Tactics of Manipulative Communication
examined with real examples
Definition (per Vox)
Gaslighting refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. The term originated from a 1938 play titled Gas Light, where a husband manipulates his wife into rejecting her own perceptions of reality in order to commit her to a mental institution.
After turning down a request for unpaid work for a for-profit company, explaining I was only taking paid opportunities right now, I received an email from the founder:
“That is unfortunate. It’s not really a question of budget, but more a question of aligning everybody’s interest towards a common goal. This is more of a communication / education tool...Think about it as a co-branding.”
This classic gaslighting move denies the real point of conflict (money), redirects the topic (often to a discussion of character traits or morals) and pressures the receiver into a new, “correct” way of perceiving the situation. Often, this sort of communication attempts to manipulate the receiver into feelings of guilt and doubt over their choices.
Gaslighting is a favorite method for those who feel some degree of powerlessness (and corresponding resentment) to reassert control over a situation or interaction. Especially in instances where marginalized individuals renounce prevailing societal norms (e.g. women calling out unequal treatment at work), gaslighters strive to restore a hierarchy where their point of view reigns supreme and, therefore, are objectively correct.
Definition (per Merriam Webster)
Undermine is to subvert or weaken insidiously or secretly; to weaken or ruin by degrees.
After writing a post about cultural appropriation in food, I received many comments & messages such as:
“What line experience do you have?”
“Clearly you haven’t been in the industry that long if you’re still getting worked up over stuff like this.”
“Since your most notable culinary achievement is beating Bobby Flay…”
Silencing dissent by undermining credibility is built on the idea that the “right” to critique people or systems in power must be “gained” through subjective measures determined by the attacker. This is particularly problematic when structural inequities prevent access by marginalized groups, and that is used to deny critique (e.g. “only C-suite execs should comment on this”).
Examining credibility is and should be an important step before believing someone or something (e.g. the flawed study linking vaccines with autism). However, in cases of manipulative conversations, this tactic often correlates unrelated factors (e.g. professional success, age) with levels of “claim” to review, assess, and comment on situations that affect the receiver themself.
Note: Take a look at David Hogg’s Twitter for a a real-time demonstration of this.
Dismissing the Issue & Whataboutism
Definition (per Merriam Webster)
To dismiss is to reject serious consideration of
Whataboutism is not merely the changing of a subject...it’s a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious
On the same appropriation post, I received comments like:
“There are 1000’s who have lost everything and this is what we are screaming about? We should [come] together to heal...before we start finger pointing about an issue that no one gave two sh*ts about 6 months ago.”
“Way to waste all our time and detract from social movements we should be focusing on like BLM.”
Positioning the initial issue (appropriation) in competition with, or mutually exclusive to, the redirected issue (restaurants failing, BLM) is fundamentally untrue. In this example, not only are these problems related, they reinforce one another. In other cases, they may be unrelated but their dual existence does not cancel out the necessity of addressing both problems.
This tactic is often used by those suddenly exposed to (or forced to reckon with) a new problem. As a way to absolve themselves of responsibility for not knowing sooner, they point to a problem they are aware of or impacted by. Diminishing the importance of the initial issue helps to justify inaction, and framing the exposure negatively (e.g. “screaming”, “waste of time”) purports the recipient and their actions to be the “real” problem.
Moral Attacking & Victim Playing
Deny the behavior, attack the recipient, reverse victim & offender by playing the “victim card”. This acronym was coined by Professor Jennifer J. Freyd in 1997.
After pointing out problematic behavior from someone being promoted by a large platform, that platform’s representative messaged me:
“We’re not always perfect, and sometimes ugly things happen...Instead of [you] using compassion...you bitterly shut people down using condescending language…[The platform] and I personally do so much more than others to make the industry a better place but there is no recognition of any of that.”
DARVO is particularly effective because it accuses the recipient of being both incorrect and a “bad person”. Denying or excusing the initial harm creates the cognitive dissonance necessary to lambast some other aspect of the critique as so hurtful, it eclipses the initial problem and shifts the focus to how the attacker feels.
By prompting the (natural) visceral response to moral judgment, the attacker aligns the moral “righteousness” of the recipient with the feelings of the attacker (e.g. “if you were a good person you wouldn’t make me feel so bad”). This not only gives the attacker power and control over the situation, it serves to undermine the recipient’s credibility (e.g. “you’re a bad person so your critique is not valid”).
Note: @Rachel.Cargle has posted a lot about this, and I recommend reading her posts for additional examples.
Why Do We Engage in Manipulative Communication?
From my conversations, my main 3 takeaways are:
1. Many people, myself included, reach for manipulative forms of communication when there are underlying feelings of pain, fear, and shame. I believe this is because we are not taught productive ways of managing these feelings, as much of our society is predicated on ignoring, diminishing & demonizing any emotions viewed as antithetical to the American notion of “strength”.
2. Much of manipulative communication is based on the transference of responsibility — that the recipient “should” carry the weight of the attacker’s feelings & personal situation. Unfortunately, dissecting & stopping this often requires the recipient to take on undue labor of educating the attacker (not their responsibility), which makes the interactions extra exhausting & harmful.
3. The fervor & consistency of receiving manipulative communication is absolutely correlated with the stereotypes & expectations associated with the recipient’s intersectional identities. (Relatedly, the ardent dismissal of those identities being a factor is VERY telling.)
Why are these reactions so common? I believe it ties into larger societal factors such as our sense of scarcity, where the gains of one is positioned at the expense of another; and tendency towards moral binaries that diminish situational nuance & individual complexity. This feeds into group polarization, so it feels impossible to have a conversation with opposing viewpoints without utilizing manipulative tactics.
While the point of this post is to identify & examine harmful behavior, I want to say it’s important to also hold space for change & growth. I know I can be simultaneously guilty of exhibiting problematic behavior while being on the receiving end of a lot of vitriol, as an Asian woman in an industry heavily reliant on machismo and anti-intellectualism. Rejecting manipulative behavior also requires us to hold ourselves accountable for continually analyzing how (and why) we interact with others, so we are not also lured into enacting harm.
Note: There are many faces of each of these manipulative behaviors, and they present differently across different relationships, such as between spouses, friends, family, or at work. This post specifically addresses them in terms of online communication.
*Some people are just simply vindictive, hateful, or perhaps a sociopath. I like to believe they are the anomaly.