How listening changes everything: Mark Greene seeks a non-gender binary discussion of gas lighting.
Yashar Ali’s explosively popular article “Why Women Aren’t Crazy” is out there racking up Facebook shares in the tens of thousands. This tells me its resonating with a lot of women AND men. But, Ali’s article, although valid on some very real levels, tells a limited narrative in a limiting way.
Ali’s central thesis is that men consistently seek to undermine and devalue women’s emotional responses. The process is called “gaslighting”, in reference to a 1940’s film where a husband tries to drive his wife crazy by purposely refusing to acknowledge her perception of events in the world. Ali warns us we have a “gaslighting epidemic in our country”, the result of “the slow and steady drumbeat of women being undermined and dismissed, on a daily basis” by men. He goes on to say “gaslighting is one of many reasons why we are dealing with this public construction of women as ‘crazy'”.
I’d like to talk about a number of issues I have with Ali’s emotionally compelling but ultimately incomplete narrative.
#1 Women are not the only ones being “gaslighted”
Women are not the only ones who’s emotional responses are being invalidated or suppressed in our culture. For many men, the message we receive from our co-workers, friends, lovers and families is quite clear. Our acceptable range of emotional responses should be restricted to a very narrow set of traditional male responses (Typically macho-confidence or anger). We are not encouraged to express uncertainty, fear, sadness, discontent or panic. We are not encouraged to express things that may decrease the sense of security in our families or partnerships. The script we are handed is very clear: “Things are going to be fine. I’m going to make sure everything is okay.” Rinse and repeat. What’s ironic here is that expressing our more fragile emotions in a safe and receptive space is a powerful way to grow security and stability. Rest assured, men know what it feels like to be told to suppress our emotions of grief, melancholy or fear. And, sadly, when we do as we are told and hide these “unacceptable emotions,” they often reemerge as explosive anger, drug or alcohol abuse, or stress-related illnesses.
#2 Ali’s gaslighted women are powerless victims
Ali’s article drives a narrative that women are victims of damaging external influences over which they have little or no power. When you invite people to view themselves as victims of this kind, you leave out a very important participant in the narrative. Any of us, men or women, who view ourselves as victims must also take responsibility for the role we play in these processes, both in terms of how the events occur and in how we choose to interpret the events after the fact. Ali encourages women to view themselves as victims without asking of his readers the requisite self-examination that will empower breaking out of the victim cycle. In order for gaslighting to work, you have to allow it continue. Given the changes society has undergone, some substantial percentage of women (say 50%) don’t have to sit and take the kind of silencing Ali describes any more. So I would ask that gaslighting not be treated as a universal phenomenon, but instead as something we are, to some substantive degree, in transition away from.
#3 Ali’s article leverages dramatic language that blames and pathologizes
The language in Ali’s article, “emotional manipulation” “epidemic” “pre-meditated” “neurosis” is designed to encourage an adversarial and sometimes pathological diagnosis of a wide range of human interactions. If you say to someone, “you’re gaslighting me” the dialogue is taken down a path defined by pathological and abuse markers. Markers which should not be assigned or taken on lightly. Once we assign those kind of markers to ourselves or others close to us, we put in place abuse and victimhood frames which overshadow possibilities for flexibility, growth and mutual discovery. If you are being abused, by all means, bring in the calvary. But we must all be wary of the urge to drop the rhetorical A-bomb on our partner when a few months in therapy might put the two of you back on a track toward more honest and open emotional communication.
#4 Ali’s article encourages his readers to employ simplistic binary assumptions
For instance, Ali writes: “A remark intended to shut you down like, “Calm down, you’re overreacting,” after you just addressed someone else’s bad behavior, is emotional manipulation—pure and simple.”
Ali encourages the recipient of this “gaslighting” statement to view it as intended to shut her down. In doing so, he encourages his female readers to assume a specific intent behind this kind of statement. Is it his intention that we should believe the recipient of this statement NEVER overreacts? That would be unusual. Most of us have overreacted at least once in our lives.
An example of this might be, “my boss hates me” or “I suck at relationships.” These kind of responses burst out in moments when our capacity is tapped out and we’re feeling like we’re failures. These kinds of statements and the emotions that accompany them are probably not the only way we can frame these situations. These are victim statements born out of frustration. And most of us have overreacted like this at one time or another.
When I overreact periodically, my wife often helps me out by suggesting that my reason for feeling reactive may be fear-based or seated in some perceptions that I might want to reconsider. Usually, the response I give after I cool down is much more balanced and productive. My point is this. We can’t remove the sentence “You’re overreacting” from our dialogues. We can’t stigmatize the use of that kind of suggestion. And we can’t assume its a negative. It can be a heartfelt attempt to be helpful. We can always add the word “maybe” in front of it, but ultimately, being willing to reflect on and reconsider our emotional responses is one of the most powerful gifts we can give our partners and ourselves.
#5 Ali provides examples that misidentify strengths as weaknesses
Ali uses the example of how women place a smiley face next to a serious question as evidence that women are “reducing the impact of having to express their true feelings.” How is it that expressing an issue or concern should not be done in a gentle way? If a woman or a man includes a smiley face next to a texted comment or concern, it indicates that they are not speaking from an entrenched reactive position but are instead receptive to dialogue.
Not only is this conducive to discussing the issue in a constructive way, it is the kind of skill set that can grow a more viable personal, business or social relationship. And it’s a skill set we should all be applying more often. It can be considered to be coming from a constructionist approach to communication. Ali’s use of this example as evidence of oppression is potentially chauvinistic in its way, because he privileges a style of communication that is blunt and unapologetic, a typically “male” style of communication.
#6 Ali’s article encourages counterproductive binary arguments
The men in his article are two dimensional bullies that show no capacity for compassion or empathy. It makes for heightened drama and a great third act, but Ali is not writing entertainment. He is attempting to address real and painful social ills. And he is doing so in a way that is ultimately not helpful to men and women alike. We know that men are not two dimensional villains from the silver screen. Men are highly emotional creatures with vast capacities to love and be loved. Men can be spiritual healers and primary parents. They can be loving partners and caring teachers. And in all these roles, they encourage men and women alike to explore and share their emotions, to communicate their challenges and air their grievances.
Thank you, Yashar. I know your heart is in the right place
I want to say clearly that yes, there are far too many female victims of silencing and abuse in the world. One person dealing with abuse is too many. But it is crucial to our ongoing dialogues to understand that the victims of abuse are men and women alike. It’s a fact that women have the potential to be just as emotionally and physically abusive as men. For some insight, look at the CDC’s statistics on physical abuse in relationships by gender. The report states: “More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”(1)
Yashar Ali has tapped into a major issue in our culture. He’s right that many women feel suppressed and devalued by people they work and live with. All of this is true. Ali has managed to create some powerful emotional resonance with his article. But it is important that we talk about what is happening between men and women in a holistic way. It is also important that we stay current in how we frame societal ills, so that we don’t devalue the progress that men and woman have created in partnership up to this point. So that we don’t drop back twenty years and pick up a more combative dialogue and bring it forward to now.
What can be immensely helpful instead, is to view these issues through the lens of what is called Appreciative Inquiry. Simply stated, we look for what is working and grow that, versus only pointing out the negative and attempting to eliminate it. Real progress has been made in terms of how men and women address emotions in their relationships. If we fail to acknowledge that, our actions do little to engage and grow successful trending change. Furthermore, appreciative inquiry teaches us to look for common ground and to be curious about ways we can support each other as we go forward in conversations like this one.
I fully understand there is work to be done. Holding someone else’s emotions can be frightening and destabilizing. Especially if we have no models for doing it in our lives or our families of origin. But we can learn how. We and our partners have to help each other learn how.
In my personal relationship, my wife and I are working to develop these kinds of emotion-holding skills. And top among them for me is the capacity to hear others’ emotions and not immediately try and “fix it” or in some way solve the problem. Instead, I’m learning to just listen and hear. For me, as a man, this is huge. The gift of the act of listening, decoupled from immediately REACTING can create a holding space for the emotions of others. Often, men like me will immediately focus on the source of the problem in an effort to eliminate the resulting uncomfortable emotions. There are times when focusing on fixing things is easier than experiencing our partner’s or our children’s pain or sadness. But the fact is, we human beings need to share our emotions. Fixing the problem can come later. When men (and women) learn to develop skills like this, it can go a long way to eliminating gaslighting. Because it creates the kind of emotional literacy that allows all of us to express ourselves more fully.
“Stop feeling that way” becomes “its okay that you feel that way”. And the oxygen of life and love reenters the room.
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