“Gaslighting” feels like one of those trendy words that becomes au courant for a couple of years and then devolves into a punch line. (“How many men’s rights activists does it take to change a lightbulb?” one online meme asks. “None, they still use gaslighting.”) But the term’s growing popularity hints at a deeper change in political language, not just in the words we use, but in how we use them, in the goals we are trying to accomplish when we speak.
Disagreements over political issues used to hinge mostly on factual questions. (At least that was the ideal to which both sides claimed to aspire.) Does a higher minimum wage help or hurt the poor? Will tax cuts boost inequality or lift all boats? Good-faith advocates for either side would marshal their evidence and make their cases. To be sure, some debates got nasty. But, underneath the vitriol, people generally accepted that winning the argument required having a more persuasive set of facts.
There is another style of argument, one that doesn’t trouble itself with pesky facts at all. British writer C.S. Lewis dubbed this style “Bulverism,” after a fictional character he called Ezekiel Bulver. He imagined Bulver as a child overhearing his mother dismiss a point made by his father with the words, “Oh you say that because you are a man.” At that point, Bulver later recalls, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of your argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.”
Lewis conceived Bulver as a stand-in for the Freudians and Marxists of his day who dismissed their opponents’ positions by attributing them to deep-seated—even unconscious—biases. If you disagreed with a Freudian, you were “projecting” or “in denial.” Question the inevitability of socialism and you were just a victim of “false consciousness” showing how deeply you’d been brainwashed by capitalism.
If we were to drop Ezekiel Bulver into a modern-day Twitter debate, he would feel right at home. Bulverism is now the norm. Political debates have become like sumo wrestling: The goal is to knock your adversary out of the ring. Why argue with your opponents when you can muscle them clean out of the conversation? So partisans begin every argument by attacking the other side’s character and motives. According to Trump loyalists, anyone with a smidgeon of international expertise is a morally suspect “globalist.” For those on the left, having the wrong skin tone or sexual leanings is enough to deny you a seat at the table. New York Times editorial-board member Sarah Jeong famously complained on Twitter about “Dumbass f—king white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” No need to listen to them, obviously, they’re no better than dogs.
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