Anti-Choicers Are Gaslighting The Media and The Public

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, April 17, 2013 9:47 EDT
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The most fascinating aspect of the coordinated right wing campaign to try to score points against women’s rights over the Kermit Gosnell trial is how every single aspect to the campaign is shockingly, disturbingly, mind-bendingly dishonest. Indeed, one of my Twitter followers likened it to gaslighting, which is a kind of emotional abuse where the abuser deliberately denies reality and tells blatant lies for the purpose of disorienting the victim. In order to work, gaslighting often requires a cascade of lies and distortions aimed at the victim with a firehose, so that he/she struggles to even remember what’s reality anymore. That is what the right is doing here: Spraying everyone down with the Lying Firehose in hopes of disorienting everyone so they forget basic truths, the main ones being that pro-choicers are the real defenders of women’s health and that anti-choice policies led to Gosnell, not pro-choice ones. They hope that by filling the dialogue with lies and nonsense, the real lessons of Gosnell will be completely lost.

No big surprise that right wingers are excellent at deploying a psychological technique that is commonly associated with abusive relationships.

The links above detail the two main forms of gaslighting going on here: False accusations of “hiding” something and distorting the way that conservative policies created a situation where Gosnell flourished. One of the things that are making the campaign of lying so frustrating is that many of the lies are bundled within other lies. They know that the most egregious lie they’re telling is so egregious that they can’t say it outright without opening themselves up to slander and libel accusations and possibly even lawsuits (basically, the insinuation that pro-choicers supported Gosnell—so easy to disprove that they won’t say it outright, but will insinuate it heavily), so instead they tell a more diffuse lie—that pro-choicers “ignored” the Gosnell story—with the hope that what they’re insinuating will be filled in by the audience. Accusing someone of hiding something is kind of a brilliant form of lying, because it allows the audience to figure out what you’re accusing them of hiding—also a lie—without coming out and saying it. It’s also a strategy that depends on timing. I explained at Sulia how this works:

 Wait until a natural lull in the coverage of a story that’s caused by journalists waiting for new facts or new developments. Treat this lull as “evidence” of a “cover-up”. That way they can insinuate that there’s something seedy going on without coming right out and saying so. It’s an utterly sleazy strategy, and they’ve been testing it out on feminists.

I’ve been targeted by this form of gaslighting before, when conservatives accused me of “ignoring” stories that I was actually covering in depth. Then, the strategy was to level the accusation of “ignoring” before the target could be reasonably expected to have issued a response—in this case, demanding a thorough, thoughtful response of the sort that takes hours of research and writing within minutes, or even seconds, of the news being released—in hopes of distorting the eventual reception of the response they know is actually coming. Now that the excuse for the abusive treatment has been created, the next step is to browbeat relentlessly. Again, survivors of domestic abuse situations probably recognize the pattern: Make impossible demands of the victim and use her inability to meet them as an excuse to abuse her.

That is going on with the Gosnell freakout. It wasn’t reasonable to expect there to be a lot of coverage of this story at this time. Journalism, as the attackers know, is an industry that runs on newness. There’s no real developments in Gosnell case. The facts being presented at trial were in the grand jury report. Anti-choicers knew that feminist journalists and most of the mainstream media would cover the verdict, likely in-depth, because we covered the arrest and that’s the next stage in the story where new information would come out. In other words, it’s very much like yelling at a person for not being home at 5:05 when you know that they don’t leave work until 5:00 and it’s a 30 minute commute home. Antis are dismissing the coverage of the past when the story broke, claiming it doesn’t count, and trying to pre-empt the coverage they know that’s coming with the verdict by fussing right now. It’s like screaming at the weatherman for not doing stories on blizzards even though it’s fall. That’s a form of gaslighting, and it’s sleazy, dishonest behavior.

Another strategy of gaslighters is to misrepresent their position in order to disorient the victim. In a domestic abuse situation, the way they do this is to pretend to “forget” something they and the victim know they know, or to position themselves as having authority that, if you step back, they don’t actually have. The way that antis are doing this is chilling: They’re having people present themselves as “pro-choice” and then tut-tutting about what pro-choicers are supposedly hiding. Indeed, the person they tapped to kick off this campaign of concern trolling was Kirsten Powers, who has made a career out of holding herself out to be a feminist and a Democrat while making kooky right winger arguments. Irin Carmon wrote about it this morning:

I am reliably informed that Kirsten Powers, who amplified the call for more coverage of the trial in USA Today and celebrates herself for it again today, calls herself a Democrat. It wouldn’t be the first time a self-identified Democrat has used the health and lives of women with the fewest resources as a cudgel to score political points. Powers herself only seems to have become opportunistically interested in the women driven to desperate measures when they could be used as a stick to beat “the left” or the “liberal media.” Indeed, her ignorance of the topic is manifest when she says, “There is a reason the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this procedure infanticide,” to refer to Gosnell’s actions or later abortion (it isn’t really clear), when Moynihan was actually referring to the now-banned dilation and extraction procedure.

In her follow-up, Powers says that when she claimed a media blackout, she wasn’t talking about “activist media” but then reverses herself halfway through to claim there is a “near silence from the feminist organizations that lecture us endlessly about how they stand for women’s health.” Powers might not have been able to turn up coverage from the League of Women Voters (?) but the activists, providers and journalists writing on the case at RH Reality Check, now and since 2011, might be a good place for her to start, among many.

Kirsten Powers may claim to be a “Democrat” or a “feminist”, but her track record demonstrates that her entire career has been to regurgitate right wing anti-feminist talking points. In other words, she’s a right winger who misrepresents her position in order to lay claim to authority she doesn’t have. This is much like the gaslighter who hides his victim’s keys so that she has to go looking for them, and when she can’t find them, he produces them while saying, “See, I told you that you have a bad memory! And mine is so good I remember where you put your keys.” It’s to create a fake authority to be used next time he lies about the past—he’s the one with the “good” memory and you have the “bad” memory, so he gets to claim to have superior access to the objective reading of the past than his victim. Powers, by claiming the mantle of a Democrat and a feminist when she really is a right wing operative, is playing a similar game.

Fake pro-choicers are all over this campaign. Glenn Reynolds and Megan McArdle are claiming to be supporters of legal abortion, but have enthusiastically joined a campaign of telling lies about pro-choice reactions to Gosnell that is strictly aimed at distorting the political conversation to sneak bans on abortion through. I have a word for people who actively work on behalf of the anti-choice movement, and it’s not “pro-choice”. Reynolds and McArdle do this all the time, hold themselves out as socially liberal but work pretty much solely to support social conservatives while upholding the sexist claims of social conservatives. Scott Lemieux had some examples:

[Reynolds] cares about the Gosnell case because his interest in the abortion begins and ends with the issue allowing him to express some kind of MRA-style resentment and/or engage in idiotic criticisms of liberals for being actually rather than nominally pro-choice. Hence his need to lie by omission about whether pro-choicers have paid attention to the Gosnell case…..

One rather obvious problem with McArdle’s assertion is that attacks on her alleged “side” constitute, as far as I can tell, the only occasions when she shows any interest in abortion rights at all. She’s apologized for Operation Rescue while poo-poohing anti-abortion terrorismshe opposes Roe v. Wade, and she not only (being a principled libertarian and all) supports mandatory vaginal ultrasounds but believes in all arbitrary impediments to abortion as positive ends in themselves.

At a certain point, we have to judge people by their actions and not their dishonest self-labels. What the gaslighter wants you to do is be enthralled by their lies, instead of devoted to the truth. We cannot allow this.

So what to do? Minimize exposure, to begin with. There’s nothing to be gained by arguing directly with people who are lying. I’ve instituted a rule on my Twitter account: If you lie to me, I will block you, no questions asked. People who lie do not deserve honest engagement. Just as the only way to deal with a gaslighter is to end the relationship, the only way to deal with a lying wingnut is to treat liars as beneath the attentions of decent, honest people. I’m not saying to ignore them—they have to be exposed!—but direct engagement is what they want, because that wastes your time and makes it easier for their lies to spread.

Instead, turn your attention outwards towards people who, because they aren’t well-educated on this subject, might be suspectible to having their perceptions of reality distorted by the firehose of lies. I highly recommend reading The Debunking Handbook. It was compiled by climate scientists looking to fight lies about global warming, and they use scientific research into the psychology of persuasion. Lots of good stuff, particularly on the importance of focusing more on truth than merely debunking lies. It’s a free PDF download.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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