Freedom of expression is the most important right in the American system of Constitutional government. Abuse of free speech — through calculated and relentless blurring of fact with opinion — is so frequent and casual that it is a wonder our democracy endures. This is true not only in the commercial world, where puffery and falsity reign, but in virtually all corners of our culture, none more pernicious than politics and government. Even religion has joined in the game recently, sacrificing truth for political gain.
Of all the forms of untruth that surround us, gaslighting is a dagger in the heart of our democracy. Gaslighting is the earnest denial of an indisputable fact, to persuade a weak or gullible person that the fact did not occur. For gaslighting to work, the person denying has to look sincere — looking the victim straight in the eye and saying that Fact A, which the victim witnessed with his or her own eyes, did not happen; what really happened was non-A.
Where the victims run in the millions, as they do in media-soaked America, it doesn’t take long before tens of millions form the view that Fact A really did not occur. The idea is that if you gaslight enough actual witnesses, they’ll spread the lie to non-witnesses around them who don’t know the facts but “want to believe.”
Lying about facts that are in dispute — while bad and morally crippling — is not as bad as gaslighting. Nor is “outlandish opinion,” which is still, to paraphrase Jeffrey Lebowski, just, like, your opinion. Nor is flagrant exaggeration: “the most beautiful [fill in the blank] ever.”
Gaslighting is infinitely worse because it takes, as its premise, that Americans don’t know what to do with the truth. It is incredibly cynical and condescending, an insult to the idea of free expression, and a poisonous attack on the very distinction between fact and opinion. Instead of letting Americans decide what to do with the facts, the politicians get to decide what the facts are. If facts aren’t allowed to be facts, then the problem is literally existential — the determinant of what exists or not. If that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.
Contrary to the gaslighter’s belief, Americans are actually pretty good at deciding what to do with facts, even when the facts are confusing or inconsistent. The jury system, which usually works, is a prime example. There, facts come in as “evidence,” which is sometimes consistent and sometimes not. Where inconsistent, the jury gets to decide, as the “finder of fact,” what version of the facts is more plausible. Sometimes juries just ignore facts. But no judge or lawyer is allowed to say, “Yes, six witnesses, three videos and three documents all establish as fact, without contradiction, that Fact A occurred, but you should decide that not-A occurred.” In a courtroom, that is not just wrong — it is flatly illegal.
There are worse things than situational illegality: one of them is the wholesale, repeated gaslighting of the American public. Please, gaslighters, for the sake of our American democracy, act more like Americans can handle the truth. When three documents, two real-time videos and 10 witnesses all show us that Fact A occurred, then argue whatever you want about what that means or should mean — including that we shouldn’t care about A, or that A “isn’t that bad” (e.g., sex with an intern or paying off a stripper) — but please, please don’t tell us that A did not occur.
If you are going to persist in telling us that a clear fact did not occur, then just go all the way with it: argue that the Constitution was never written — that it’s a foreign forgery, that it’s phony, that it’s fake news, that we should pay no attention to it.
Nile Kinney is a Bakersfield attorney.