long been comfortable tell me Sanders supporters are privileged, I’m astonished by what seems an almost willful commitment to not seeing.

      That my siblings and I are the rare few who make it out enrages me. So many poor children will never have an opportunity to thrive because of how capital flows away from them in sustenance of corporations who cannot eat, breathe, or know true suffering.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Absolutely. And when you try to explain that to those who are dedicated to money, they not only don’t understand,they don’t even hear your words.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank You. You and your sister articulate the problem elegantly – obviously having lived it. That makes you excellent spokespeople for those who cannot speak for themselves. Please continue your efforts – it may seem hopeless by times but there are those who agree vehemently.

        Liked by 2 people

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