By Donu Kogbara
GASLIGHTING is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a targeted group and make them question their memory, perception and sanity.
According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia: “Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying, (gaslighting) attempts to destabilise the victim and delegitimise the victim’s belief.” The term was inspired by “Gaslight”, a 1938 play by the British writer Patrick Hamilton, in which a man dims the gas lights in his marital home, then slyly persuades his increasingly bewildered wife to agree when he insists that she’s imagining the decreased brightness.
But I think that we can safely say that the actual practice of gaslighting did not start in 1938 and is as old as the human race.
Some spouses, husbands especially, gaslight each other by swearing that they are not having affairs, even when evidence exists. Gaslighting also occurs in many workplaces as colleagues, superiors and subordinates manipulate each other into accepting falsehoods. But the ultimate gaslighters – Premier League Gaslighters Extraordinaire! – are politicians of all nationalities. And it has to be said that Naija politicos are particularly skilled within this context…..alongside amoral heads of state such as Presidents Trump/Putin of America/Russia and the Saudi royal family, who have turned the shameless and crude peddling of blatant deceptions – and the attempted concealment of their most evil activities – into a fine art.
It is, of course, normal to try to put your best foot forward publicly, in a bid to gain the approval of electorates and subjects. Even the most powerful, autocratic and sociopathic dictators need a certain amount of genuine support from their sidekicks and “constituencies”.
Nobody can rule any roost for five minutes on his or her own. And propaganda – the dissemination of biased or misleading information – is a tool that is frequently deployed during the quest for support. But there is a big difference between spin-doctoring your policy failures and general screw-ups – as in trying to portray them in the best possible light – and flatly denying that you have made mistakes and that your political opponents sometimes make valid points.
One thing that has struck me very forcibly in recent weeks is the totally divergent stories that are being told about the past and present by Nigerian politicians who belong to the two main parties – All Progressives Congress, APC, and Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
Some of my APC- and PDP-affiliated friends and acquaintances provide me, from time to time, with balanced analyses of their parties’ historical and current strengths and weaknesses. But many APC/PDP devotees are allergic to intellectual honesty and are always trying to gaslight me and the rest of the world by smoothly or shrilly insisting that black is white and vice versa.
Some APC/PDP devotees are running around swearing that President Buhari is a genius and saint and that all criticisms of him are based on mischievous misinformation from his enemies. Other APC/PDP devotees are running around swearing that Buhari’s previous and current rivals (Dr Goodluck Jonathan and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar) are geniuses and saints who have never put a foot wrong. So even when one of the above does something that is obviously highly suspect – refusing to participate in a televised debate for candidates, for example – his defenders’ stories don’t change.
Even if it is common knowledge that verbal dexterity is not his thing and even if he has been seen speaking unimpressively a thousand times, the debate-avoider will be described by his dogged defenders as a champion orator who only avoids debates because he is busy.
Meanwhile, we – the target audiences of these gaslighting politicians – react in varying ways to the fabrications they inflict on us.
It is difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction when you are being toyed with by seasoned purveyors of fake news; and some of us gullibly swallow the dodgy “facts” that we are routinely fed, while others get confused and aren’t sure what to think.
Very few voters have what it takes to always spot gaslighting from a mile off and firmly say “no way” to being bamboozled. Journalists tend to be more well-informed than the average citizen because it is our job to do research and authoritatively comment, on whatever happens to be going on in various public spaces. But I don’t know any journalist, myself included, who is an expert on every issue. And I never pretend to be omniscient and am always struggling to develop a deeper and more holistic understanding of the Nigerian socio-economic-military-political terrain and to decide which narratives deserve to be embraced or dismissed.
I have been taken in by gas-lighters quite a few times; and if I am frequently struggling to find out what the truth really is, despite having more access to inside information than most, many voters must also be struggling to figure out what the truth really is. I am reminded of something a foreign divorce lawyer once sardonically observed about couples who want to go their separate ways and are fighting to push out their own viewpoints about what went wrong with their collapsed marriages: “There are always three sad stories in these situations: HIS story, HER story and the truth!” I guess the same can be said about the PDP and APC’s self-glorifications and accusations against each other: There is the APC gas-lighters’ story, the PDP gas-lighters’ story and the truth.
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