2017: The year of ‘gaslighting’
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - December 31, 2017 - 12:00am

There was a strong tie for word of the year for 2017, at least here in my corner. It was the year in which Donald Trump dominated much online and offline news space, pro and against the US president (who lost the Time magazine “Person of the Year” cover to “the Silence Breakers,” women whose groping and harassing experiences suddenly become very public). The mistweeted word “covfefe” lost out by a hair to one other word that’s been the overriding concern of most global citizens who can’t quite figure out if we’ve entered Final Days or it’s just another politician we need to ride out for four/eight years. Al Gore used to use the “frog in the slowly boiling cauldron” analogy to explain our indifference to climate change; 2017 was a year in which all kinds of things that would have been considered outrageous and beyond the pale just four or two years ago have now become “normalized.” We are now the frogs in the slowly boiling cauldron. And our perceptions have been reshaped by the Reality Distortion Field generated by a certain orange-haired US president.

That’s why “covfefe” — as fine an example of tweeting incompetence as it is — doesn’t quite get the nod for Political Word of the Year. First of all, nobody can tell if Trump simply mistyped when, on May 31, he initiated this blast: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe…” Then came five minutes of silence from the American President. An anxious nation awaited what would come next. Clarity was never achieved, however. After all the trolling the mistweet unleashed, Trump deleted his first thought and teased Twitter followers by asking “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ???” Was he doing it all on purpose, to set off rounds of confusion and discussion about what his thumb really meant? Was it actually a senior moment? And what the hell is a “covfefe”?

Because we don’t know what we don’t know, “covfefe” loses out by just a hair to “gaslighting,” which is what this US president seems to be a true master of.

Gaslighting comes from that infamous George Cukor ’50s noir of the same name that nobody’s actually seen (well, I have) starring Charles Boyer as a scoundrel trying to steal Ingrid Bergman’s inherited fortune by slowly convincing her that she’s going insane. He secretly adjusts the gaslights in her room and tells her nothing’s changed, even though the room is getting a bit dim and woozy. Are we paranoid if we believe a US leader would actively try to gaslight the public about, for example, his true intentions towards North Korea? (Asked about possible military action, The Orange One grinned and responded, “You’ll find out.”) Or if he’s just playing people like a playah when he insists on seeing Barack Obama’s birth certificate for six years, then finally accepts that the US president was born in America — then, when he’s elected, privately tells US senators that he’s not entirely convinced that Obama was really born in America???


More recently, Trump has taken credit for “letting people say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” Yes, it was difficult for us Americans all those years, being forced to say “Shmerry Shmishmas,” “Happy Holidays” and “Festivus.” Who knew what we were missing? Or was it all simply a Jedi Mind Trick, telling us there was a “conspiracy” against the traditional holiday greeting when actually, no other American I’ve ever met has ever had a problem saying, or hearing, “Merry Christmas”?

Remember the good old days when you didn’t have to always question whether the US president was jerking your chain?

What are to make of the presidential double-dealing, mind-warping and Pinocchio-level falsehoods? Is that Rod Serling standing in the wings? Is this The Twilight Zone? Or is Trump simply a master politician, keeping people off-balance with his nonstop stream of fact-challenged utterances?

Is he — indeed — gaslighting the hell out of the world?

Let’s look at some other contenders for Political Word of the Year.

• Alternative facts/post-truth. I spoke with a lawyer recently who explained that, in law, there is no such thing as “truth.” There are just piles of competing facts. But there are, at the end of the day, accepted-upon facts — things that are demonstrably true, which both sides can reasonably agree upon, like
“Today is Sunday,” or “We live on the Planet Earth.” It was White House Spokesperson Kellyanne Conway who started us down a slippery slope to Hell by insisting that there are “alternative facts” — that, somehow, the crowd at Trump’s inauguration can be both smaller than, and larger than, the crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008, depending on what you believe. This dismissal of photographic, side-by-side evidence, delivered with the grin of a Cheshire Cat, did make people start to believe we had tumbled down Alice’s rabbit hole into an alternate reality. But it was merely an alternate take on reality. Big difference.

• Fake news. Ditto. This term, which Trump claims he invented, is used disparagingly and repeatedly to describe any news reporting that the US president doesn’t agree with, or which is critical of his administration. As HBO host John Oliver has pointed out, one of the ways dictators seize power is by delegitimizing the mainstream media. If people cleave to their online sites and social media posts and never test their beliefs against other sources, they do tend to end up consuming fake news. God bless journalism, which actually does have rules. And God bless the First Amendment.

• Nothing burger. Meanwhile, as the US President faces an investigation into his administration’s actions regarding Russia leading up to the 2016 election, the phrase “Nothing burger” was a dismissive favorite of Trump supporters making the cable news show rounds. Only trouble is, once you open up both sides of that sesame seed bun and take a good look inside, it turns out there may actually be two-all-beef-patties-special sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions stuffed inside. Not exactly “nothing.”  

• Snowflakes. The beloved trolling term for liberals, whom Trump supporters like to think have lost their ever-lovin’ minds since their MAGA leader got elected. As in, “libtards are such delicate snowflakes they can’t stand to see anyone take away stuff that Obama put in place.” Like health care, environmental protection and functioning relations with world leaders.  

• Witch hunt. The term was appropriated from the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings of the ‘50s and used by the US president on Twitter to repeatedly assert that the Russia investigation is “fake news”; there’s “nothing there”; that he’s a “victim” of a wide-ranging attack from pro-Clinton “deep state” insiders. All we can say at this point in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation is: if it looks like a witch, talks like a witch, and casts spells like a witch… well, there’s reason to keep looking into the matter.

• Collusion. Trumpeted by Trump supporters, usually with the word “No” in front of it, this has become a red herring of sorts. While there is no legal charge of “collusion,” and it’s incredibly difficult to proof a conspiracy (without direct evidence such as tape recordings or unless enough people flip), it is easier to piece together a case for “obstruction of justice,” which happens when people who claim they’re as pure as Ivory Soap start acting all shady and fire people willy-nilly.

• Complicit. Dictionary.com chose this one as its word for 2017. Why? People searched the site for its meaning the most. Possibly because Scarlett Johansson played Ivanka Trump in a Saturday Night Live skit about a new perfume called Complicit (“The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this… but won’t.”)

Then Ivanka, interviewed by a news outlet, revealed that she didn’t really know what the word meant. “If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit.” Nope. Not even close to what it means. So that sent people scurrying to Dictionary.com to find out that complicit actually means “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.” So we are now all the wiser.



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