I have been watching out for people recently who deflect an argument and instead start blaming the other, squirming and twisting their original position to introduce another idea or perhaps say they haven’t been heard and begin to make the conversation a battle of wits. It has been pointed out to me this is a good way of detecting narcissism or at the very least gaslighting. What is the antidote when we are faced with this as activists as well? My memory goes to Al Gore being called out for having high usage light bulbs at his place at the same time as spreading the inconvenient truth about climate change, of to people who still use terms like dole bludger and blame the victim for structural inequality. Maybe each of us from time to time use this tactic when we are failing to get our argument across the line and so resort to base behaviour and blame the other person for problems they have made a contribution too. Then there is the bullying, at whole population levels too, and we see this in governments and political and business leaders around the world. The most famous one occupying the White House.
What can we do when we hear, see and experience this behaviour? I have been thinking about this a lot as I know I usually give people the benefit of the doubt, then look to myself first at what I might have done or are doing to contribute and then by the time I might have cycled through all those examinations, I am the frog in boiling water who didn’t notice the temperature going up and I have drowned … or a nation that elects a fascist because we didn’t call it out early enough.
First things first, inoculate yourself. If you are wondering if it is you, check yourself against your own record of behaviour, ask a few trusted friends to give you feedback and listen to what they tell you. Ask them to notice, witness and reflect back what they see. Build in some feedback loops into your system and then use them. This might be creating some policies, procedures for yourself, the system and when they are put to the test, do it all again – test, refine, improve and then apply – it is all in the execution. Do this with compassion for yourself and the other, enter with curiosity not to shame. Be focussed on the truth in these post-truth times. Build the evidence and point it out and keep the arc of history bending towards justice. We are building our language around this practice by asking for Fact Checks and lets keep doing that, in a public way, exposing the truths. This requires consistency and to quote the RSL, it requires eternal vigilance. Ask people to take personal responsibility where you can and don’t undo their behaviour for them. If the facts don’t add up, tell them, ask them to withdraw or apologise or re-state the truth. This will often be met with disappointment, anger, outright denial or an escalation in the behaviour – and if it does you can be reassured it is not you – and you now know what you are dealing with. It is an exercise worth doing if only to check this phenomena.
When this intersection arrives it is time for more self-protection and to call on all you can inside yourself and ask others to join you. Keep the fact checking up. Make the facts visible. Don’t go in alone. Join others who have the same issue – this is the beginning of a movement, or a class action or some transformational change. Notice that shift and mark it in some way. Keep on moving forward, and keep taking a breath, stop and rest when you need to because by now you are not alone and you can take a moment to recover and refuel, there will still be room for you when you are ready to come back … don’t forget to come back.
The political discourse is full of bullies and gaslighters and they are in many of the conversations we are having, what might start out as feeling like we have an ally, ends up horribly and we are busy trying to protect ourselves and have lost sight of how it all started. If you notice these behaviours of distracting, deflecting, stalling and distortions of the truth, start with the fact checking, it may not be enough to end it, but it will be enough for you to stop checking yourself. You will be able to land back into your self-respect and get a dose of psychological salts for your well-being which at a minimum will help make your stronger for the next time. Fact checking is for the system as well as for your self.