The #politics of #words: #post-truth,#gaslighting and #cognitivedissonance

Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight
Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight
Stephen Colbert has a complaint. The the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year for 2016. Stephen Colbert said he covered that idea ten years previously in his conlang word “truthiness.”

Now unlike other dictionaries, The Oxford English dictionary doesn’t propose to tell you how to use words. Apparently it gleens new words from a plethora of sources, mostly online, to gather words as people are using them now. Of post-truth The Washington Post says:

Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after the contentious “Brexit” referendum and an equally divisive U.S. presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket, according to the Oxford University Press.

Stephen Colbert has this to say about post-truth and truthiness:

There. I wanted you have a laugh before we continue. But it is a serious subject.

If you skipped over the video you ask what does post-truth mean? Much like Stephen Colbert’s truthiness:

The dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The Post further goes on with its commentary:

In this case, the “post-” prefix doesn’t mean “after” so much as it implies an atmosphere in which a notion is irrelevant — but then again, who says you have to take our word for it anymore?

Were did this word come from? Wikipedia tells us that “the contemporary origin of the term is attributed to blogger David Roberts who used the term in 2010 in a column for Grist.” But it also notes:

While this has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life, but was less notable before the advent of the Internet. In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell cast a world in which the state is daily changing historic records to fit its propaganda goals of the day. Orwell is said to have based much of his criticism of this on Soviet Russian practices.

David Roberts wasn’t the only one to try to encapsulate the notion of emotional appeal trumping objective facts. Some people call this gaslighting. Shea Emma Fett defines gaslighting as “as an attempt to overwrite a person’s reality.”

Gaslighting was added to our lexicon of words by a 1938 play and a 1944 Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight. Wikipedia tells us:

Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.[1][2] Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

One word may seem to have a shade different meaning than the other, but at the heart of both words the core meaning is to deny objective facts and to cloud reason with emotions.

I noted in another post how very easy it was for people to spin words to suit their needs. I used the word dissonance, which is related in my mind as cognitive dissonance. Let’s examine cognitive dissonance a minute:

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.[1][2]

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance, as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.[1]

It appears then that people who hold one view of reality who can’t handle the objective facts turn them over in their head to create a post-truth version that calms their emotional discomfort.

That’s how you get people who believe in nonsense like Pizzagate and will insist that internal memorandums that reference pizza is all about communicating about child sex rings.

But there is more. As Ms. Fett noted in her article:

The distinguishing feature between someone who gaslights and someone who doesn’t is an internalized paradigm of ownership.

That’s powerful stuff. The underlying operation of post-truth and gaslighting is that the person performing these actions feels entitled to do so. It doesn’t matter the damage done, as long as what is said acts in the best interests of the victimizer.

Think about it.


Does this remind you of anyone you know?

Does it remind you of someone we all know?

By Trailer screenshot – Gaslight trailer, Public Domain,

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *