The term ‘Gaslight’ describes a set of behaviours and actions that use emotional and psychological manipulation to cause a victim to question their perceptions, experiences and knowledge of the world. Paul Podosky defines intentional gaslighting as having three conditions: when “(i) a speaker uses words with (ii) the intention that hearers come to form (iii) negative attitudes towards their own interpretive abilities.”He adds a possible fourth element: (iv) “the intention to cause doubt is unwarranted”. While Cynthia Stark breaks it down further by adding that manipulative gaslighting is intentionally designed to induce testimonial harm.
Gaslighting can result in either or both two forms of epistemic injustice:
1. Testimonial injustice, where a person’s affiliation with a group or identity can result in a credibility deficit, with their testimony being ignored or dismissed; and
2. Hermeneutical injustice capitalises on an individual’s (or group’s) limitation of language to describe a wrong, which results in restrictions on a person’s capacity as a knower.
This essay will argue that although gaslighting operates within a private sphere, it nonetheless operates within a sociolinguistic realm to create a knowledge deficiency which gives rise to epistemic injustice.
Understanding the layers of Gaslighting
Podosky provides us with two forms of gaslighting; First-order gaslighting which can be intentional or unintentional, and second-order gaslighting which is wholly intentional. For this essay, we will focus on second-order gaslighting, which is the more violent form of the two and arises when a gaslighter challenges the accuracy of a concept that causes the subject to doubt their interpretive abilities of reality. Second-order gaslighting is particularly harmful, as it involves three types of harm: (1) metalinguistic deprivation; (2) psychological and physical control and (3) conceptual obscuration.
For example, B, the gaslighter, tells his partner Zuri (“Z”) that not being immediately available to engage in sexual intercourse is an act of “selfishness” on her part. Z initially pushes back on this concept, but after prolonged exposure to B’s gaslighting, she comes to believe that she is inherently a ‘bad’ person who causes B to “suffer” sexual discomfort. B has manoeuvred Z into a position where she no longer feels she has the right to assert autonomy over her own body. In a normal context, where Z had not been subject to B’s gaslighting, she would call this sexual assault. However, in this context, Z allows B access to her body whenever he demands it and acts against her own interests.
First, Podosky provides that gaslighting can lead a person to doubt their previously held beliefs and current preconceptions, which results in an inhibition of the victim’s interpretation of events — this in turn, limits their capacity to communicate — that is, they’re denied the ability to wholly capitalise on their capacity as a knower. In Z’s case, she’s denied the ability to say “No” in events of sexual encounters. This limitation is known as metalinguistic deprivation.
Second, A common association with gaslighting is that it has often been likened to mind control. This form of psychological and practical control can be identified when a gaslighter influences a victim to act contrary to her interests, and the control is unfair and causes a person to suffer. Metalinguistic deprivation can bring about this form of control as it induces certain psychological states such as doubt, insecurity, confusion or anxiety which are then capitalised on by the gaslighter. Practical control is often the result of the long-term application of psychological control.
Third, conceptual obscuration occurs when a person accepts and adopts an inaccurate or preferred concept of the gaslighter in exchange for the extinguishment of her own. It diminishes the victim’s knowledge by obscuring her epistemic resources through metalinguistic deprivation. This creates an abhorrent form of epistemic injustice, resulting in the gaslighter controlling what the victim can know or rationally believe.
The cumulative effect of these elements of gaslighting results in Perspectival subversion, which impedes the victim’s ability to interpret situations independently or gain knowledge free of the gaslighter’s influence.
Gaslighting, in essence, is an amputation from knowledge itself.
Epistemic Injustice and the Importance of a Just Society
Epistemic is derived from the ancient Greek term Etymology, which means knowledge. At its core, epistemic injustice is an injustice to a person’s capacity as a knower, which denies them the opportunity to have their truth heard, understood and believed. It manifests itself through testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. Where testimonial injustice targets a person’s credibility due to prejudices that arise from race, gender, disability or socio-economic status, hermeneutical injustice derives from linguistic gaps of knowledge that limit a person’s ability to share concepts that can adequately communicate the lived experiences of that individual or their part as a collective narrative of a marginalised group.
The implications of both testimonial and hermeneutical injustices result in broader societal implications that perpetuate systematic injustices. The compounding effect is that it limits members of marginalised groups from access to opportunities, resources and socio-economic power held by those who benefit from social inequities.
Addressing epistemic injustice is vital to the operation of a fair and inclusive society. In a just society, epistemic justice cultivates: (1) Recognition of the diversity of knowledge, which promotes the value and legitimacy of diverse ways of knowing and understanding the world, allowing a comprehensive and accurate representation of reality to provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of complex issues faced by society;(2) The dismantling of systemic marginalisation and oppression, for the purposes of challenging dominant narratives, and creating space within society that promotes social inclusion and empowerment for those who continue to experience affects of historical wrongs; (3)Democratic participation, to ensure that all persons have access to equal opportunity to participate in the decision-making process that informs their society; (4) Advancement of knowledge production, to enrich the exchange of knowledge through interdisciplinary collaboration to reach innovative solutions for the further development of society; and (5) Social Cohesion, to strengthen the positive coexistence of all people allowing all communities and individuals to be empathetically heard and understood.
Consider Zuri, who is a Black American woman. After leaving B, she reports the sexual assault she experienced in her relationship. Z decides to seek justice by reporting her assault to the police. For this example, we will say that Z is in America, where systemic racism manifests in the everyday lives of Black Americans. In speaking to the police, Z finds that the white male police officer undermines her credibility and trustworthiness as a victim of sexual assault because, due to deeply embedded colonial stereotypes, Black women are viewed through a hypersexualised lens in America. This hypersexualisation impairs Z’s access to justice, as her allegations are met with scepticism through all stages of the process. The questioning of her account is harsher and more traumatising than white survivors of sexual assault.
The cumulative effect is that Z faces systemic barriers to justice, which stem from racialised epistemic injustice. Consequently, her knowledge, credibility, and agency to tell her narrative, free of bias, are diminished, if not completely erased. The epistemic injustice she experiences is born out of racial and gendered biases, which are systemic biases that Z does not benefit from.
The gaslighter discredits and undermines the victim’s testimony by employing subversive tactics designed to create a psychological state that gives rise to self-induced testimonial injustice.
Gaslighting as a form of Epistemic Injustice
Gaslighting results in a subversive power dynamic that enables the gaslighter to gain psychological and practical control over a victim’s perception of reality and their sense of self. By experiencing metalinguistic deprivation; conceptual obscuration; and perspectival subversion, a person who is subject to gaslighting will experience the following: (1) destabilisation of the victim’s sense of reality — resulting in the manipulator’s ability to exert control over the victim’s thoughts, actions and decision-making processes; (2) exploitation of their emotional vulnerabilities; (3) invalidation of their lived experiences and interpretation of events; (4) unfair capitalisation of social dynamics; and (5) isolation from external support networks and hyper-dependency on the gaslighter.
This cumulation of harm ultimately results in a diminished sense of self and distorted perceptions of reality, reducing their aptitude to critically evaluate information and form independent judgements. Gaslighting, in essence, is an amputation from knowledge itself, as the victim can no longer engage in mutual and respectful knowledge-sharing. In this, epistemic justice is impossible to reach.
However, is gaslighting necessarily a form of epistemic injustice? Miranda Fricker characterises epistemic injustice as representational, meaning that knowledge is wholly reliant on the representation of the world. This aligns with a common theme in the philosophy of epistemic injustice, which demonstrates that epistemic injustice occurs when the cultural frameworks surrounding a victim provide the conditions to enable the inequity. In contrast, gaslighting is understood to operate within the personal dynamics of individuals rather than broader societal structures. The objective of gaslighting in person-to-person relationships is to undermine the victim’s agency rather than to pursue the enforcement of systemic oppression.
However, there is still room to argue that gaslighting aligns with testimonial and hermeneutical injustice characteristics that lead to epistemic injustice. Gaslighting demonstrates the attributes of testimonial injustice by creating self-doubt within the victim of their own credibility and reliability of their interpretative skills. Through this, the gaslighter discredits and undermines the victim’s testimony by employing subversive tactics designed to create a psychological state that gives rise to this self-induced testimonial injustice. So while the victim may not experience external invalidation from others outside of the gaslighting relationship, she nonetheless has been manipulated into a state of self-invalidation of their own testimonial reliability — thus giving rise to testimonial injustice.
In regards to hermeneutical injustice, where a victim experiences self-doubt and confusion, their ability to utilise interpretative tools and language to make sense of and communicate their experiences is significantly impacted — resulting in a loss of language and, subsequently, a loss of knowledge — thus, gaslighting gives rise to a hermeneutical injustice as it robs a victim of the linguistics ability to communicate their experiences effectively within a shared interpretative framework.
Alison Bailey, ‘On Gaslighting and Epistemic Injustice: Editor’s Introduction’ (2020) 35 Hypatia 667–673.
Cynthia A Stark, ‘Gaslighting, Misogyny and Psychological Oppression’ (2019) 102 The Monist 221–235.
‘Feminist Social Epistemology’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Online Encylopedia) < https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-social-epistemology/>.
Miranda Fricker, ‘Testimonial Injustice’ in Epistemic Injustice: Power and Ethics of Knowing (2007) 9–27.
Miranda Fricker, ‘Hermeneutical Injustice’ in Epistemic Injustice: Power and Ethics of Knowing (2007) 147–175.
Paige L. Sweet, ‘The Sociology of Gaslighting’ (2019) 84(5) American Sociological Review 851–875.
Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky, ‘Gaslighting, First- and Second-Order’ (2021) 36 Hypatia 207–227.
Rachel McKinnon, ‘Epistemic Injustice’ (2016) 11(8) Philosophy Compass 437–446.
Sanford Goldberg, ‘Social Epistemology and Epistemic Injustice’ (2017) in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, ed. Ian James Kidd et al. (Taylor & Francis, 2017).
Shannon Sullivan, ‘On the Harms of Epistemic Injustice: Pragmatism and Transactional Epistemology’ in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, ed. Ian James Kidd et al. (Taylor & Francis, 2017).