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CLARENCE PAGE: Time to turn off the gas in political ‘gaslighting’

It’s not hard to understand why Merriam-Webster, the dictionary giant, chose “gaslighting” as its “word of the year” for 2022. I was surprised that it took so long.

Rolling Stone writer Miles Klee apparently agrees. “We already had the Year of Gaslighting,” writes Klee, who prefers 2016 as the low point for gaslighting — when “Donald Trump ran for president frequently denying he’d said things he’s been recorded saying the day before.”

I can see why he chose that year. I first ran across the term “gaslighting” in 2016 in, of all places, Teen Vogue in a biting and widely discussed essay by writer Lauren Duca. Its headline: “Donald Trump is gaslighting America.”

Already Trump’s rise was bringing a new era for fact-checkers to chase “fake news,” “deepfakes,” “conspiracy theories,” “troll farms” and other abundant channels of a new multimedia misinformation industry.

The term “gaslighting” was revised from the 1944 Hollywood movie “Gaslight,” for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award, playing a young opera singer who doubts her sanity because of her husband’s trickery aimed at stealing her money.

But, as another self-described word nerd, I must rise to defend Merriam-Webster against Klee’s critique.

The nation’s oldest dictionary company’s data-driven survey does not try to report the most used or most popular word. It reports the words that most often have been looked up most often in their online dictionary during the year. In other words, its tally offers a measure of public interest in a word, without telling us why the searchers are interested.

With that in mind, there’s no question that a lot of us are interested in “gaslighting,” whether to do it or protect ourselves against it.

Interest has been rising for years as “gaslighting” seeped out into the linguistic mainstream. It won the Most Useful/Likely to Succeed category in the American Dialect Society’s 2016 word-of-the-year competition and became a runner-up for the Oxford Dictionaries 2018 word of the year, just behind the winner, “toxic.”

Nevertheless, we can hope only that apparently rising interest in the term “gaslighting” shows a continuing interest in reality, as opposed to what former Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway famously offered in the early days of his presidency as “alternative facts.”

“As we noted when we awarded Trump our 2015 Lie of the Year award for his portfolio of misstatements,” said PolitiFact in 2016, “no other politician has as many statements rated so far down the dial. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Of course, lying is hardly limited to any one political party. Neither is self-deception.

The competition between facts and “alternative facts” has become increasingly ferocious. The mixed blessings of alternative media and social networks make it more possible than ever to not only choose one’s favorite media — or propagandists — but also to construct our own alternative realities.

I am reminded of Trump’s own zealous efforts to exaggerate the size of his inauguration crowd, claiming it was the largest ever, undaunted by the many eyewitnesses and photo evidence that showed former President Barack Obama’s crowd, among others, to be much larger.

But we were not as shocked as we might have been had we not been conditioned by Trump’s alternative facts going back at least to his early fruitless campaign to cast doubt on Obama’s birth certificate.

In its more extreme forms, the pursuit of “alternative facts” can feed what George Orwell called “doublethink” in his classic “1984.” It described a process of indoctrination in which subjects are expected to accept two conflicting beliefs as truth, even when it conflicts with their own memory or sense of reality.

But maybe, after the surprises of the recent midterm elections, we may see a cresting of the current rise of Trump-style doublethink. The collapse of the widely anticipated “red wave” of Republican victories in the midterms looks a lot like a wake-up call to those who relied too much on the realities portrayed by the conventional media and political wisdom.

Reality, as exhibited by voters in a fair election, can cut through the malarkey and turn off the gas in gaslighting, if we care enough to stick with reality.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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