The Insanity of Gaslighting Ourselves

“Two plus two will never make five. That’s not the problem. And George Orwell at the end, Winston’s being tortured, and he’s made to say two plus two equals five, and this totalitarianism makes us all lie. [Hannah Arendt] said that’s not the power. It’s the fact that in a world where people are going to say it is even when they know it isn’t. That is deeply estranging. That’s what creates those conditions of loneliness and despair. That, for her, is the wickedness of the political lie. People don’t believe that two plus two makes five. They don’t believe half of what’s said.”
~Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now

All the time, people say what they don’t mean. Or else it’s not clear what they mean, the actual significance behind their words, what is most fundamentally motivating them. This duplicity has become the normal way of relating. And this is the basis of the identities that possess us. A simple example of this is the often heard statement that American voters get what they want. That is like saying enslaved Africans were happy with their violent oppression. There are endless other examples, and the most powerful are those we don’t notice in ourselves.

Such statements are patently absurd when taken at face value. And one suspects that, at some level, most people know that they are not true, even as they say them. It’s not what they really believe, but it obviously satisfies some need or purpose. Our modern society is filled with such bald-faced contradictions to what we know and feel. This is part of social control. It’s one thing to gaslight others but it’s even more powerful to get them to gaslight themselves. It’s the ultimate betrayal.

Once someone is psychotically disconnected from a direct and personal sense of reality, they become schizoid and compliant. Without grounding in the world beyond rhetoric, people become vulnerable to those who control and manage public perception. Backfire effect plays its role in ideological defense, but that isn’t the underlying force at play. Once identity is solidified, people will defend it on their own by various means. That leaves the issue of how did that ideological identity take shape in the first place.

This is true of all of us. There is something profoundly disorienting and alienating about modern society. We lose the ability to discern what is of genuine value. So, we turn to narratives to offer us an illusion of certainty. Then the reality in front of us is no longer compelling. We believe what we are told. Then we repeat it so often that we forgot it was told to us. Because it confirms and is confirmed by ‘mainstream’ mediated reality, we sound perfectly reasonable and are taken seriously by others.

This isn’t a mere individual condition. It’s collective insanity. Yet the spell it has over us dissipates with awareness. But few will accept this awareness, quickly retreating to the safety of the group mind, of ideological realism. People briefly awaken all the time, only to fall back to sleep, drawing the covers back over their head. Being reoriented to a deeper truth can feel disorienting, in awakening from a deep slumber. It’s hard to grapple with what to do with this knowing. Yet it’s near impossible to unsee after being jolted fully awake. It’s not a state one would choose, to be on the outside of the social world into which one was born.

It forces one to relearn what it means to be human. Rather than being enlightnened with clarity, it’s to become aware that one is in a state of epistemological infancy. Everything one thought one knew is now under question and doubt. A different way of listening is required, to sense what is real and true, what is valid and meaningful. Relating well to others becomes even more challenging. Just because one has glimpsed some flickering light through the rhetoric doesn’t instantly dispel the shadows. The tape loops go on playing in one’s mind, in response to the tape loops in the minds of others. In not knowing how to respond, one increasingly finds oneself falling into silence.

Sometimes a non-response is the only response that remains. In a world full of words, one ever more notices the silence in between, what is not said. All that can be done is to witness it, to hear what others have refused to hear, particulary what they have denied in themselves. One holds a space open. One waits. One listens. In doing so, another voice is heard, only a whisper at first. It’s a different kind of voice, a different kind of self. There is an intimacy in how it speaks. We are not alone and isolated. We are not alienated.  The truth was never destroyed. Reality remains.