I have regularly complained about misuse of the term “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person you trust manipulates you into distrusting your own perceptions, memories, and judgments.
Unfortunately, the Internet has decided that instead “gaslighting” should be used as a synonym for concepts like “lying” or, in particularly irritating cases, “disagreeing with me.” As someone who was abused by gaslighting, I find this incredibly upsetting.
It is not gaslighting when someone contradicts you, or intentionally causes you to doubt your beliefs, or leaves you uncertain of what you believe, or even makes you think that they think you are crazy. Gaslighting is about someone lying to you in a way that causes you to lose trust in your own capabilities as a rational person: your ability to reason, your competence to figure out the truth, your capacity to remember things in a broadly accurate fashion even if you are sometimes fuzzy on details, your knowledge of your own feelings and thoughts and desires. And if your mind is unreliable… well, you’ll have to rely on someone else.
Gaslighting is already confusing and difficult to identify by its very nature, even when people haven’t decided to make the only word we have to refer to this very important concept mean “lying, but like I’m really upset about it.” If “gaslighting” refers to “lying,” it is difficult for people to name their abuse and recognize that what is happening to them is wrong.
(Honestly, using “gaslighting” to refer to someone disagreeing with you is itself kind of gaslight-y. Might want to check that out.)
Many people who want to misuse the term “gaslighting” should just suck it up and use a phrase like “blatantly lying” instead. However, I think sometimes people are gesturing for a concept that really isn’t covered by words like ‘lying.’ They’re gesturing for something structural, a harm done by society rather than by an individual; they’re gesturing for something oppressive, a dynamic related to their presence in a marginalized group; they’re gesturing for something that causes harm to your ability to reason and come to conclusions and trust your own self-knowledge, similarly to how gaslighting does, even if less severe and not perpetuated by a person.
In the name of not striking terms from others’ vocabulary without suitable replacement, I would like to suggest an alternative: hermeneutical injustice.
Hermeneutical injustice is a term invented by philosopher Miranda Fricker in her book Epistemic Injustice. Hermeneutical injustice is the harm caused to a person when they have an experience, but do not have the concepts or frameworks they need to make sense of what their experience is. For example, a man who falls in love with a man, in a society where homosexuality is conceived of as a disgusting perversion with no true affection or love in it, experiences a hermeneutical injustice. A woman whose boss keeps plausibly-deniably touching her breasts and telling her that she has a great ass, before the invention of the concept of sexual harassment, experiences a hermeneutical injustice. A man forced into sex who has no concept that men can be raped experiences a hermeneutical injustice.
(Of course, not all cases of hermeneutical injustice are related to a social justice topic: trypophobes of the world suffered a minor hermeneutical injustice before we had a cultural understanding that, for some people, that particular pattern of holes is just horrible.)
The primary harm of hermeneutical injustice is, of course, that you can’t express your feelings or experiences. If you don’t have the concept of “transness” or “sexual harassment” or “misophonia,” you are going to sound like an idiot when you try to explain why something hurts you.
You: “That sound is just BAD, okay. It makes me want to KILL SOMEONE. I want to STAB OUT MY EARDRUMS.”
Them: “This is a kind of unreasonable reaction to forks scraping against a plate. Why do you feel that way?”
You: “I don’t KNOW it just SUCKS.”
Them: “Well, are you sure you’re not just exaggerating?”
Hermeneutical injustice also makes it harder to understand your own experiences. If you don’t have the concept of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to put together your body image issues, your depersonalization, your deep-seated jealousy of women, your desire to wear skirts, and the fact that you never play a male RPG character. Those will all seem like discrete unrelated facts that don’t point to anything.
But the harms of hermeneutical injustice go deeper. There are harms to the individual as a knower: you feel stupid or crazy because you can’t articulate your experiences, and that makes you feel stupid and crazy in general; it is hard to cultivate certain epistemic virtues if you can’t understand yourself and your own mind. And quite often– especially in more serious cases of hermeneutical injustice– there is a harm to your identity. The harm of growing up conceptualizing yourself as a sodomite rather than a gay person; the harm of thinking of yourself as a person who freaks out about normal flirtation instead of a victim of sexual harassment; the harm of having your very sense of self shaped by narratives and concepts that were developed by people who don’t understand people like you at all.
And if you’re harmed by hermeneutical injustice– if the concepts and narratives available don’t describe your experiences, and this makes you feel stupid and crazy and hysterical, and you internalize as descriptions of yourself statements that aren’t true because you don’t have a way of saying the things that are true— well, you might reach for the word “gaslighting” to describe the way it makes you feel. As a way of expressing that this is a very serious harm, that it’s driving you crazy, that your problem is not just lying or disagreement but something more fundamental.
And if you’re in that situation, I hope this essay resolved that piece of hermeneutical injustice, and therefore you can stop perpetuating hermeneutical injustice against me.