Sometimes, in debates about sexism or other forms of discrimination—particularly online—people will use a tactic called gaslighting. The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which an abusive husband repeatedly dims and brightens the gaslights in their home while telling his wife he has no idea what’s happening, causing her to question her sanity. In an argument or debate, a person using gaslighting will try to make his opponent think her perceptions are skewed or wrong. Gaslighting is not always conscious—it can be used unconsciously as a defensive reaction. However, it can also be used consciously, as a manipulative tactic.
When watching or listening to a debate about sexism, pay close attention for gaslighting. Because we live in a patriarchy, all questions about sexism are discussed within a sexist culture (just as racism is discussed within a racist culture, and homophobia within a homophobic culture). In debates between men and women, sexism itself might be at play, both consciously and unconsciously. Keep your eyes and ears open for statements from a man to a woman that make her seem or sound inferior within the debate: her reasoning isn’t sound, she’s being emotional, she doesn’t have the personal authority or ownership of the subject that he does.
Again, these ideas might be used consciously or unconsciously in an argument, largely because sexism and self-esteem are so closely linked, for both women and men. People who are learning about sexism and patriarchy—especially men—might feel they are being accused of conscious sexism or other forms of discriminatory thought. Context is everything: although gaslighting could be at play in all of them, a heated conversation with a friend is different from a Twitter debate with a misogynistic stranger, and both are different from a televised debate among pundits.
Note: Gaslighting can be a tactic in a variety of situations, and women can use it as well as men. In debates about sexism, however, it is most commonly used by men in an attempt to discredit or undermine women who are describing a sexist environment or practice.
If you are in a debate—in person or online—and it is clear you are being gaslit, it is perfectly acceptable to leave the debate. Gaslighting can make you feel unsafe, and very messed with. If someone is trying to manipulate you, you won’t convince the manipulator of your point. Leaving makes it clear that your personal perceptions—your sense of self, and your ideas—belong to you, and aren’t available for someone else’s manipulation.