Abuse Rhetoric

In the personal advice blogosphere, someone who “gaslights” lies to you in an attempt to undermine your sanity. A “projecting” partner places unfounded blame on you in an attempt to paper over their own insecurities. These phrases embody the personal advice blogosphere very well – they describe pettiness and dramatization with a quippy phrase or a ham-fisted literary reference.  

This piece is not about relationship experts, however. It is about a distinct pathology experienced by left-of-center political critics who reside in the boardrooms at Vox or Salon. These are the critics that claim that conservatives “gaslight America” and right-wing Christians “project their insecurities” onto the secular public. Unfortunately, they are also the critics that represent the mainstream response to the antics of the right-wing establishment. In this article, I want to vet these critics and the rhetorical frames they employ in criticizing their political opponents. 

The rhetorical frame of the abusive relationship is especially seductive to the liberal critic. By nature, it provides a lot to support the liberal argument, while asking for little in proof or evidence. Most importantly, the frame provides the things that are the hardest to articulate in a quippy Twitter argument: context and motive. It provides context in that it implicitly articulates the relation between the liberal critic and the conservative object of criticism. It paints the critic as passive and advice-seeking – they are, oftentimes, bemoaning this problem on social media – and the object as active, and domineering – they are doing the gaslighting, of course. The frame confers motive in that it depicts conservatives as aiming to upset the liberal critic without consequence. It is used to argue that conservatives gaslight in order to get what they want and project in order to get away with it. 

This is quite a peculiar relationship, however. The liberal relationship frame subverts the traditional role of the critic. Usually, the critic acts upon the object of criticism – most often by means of applying the critical eye – to analyze the object’s response. In this frame however, the object seems more domineering – the pundit is wholly taken aback by the “gaslighting” or “projecting” response. The critic is forced into his role at the expense of setting the terms of the critique – he is subjugated by his object of ire because he has been psychologically manipulated by it. By virtue of this manipulation, the critic is no longer in the position to do his work – what he has to say will not be taken seriously because he is emotionally damaged. The critic is rendered powerless in his critique because he is being gaslit or projected upon and cannot respond, except to name the abuse being dealt to him. What he says, then, is no different than name-calling. 

This subversion is at the root of why the liberal appeal to abuse rhetoric ends in failure. The purpose of employing any rhetorical frame is to make one’s narrative easily accessible and emotionally compelling. This frame does neither. 

For instance, to claim that you are being gaslit by someone requires that first, a relationship exists in which you could be gaslit and second, that what is being done is in fact gaslighting. This is real, substantive work. Many rhetorical frameworks require this kind of underlying work – the amount is not the issue – but abuse rhetoric requires a special kind of work that creates unique problems. Put most simply, abuse rhetoric baits a conversation about abuse when it is not relevant to the underlying argument. Employing abuse rhetoric superimposes one political issue onto another, heightening the stakes and creating new points of debate where there were none before. 

Furthermore, because liberal abuse rhetoric requires an equivocation between the nastiness of abuse and the nastiness of whatever tactic you are criticizing, the underlying argument is deliberately tied to the validity of the analogy you are using. Take, for instance, this op-ed for Teen Vogue titled “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America” by Lauren Duca. In it, Duca writes three long paragraphs listing then-president-elect Trump’s lies over the last campaign. It is not my aim to dispute the facts – I am sure Duca has substantiated her claims wisely. What is important to see, however, is that Duca says nothing other than that simple fact. Her point is simply that we are being misled by our President, but it is overlaid with prestigious language and littered with references to survivor culture. This article is a perfect example of how abuse rhetoric obscures the underlying argument and bogs it down with an unwieldy analogy. 

Ultimately, Duca’s argument rests on the assumption that Trump’s distortion of reality is pervasive and intentional enough to destabilize our understanding of the world. If this is the case, then Duca’s task is really to expose the ways in which the Trump administration materially disincentivizes journalists from acting as a check on its power. But in employing abuse rhetoric, Duca seems more concerned with how Trump is lying rather than the fact that he is. Duca must spend her time and effort showing how the President’s rhetoric fits the narrow bill of gaslighting at the expense of describing the Trump administration’s chilling effect on journalistic integrity. While it is true that the level of misinformation spread by the Trump administration is unprecedented, Duca’s overwhelming focus on the President’s language is symptomatic of a journalistic culture that is more concerned with the tidiness of our political labels than the meaning that lies behind them. It is easy to prove that Donald Trump is a massive liar, but it is not so easy to prove that he is tied up in an abusive relationship with the American people for the express purpose of obscuring our perceptions of reality. If a political opponent can discredit even a little portion of the latter claim, Duca is in serious trouble. Her analogy would be far more suspect than it already is, and it wouldn’t catch the eye of anyone on the other side of the aisle. And even if Duca does succeed in proving her point, all she really gets is a new name to call the President – something not all that novel in today’s media climate. It does not seem reasonable to risk as much as she does for so little reward.

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