Updated January 28, 2022
This is NOT about agreeing with anyone’s political agenda. This is about the dynamics of power, silence and gaslighting, a technique abusers use to manipulate and control.
What Is Personal and Political Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a highly effective psychological technique that abusers use to maintain power and control in a relationship. Gaslighters use lies, diversion and love bombing, to groom the target to question his or her perception of reality. This happens gradually. The target starts to question his or her perceptions of reality and slowly cedes personal power, and hands control over to the abuser (Gordon, 2021).
Gaslighting happens on personal and political levels.
On a personal level, gaslighting has been defined as a psychological technique of the abuser. Sexual assault perpetrators use gaslighting so they do not get caught. They want to maintain power and control. Abusers want their victims to feel disempowered so they don’t speak out. Decades of research data show that being in a less powerful position in relationship and in society is why sexual assault survivors do not report (Ullman, 2010).
Political gaslighting is a lesser known phenomena. Political gaslighting has gained definition and recognition in the past twenty years. While the definition of political gaslighting is fluid, this concept has been incorporated into the legal arena as part of the larger definition of propaganda (Sinha, 2020; Welch, 2020).
Political gaslighting has been identified by psychologists and legal scholars as a subset of propaganda. Political gaslighting is a predatory blend of modern communication, marketing, and advertising techniques with propaganda. Political gaslighting serves to destabilize the psychological infrastructure of society by distorting reality and thus, exert control over large groups of people (Sinha, 2020; Welch, 2020).
Wielding Power and Reverse Gaslighting Techniques
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses both personal and political gaslighting in her testimony about the Capitol Insurrection of January 6, 2021. She wields her power in the personal and professional realms. She models self-care and self-respect.
As Ms. Ocasio-Cortez begins her account of the Capitol Riot, she reveals she is a sexual assault survivor. She goes on to say that she reveals this information because there are similarities between the power dynamics and trauma of the past sexual assault and the power dynamics and trauma of the January 6, 2010 violent assault.
She points out that the perpetrators/enablers of both events attempt to distort reality by gaslighting.
The sexual assault was supposed to be shameful for the victim, thus she kept quiet about it for years.
The enablers of the Capitol Riot came out and said the event was not traumatic and that it was no big deal. But this time she says, “Not again”, and speaks out.
Reverse Gaslighting for Positive Transformation
Reverse gaslighting is when an abuse survivor processes the deception and then owns her (or his) own reality and truth. This psychological process invalidates the lies of those who control by distorting reality. And it is a validation of personal power: relationally, professionally and in society.
Reverse gaslighting is saying “NO” to the gaslighters and “YES” to yourself.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez recognizes the tactics that abusers use and says, “I’m not gonna let this happen to me again. Not again. I am speaking out.”
Reverse gaslighting is saying out loud: You are lying. That’s not what happened. I know my truth and I know what happened.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez models empowerment and positive transformation by wielding her personal and positional power. She says “No” to the lies and distortions and yes to her own power.
Gathering community for positive support
Gathering community and connecting with a positive support network is empowering and strengthening. Developing a support system that shares and validates your experiences helps create a safe place to heal.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is skillful at gathering community together. She empathizes with trauma survivors and joins with others in that shared space. She is in solidarity with the large community of people who were traumatized at the Capitol Riot that day. People who may develop PTSD from the violence: those who lost eyes, fingers, who hid under tables with the lights out, the families of those who died.
She names, identifies and calls out the extraordinary gaslighting about the Capitol Riot by some elected members of Congress. She says these people saying that we should all move on and it’s no big deal. But she will not have her experience invalidated.
Shifting power in society
Why is the point about power important? Because in the research literature, power, assault and silence are inextricably linked.
Decades of research show that the existing power structure thrives on the powerless being quiet. The existing power classes, in order to perpetuate their dominance psychologically and in practice, want victims and survivors to be silenced in order to maintain their dominance (Blazer, 1992; Koss, 1985; McAuslan, 1998 as cited in Ahrens, 2006).
Dr. Courtney Ahrens has spent her professional life studying how societal power structures allow some voices to be heard and, thus, maintain the dominant cultural discourse, but disregard and silence other voices.
Dr. Ahrens says that “Silence is thus emblematic of powerlessness in our society.”
Women have been slowly gaining access to financial and political power. With the right to vote, to own property, to earn money and build wealth, women have been gaining power in society.
In 2021, a record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives, where Ms. Ocasio-Cortez works. Women make up 51% of the population in the United States. Yet, women still only make up 27.4% of elected representatives in the House.
Women are gaining political power and there is a power shift happening in U.S. society. Assault survivors are coming forward to speak out. The #MeToo movement is indicative of the power owns now have.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez uses her positional power to reveal her status as a sexual assault survivor, without shame.
As women gain political power, survivors of personal and political gaslighting are speaking out.
It is a positive sign that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez uses her position to reveal the abusive gaslighting that is taking place about the Capitol Riot.
AOC speaking out against personal and political gaslighting is a sign of the shift in power in society. No wonder the existing power class is fighting it.
Some other articles you may be interested in:
Ahrens, C. (2006). Being silenced: The impact of negative social reactions on the disclosure of rape. American Journal of Community Psychology (38), pp. 263-274.
Arabi, S. (2016). Becoming the narcissist’s worst nightmare: How to devalue and discard the narcissist while supplying yourself. SCW Archer Publishing.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors. London and New York: Routledge.
Gordon, S. (2021). What is gaslighting? Retrieved March 1, 2021 from https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470
National Domestic Violence Hotline (2020). What is gaslighting? Retrieved February 28, 2021 from https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/
Sinha, G.A. (2020). Lies, gaslighting and propaganda. Buffalo Law Review, (68,4). Retrieved February 28, 2021 from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3550591##
Ullman, S. E. (2010). Talking about sexual assault: Society’s response to survivors. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Welch, B. (2018). State of confusion: Political manipulation and the assault on the American mind. New York: Thomas Dune Books