“Lie” is a great word. It’s a short, to-the-point noun with a universally agreed upon meaning that we all learn before we even enter kindergarten. Call someone a liar, and any English-speaker in the world will require no clarification—they’ll know that someone isn’t telling the truth.
Say that someone is gaslighting you, however, and further explanation is almost always needed; it’s a word that can’t even begin to compete with “lie” in clarity and impact. Which is why it’s so absolutely frustrating that major news outlets nationwide continue to insist on using this esoteric reference to a relatively obscure play from the 1930s, when “lie” would work just fine.
When Sarah Huckabee Sanders left her job as White House press secretary in June, the headline to Margaret Sullivan’s story in the Washington Post called her the “Queen of Gaslighting,” when Queen of Lies would have been more direct and comprehensible. In July, the Post also claimed that Robert Mueller couldn’t “put out the gaslighting fire,” an absurdly abstract way to describe a campaign of lies carried out by the president against the special counsel. Earlier this month, the New York Times—a publication seemingly allergic to the word “lie”—used “gaslighting” in a headline to describe the state of New York’s lies about a woman’s employment status. Vox described former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s admitted lies to the media as “gaslighting the press.” And on Tuesday, NBC’s Chuck Todd accused Senator John Kennedy of lying about the reasons behind Trump’s connection to Ukraine by saying the much tamer, less intimidating, “Don’t gaslight us, sir.”
I blame Lauren Duca. The former Teen Vogue writer brought the term “gaslighting” into the mainstream with her viral 2016 blog, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” which reportedly got over a million unique views. Here’s her article’s description of the term:
“Gaslighting” is a buzzy name for a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate. We are collectively being treated like Bella Manningham in the 1938 Victorian thriller from which the term “gaslight” takes its name. In the play, Jack terrorizes his wife, Bella, into questioning her reality by blaming her for mischievously misplacing household items that he has systematically hidden. Doubting whether her perspective can be trusted, Bella clings to a single shred of evidence: the dimming of the gaslights that accompanies the late-night execution of Jack’s trickery. The wavering flame is the one thing that holds her conviction in place as she wriggles free of her captor’s control.
To gaslight is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity, and that’s precisely what Trump is doing to this country.
“Gaslighting” is certainly a real phenomenon, but Duca spends 141 words explaining something I could do in six: Donald Trump is a pathological liar. The Post, in its Mueller article, gives a shorter but no more useful definition via a false dichotomy: “Politicians lie. Gaslighters build alternative realities.” Rather, every example of gaslighting is a form of lie, but not all lies are examples of gaslighting. In almost every conceivable instance when talking about the Trump administration, “lie” is the proper word to describe its pathetically golf ball–brained dishonesty.
Most importantly, unlike “lie,” “gaslight” is a word the vast majority of the American population wouldn’t be able to define when confronted with it in, say, a headline. And when journalists choose to use a less-direct, far less understood word in place of a clear one that requires no further explanation—whether it’s because they want to sound smarter or less confrontational or whatever—they’re failing to do their jobs. Particularly when talking about matters of enormous national importance, the President and his cronies deserve to be called liars for all to hear, because when reporters use a word they’re then forced to define for the general public, the truth becomes open to manipulation.
This is something that should have become clear during the 2016 election, when the phrase “fake news” meant “untrue articles on Facebook” for all of five seconds before Trump popularized it as an insult used to discredit any critical coverage of him. By using a previously undefined term like “fake news” instead of going with the much simpler and more understood “hoax,” well-meaning people left the conversation around the problem vulnerable, as the person with the loudest voice got to decide what it meant.
Ironically, it was the Post’s Margaret Sullivan who was among the first to see this, writing in January 2017, “the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”
As a solution, Sullivan proposed the following: “Call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name.” I couldn’t agree more. Whether it’s “bad faith” or “canceling” or “doxxing” or “gaslighting,” conservative con men have been ready to pounce on newly viral words that they can define for their own ends before they reach the general public’s ears. And though there is a time and a place where all these words can and should be deployed, when reporting the news, all they do is further obscure the truth.