I gather that this tradition of talking about movies started a number of years ago with Rev. Rob Oliphant. It’s an interesting challenge – take a movie that was made a year ago and relate it today’s context. This year, our movie “Gaslight” is from 1944. It was made at a time when an armed insurrection of the Capitol building in Washington, encouraged by the sitting president, would have been inconceivable. For most of us, Wednesday’s events seemed impossible right up until the moment they happened. So, what can this old film say about our current situation? Quite a lot, in fact. But to get there, let’s start with the movie itself.
“Gaslight” is the story of a husband’s cruel psychological manipulation of his young wife. The husband, played by the debonaire Charles Boyer, has married Paula, played by a young Ingrid Bergman. She is an orphan, raised by her aunt, a famous opera star. They lived in a grand house in London.
But when Paula was a teenager, she witnessed the murder of her aunt. The murderer was never found. Paula was whisked off to Italy, where she trains to become an opera singer. There, ShePaula falls in love with and marries a charming older man. He insists that they live in her Aunt’s home in London, despite her reluctance. Once in London, the husband sets out to undermine Paula’s self-confidence. He lies to her repeatedly about the reality of what is going on in their house. He plays tricks on her so that she thinks she is losing her mind. As her self-confidence shatters, he refuses to let her leave the house, claiming that she is too sick. In her isolation, she becomes utterly dependent on him. In the end, it is revealed that he is the man who killed her aunt. He has returned to the house to find some precious jewels he meant to steal the night he killed her. Paula is eventually rescued by an agent from Scotland Yard, who has figured out the ruse, and restores her confidence in her senses.
Ingrid Bergman’s performance earned her an Academy Award for best actress in 1945, the same year this church opened. But unlike most films of that era, this one has remained relevant.
Psychoanalysts adopted the term “gaslighting” to describe this particular form of psychological manipulation. It is most often seen in relationships where an abusive spouse wants to destroy his partner’s self-confidence so he can gain control over her. The goal is to render her powerless, devoted to him and his abuse. In recent years, this form of psychological abuse has been updated for our technological age. Many new homes are equipped with appliances that be controlled by one’s phone, even when a person is away from the house. Lights and furnaces can be turned on and off remotely. However, it also means that for abused women in a home, lights and sound systems can suddenly turn on, furnaces can be turned up to 100 degrees, doorbells can ring with no one there. This is called digital gaslighting, and has become an increasing problem, reported by abused women, law enforcement and women’s shelters.
The key to understanding gaslighting is that it is a form of deception that seeks to undermine its victim’s ability to reason, so they will become totally dependent on the abuser’s power and version of reality. In the film, Paula becomes utterly dependent on her husband.
It is this aspect of gaslighting which has given the term a new lease on life. Over the past few years, our entire society has been told that it cannot trust its collective sense of reality. Russian bots have flooded the Internet with falsehoods, salting our social media feeds with lies. If you are on Facebook, every week you may be receiving friend requests from people you have never heard of. These are often fake people, creations of bot farms. They hope to be your new friend so they can share false news and opinions, in the interests of undermining democracy. The lies do not have to be consistent one week to the next, they just have to make it hard to believe anyone else.
The best example of a modern gaslighter is the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. He has spent years undermining American trust in the press, decrying mainstream journalists as purveyors of fake news. If their news is fake, where is real news to be found? In the mind of the President, who spreads his own twisted view of reality every day from his Twitter feed, which was only deactivated on Wednesday. Trump’s daily lies drove the press mad, just like Paula was driven to the edge of insanity in the film. How could a President lie so brazenly, how could he even contradict himself, week after week, and deny he was lying?
Politicians have always lied. They lie about their intentions, about who they are negotiating with, even where they are going on vacation during a pandemic. Lying is nothing new. But gaslighting is a different, more destabilizing form of political deception. In the past, politicians sought to convince citizens of a worldview that was consistent. Conservatives embraced the idea that the market is the cure for society’s problems. People on the left embraced an ideology that society’s resources should be shared equally. These suites of ideas were known as ideologies, and they were internally consistent. Politicians invited us to share their worldview, and if they lied, it was usually within that system of ideas.
Gaslighting is different. It is all about getting complete power over the victim, and to do so, being inconsistent in your lies is part of what works to undermine their sense of reality. Trump contradicts himself all the time – he even lies about lying. Like a confused robot in an old science fiction film, the press has been left sputtering “Does not Compute, does not compute”. But this strategy has worked, as we saw on Wednesday. Trump’s most ardent followers no longer trust the press to provide factual information. Instead, they just listen to what Trump says, like an abused wife convinced that only her manipulative husband can help her. They have believed his false idea that he won by a landslide, and that the election was rigged.
On Wednesday, thousands of aggrieved men and women followed Trump’s instructions to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to disrupt the Senate and Congress as they sought to ratify Biden’s win. It was a deplorable act, for which Trump should be charged as an enemy of the state.
As the armed insurrectionists invaded the Capitol building, President elect Biden appeared on television. He sounded and acted like a President should. He condemned the violence, the assault on democracy. He asked President Trump to make a statement, to send his thug’s home. But he also made a statement which I find problematic.
He stated, “For nearly two and a half centuries, we, the people, in search of a more perfect union, have kept our eyes on that common good…. This is the United States of America. There’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever been a thing we’ve tried to do, that we’ve done it together, we’ve not been able to do it.” Biden argued that the real America has always acted in a unified way, as one nation, and that is what has allowed it to face its biggest challenges.
I am glad Biden spoke out on Wednesday, but I respectfully disagree with his idea that America is a united nation, and always has been. That simply flies in the face of the facts. America is a nation founded by Europeans who pushed Indigenous people off their land, with most now living on reserves in the arid western part of the country. America fuelled its economic growth through the enslavement of Africans, a system which lasted for hundreds of years. That system did not end when slavery was declared illegal. In 1876, a presidential election was contested, with charges of irregularity in the electoral college votes. Very much like this week. The crisis ended when white male politicians in the South agreed to let their legally elected President lose, in return for the federal government removing its troops from the South. That act, where a legal election was overturned, allowed whites to reinstate their oppression of Black people in the South, ushering in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation that lasted until the 1960s. And, as this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests demonstrated, racism lives on within police departments and society all over the United States and in Canada.
America has never really been a United States of America, because in practice, one group, white straight men, have been in charge, at the expense of everyone else who differed from them. White Supremacy is not a fringe belief but has been the mainstream operating system for American society since the beginning.
Wednesday’s insurrection was launched by people who believe that straight white men are losing control over the country, and they want to get their power back. They want to make America Great again, which means, that white men should be in charge of it all.
The insurrectionists who invaded the Capitol building on Wednesday carried confederate flags, symbols of the South’s slavery era. The insurrectionists hung nooses on the scaffolds outside the buildings, a symbol of lynching’s. Their message was not just about race, but the rights of straight men being in charge. Hours before they invaded the Capitol building, the President’s son made a speech to the insurrectionists when he denounced trans women. Once inside, the insurrectionists made a point of going into the Nancy Pelosi’s office, where they left a note on her desk that read “We Will Not Back Down.” It is A clear warning to the woman who dares to oppose Trump and what he stands for.
Biden is wrong – America has not been united, and Trump’s followers know it. The difference is that Biden represents people who say they want to put white male supremacy in the past, while Trump’s followers want to restore its full power. This battle is being waged at the level of governments, and in the press. But that’s not where the battle will be won. Since the 1960s, laws have been passed outlawing racial and sexual discrimination, but prejudice persists. The beliefs that fuel racism, sexism and homophobia persist even when they are illegal in their application. In the presidential election, 46 percent of the vote went to Trump. One quarter of all Congress members voted on Wednesday to disallow the election. Clearly, civil rights laws alone do not change minds.
The values we hold dear, the ones we act on, they are learnt in our homes, around our kitchen tables. At bars among friends shooting the breeze, and among plain folks at church gatherings. The root of this problem isn’t in the Senate, the White House, Parliament or Queen’s Park. Politicians who succeed in encouraging hatred and fear are fanning embers that already exist. If we are to defeat the forces that led to Wednesday’s insurrection, it will be at the level of society which laws can’t reach. It is among our friends and family, that’s where beliefs take hold and are passed down.
So, what can we as a church do? We can follow the advice contained in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He advises his fellow Christians not to hate their enemies, but to pray for them. Generating hate within our hearts is part of the problem. It matters a lot how we feel. And that’s hard work. Hatred is way easier than being understanding. He also encourages his friends to associate with everyone, not just their own in-group. Christians are not meant to be a secret society. We can and should talk with anyone. But to Paul it is clear that Christians have their own agenda for what they should do in the world. It is not our job to always be on the defensive, reacting to whatever the forces of evil are doing. Our mandate, our mission statement if you will, is to be loving with each other and everyone else, even those we do not agree with. Our job is to spread a message of love and work for a better, more just world, even when others would rather go backwards.
Here at Lawrence Park, we have been trying to do that in our own way. We have been helping people in the Roehampton Shelter, even when that shelter’s existence has been very unpopular. We have been helping to feed street Youth at who have found shelter at Eva’s Place. And we have been working to make our church officially affirming. Many have wondered why we even need this rubber stamp; haven’t we always been welcoming to all who come in through our doors? In one sense, yes, we have. We are friendly, and we would love our church to grow and have new members from any background. However, being affirming is more than that.
Imagine going to a dinner party in a country whose customs are very different from our own. They eat food you don’t recognize, use forks and knives differently, serve the courses in a different order. The hosts are warm and welcoming. But you are bewildered. They notice and ask you why. You explain how we eat here in Canada. They crinkle their brow, express surprise, even some disdain. This is all news to them. But they are still welcoming. They serve you dinner, and help you use the utensils their way. They even invite you back for dinner again. But after a few visits, you get tired of having to explain yourself and your ways. You get tired of their attitude that they have their way, and yours is just odd, even wrong. So, you stop going. They are nice, but it is just too much work.
We don’t want to be the people who act with surprise at someone else’s lifestyle or identity. The way to avoid that is to take some time to get to know more about the lives of people who are different from you, in terms of sexuality, gender, race, culture, ability. And that’s what the Affirm Committee is trying to do in 2021. They will be hosting discussion nights about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of identity which may be very different from your own. These nights will use movies and books to explore multiple ways of living and being. This is a chance to learn about the lives of others and to realize that some of our spontaneous reactions may be the result of ideas that have been implanted in us by the culture of white supremacy. We may find that we, too, have been gaslighted by our culture, trusting our own ways and we are suspicious of the truths of other people. It is time to break that dependency, and the best way to do that is end our isolation. It worked for Paula in the movie, and it can work for us, too.
If we are to avoid the chaos which erupted this week in the United States, regular people like us need to do the work to understand all the varieties of people God has created, and to love them as we love each other. As Paul says, “Avoid thinking you are better than others or wiser than the rest; instead, embrace common people.” Let us be the ones who embrace understanding and end our isolation. In doing so, we will be rewarded with a richer sense of what it means to be human, to be amazed at the wonderful diversity God has created in humanity.
BBC. “A Cultural History of Gaslighting” https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20191122-cultural-history-of-gaslighting-in-film  Nellie Bowles, “Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse” New York Times, June 23, 2018  Lauren Duca , “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” Teen Vogue, December 10th, 2016,  https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2019-11-29/california-arizona-oklahoma-where-most-native-americans-live  “You Think This Is Chaos? The Election of 1876 Was Worse,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/us/politics/trump-electoral-college.html