It's Hard Out Here: The Gaslighting Revenge

Gaslight 3

In yesterday’s post, there was a lot I wanted to address but didn’t have the room to – I was already hitting 1200 words on my discussion of dismissiveness, and figured I was already pushing your attention span as readers. There’s a secondary, though just as important, problem with Shaffer’s post, that I addressed in part with a short footnote yesterday - that emotions themselves are not what causes self-doubt. Today, I’d like to expand more on that idea. In the meaty section of the post that I quoted yesterday, Shaffer writes that “women tend to be more emotionally expressive and develop empathy better than men.” He excuses the sexist stereotype as “a reality that does have exceptions.”

Which is horsehockey if I ever heard it – “I’m sorry I’m being sexist but it is how it is!” is not a helpful or useful statement. The studies he cites actually say the exact opposite of the point he’s trying to make. One outright states that there was no conclusive, consistent difference between men and women when it comes to emotion, and the other is a study on physical expression of emotion – inapplicable when it comes to text communication, and has complex social conditioning explanations.

But that’s not what I’d like to concentrate on here. There are all sorts of arguments about why women are read as more expressive of emotions and why the science on these issues is itself biased (remember, science does not operate in a cultural vacuum – we used to have “science” saying that black people were less intelligent than white people). What I’d like to concentrate on here is Shaffer’s misunderstanding of emotion and the positioning of himself and other men as the rational ones in the discussion.

Not only does Shaffer’s argument about emotion erase and dismiss very real concerns as “emotional reactions," but it also misattributes the reasons that women doubt themselves. Shaffer writes:

Emotions are an incredible strength that society usually touts as a weakness. Yet well-harnessed emotions are what nurtures humanity to be more civilized. At the same time, emotions can sometimes be an Achille’s heel [sic] for the feeler causing self-doubt, depression, or unnecessary frustration at what sometimes are mere assumptions.

This last sentence is the problem with Shaffer’s entire thesis. Emotions themselves are not the Achilles’ Heel for women. It is the lack of recognition that our emotions are legitimate that is the problem. And Shaffer buys right into the idea that our reactions and our anger over lack of representation is somehow less legitimate because it is read as emotional. That is what causes self-doubt, not the emotion itself.

Shaffer is – likely unknowingly – engaging in gaslighting. By characterizing all female reactions to what he did as emotional outbursts from women, and then saying that emotions themselves can cause unnecessary frustrations and doubt, he is causing women who did react emotionally (or even in a way that was perceived as emotional) to question themselves. It is the small voice saying, “What you feel is illegitimate and out of place.” This gaslighting is taken further in the conclusion of his piece, when he urges women to examine why they are concerned about being on this list, and warns us against ambition and pride.

Ambition and out of control pride are gender-neutral sins. Why not have that admonition addressed to both men and women, as surely both are susceptible? Why characterize emotional reactions to the lack of diversity on this list as solely the domain of women, and then urge them to take actions that would silence them? Why assume that women are upset because they are taking "too much pride" in their work when men who top the list may be committing the exact same sin?**

This is the still small voice whispering, “You’re crazy for even thinking you could be as good as men. You’re prideful if you think you’re good at what you do (men aren't, of course!). You not worthy, you’re not legitimate. Quiet, quiet, you don’t really feel the way you think you do.”

I’m not surprised to see this reaction from a man in the church. It’s so common that, for those of us educating ourselves on feminist interactions, it is immediately identifiable as gaslighting.

That “women are more emotional and emotion gets in the way of reason” reaction was enough. But then he had to go and clarify:

UPDATE FOR CLARIFICATION: While I mention “the most emotionally heartfelt responses” coming from women, I am not saying that all women responded this way. The majority do not. Plenty of men debate the weaknesses of the blogs list, but with the exception of 1 or 2 unnamed male bloggers, they’ve left their emotions out of the discussion. There have, however, been a very high number of Christian women bloggers that have responded emotionally (a description used by other women), so this post is meant to acknowledge some of the more intense feelings expressed and encourage them to not be negatively affected by the list. It is meant out of love, and I apologize for those it has offended. We are not trying to exclude women, and since starting the list, have spent over 100 hours trying to find blogs written by women, non-whites, and non-Americans that fit the topical scope and have high enough traffic to make the rankings. [emphasis mine]

When I read this update, I whispered to myself, “Oh Kent, just stop talking.” I don’t say this as a means of silencing, but as an “Oh, you’re embarrassing yourself.”

For one, “I’m sorry this wasn’t read as I intended” isn’t an apology. It’s just not. It’s “I’m sorry you took what I said the wrong way.” That’s not apologizing for actual hurt, but putting the onus for pain right back onto the hurting (another form of gaslighting – “I’m sorry you didn’t get it.”).

For two, why point out that men (supposedly) didn’t have emotional reactions? Isn’t it possible that you didn’t read their reactions as emotional because society has conditioned you to see what a woman says in an argument as emotionally fraught? Isn’t it possible that your conditioning caused you to perceive arguments from men as rational and balanced because you’ve been taught that men (especially white men) are the neutral party in any discussion? Why point out that women were reacting emotionally without providing examples of said emotion?

Why use an expression of emotion as an excuse to ignore a person's argument and reasoning?

His clarification only leaves me with more questions than answers – in other words, it only digs his argument deeper into his gaslighting approach, instead of actually clarifying any point of reason.

Saying a woman’s argument is emotional and therefore irrational is dismissive, especially in an online forum where no tone of voice is heard. It ignores one’s own prejudices and biases and presumes that one’s reading of another tone is always the objectively correct reading. Doubling down on the emotions argument by linking to studies and clarifying that “men didn’t react this way!” only serves to reinforce the dismissive nature of one’s entire argument.

Gaslighting isn’t pretty on anyone, but it’s especially ugly when it’s used to dismiss your sisters in Christ.

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*The movie that "gaslighting" comes from, by the way, is really good. I recommend it - it's a 1944 Ingrid Bergman work.

**Nevermind that it's arguable that having ambition and taking pride in your work probably are assets to women, especially within the church, and characterizing them as  gendered sin only serves to convince women that their voices aren't worth hearing.