I recently saw someone characterize Mike Pence lying about what Trump said as an attempt at a “mass public gaslighting,” which I think is the final lump of dirt thrown into the grave of the good and useful word ‘gaslighting’, which used to describe a specific form of abuse and is now apparently a synonym for “lying” or “disagreeing”.
First of all, gaslighting is about observable, physical facts. Here is an example of things that could be gaslighting: “no, I never hit you”; “we didn’t go to that restaurant yesterday”; “you think that painting is blue? no, it is definitely purple”; “don’t be ridiculous, you never went to Yale, you went to Harvard”; “that table has always been there”; “two plus two is five”. Here is an example of things that are not gaslighting: “white privilege doesn’t exist”; “as a man, you can’t experience sexism”; “the minimum wage increases unemployment”; “I think that argument was your fault”; “you are lazy and entitled.” You can’t take a video of laziness and entitlement or of white privilege; these are abstractions used to explain a particular situation. You can, however, take a video of someone hitting someone else; those are observable facts.
To pick another example: if someone says “you’re a man, therefore your experience of being forced into sex while you said ‘no’ isn’t rape”, they’re not gaslighting, they’re just being an awful rape apologist fuckwit. If someone who was not present says “you didn’t say ‘no'”, they may be mistaken (perhaps they believe the rapist). If someone says “I was there while you were being raped and you didn’t say ‘no'”, they are gaslighting.
Second, gaslighting is a pattern. If you think that the painting is blue and I think it is purple, there are lots of possible explanations. Maybe it’s a weird color that’s kind of blue and kind of purple depending on the light. Maybe one of us is colorblind. If I think that we went to the restaurant on Tuesday and you think that we went to the restaurant on Wednesday, probably one of us has a shitty memory. Now, if every time I think that something is blue you think it is purple and every time we go to a restaurant we disagree about when it is, we might have an issue.
Not only is gaslighting repeated, but it also doesn’t involve an alternate explanation. If I’m colorblind, you and I may disagree a lot about what color the painting is, but this also isn’t gaslighting, because I know perfectly well why we disagree. It’s because I’m colorblind. If we both have terrible memories, we will probably go “eh, who knows when we went to the restaurant.” It is only when the conversation repeatedly descends to “you are insane and incapable of determining when you went to the place” that it is gaslighting.
I don’t want to go hardcore “all gaslighting is intentional,” because that sounds like I’m saying “all gaslighting is a deliberate attempt to make someone think they’re crazy.” While that does happen, sometimes gaslighting is “I don’t want to take responsibility for my actions so I will deny them in face of all evidence” or “I am in total denial of my shit memory and therefore assume that it must all be your fault.” But it is nonetheless true that gaslighting is not really a thing reasonable people do.
Third, gaslighting is taking advantage of a position of trust. For instance, you might trust your parents, your friends, and your partners. If some random stranger comes up to you and whacks you in the face and then says “I didn’t hit you, you imagined that”, your thought process is probably going to be something like “crazy fucker, I should call the cops.” If your parent comes up to you and whacks you in the face and then two days later when you confront them about it they say “I didn’t hit you, you imagined that”, your thought process is probably going to be something like “wait, did I imagine that? Was that a dream or something? I couldn’t have been making it up… I remember it! Maybe it was a hallucination? What’s going on?” Repeated over a long enough period of time, it can cause you to doubt your perceptions of reality.
(This, incidentally, is why gaslighting is much more dangerous for crazy people than for sane people. Many crazy people rely on their friends, family, partners, and caregivers for reality checking on everything from “does everyone secretly hate me?” to “is there an enormous monster in the corner of the room?” If someone is in a position of that much trust, they can abuse their power, and since the crazy person’s perceptions are much more unreliable, it’s that much harder to catch.)
This is why Mike Pence is not gaslighting anyone. He is a politician. Most people above the age of six do not rely on politicians to be accurate reporters of empirical facts. Indeed, many people expect them to lie as much as they can get away with. If a politician telling a lie causes you to distrust your perceptions of reality, that is probably more about you than about the politician.