I ran across this tweet last week from venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan: “Suppose there is a principle. The principle is good, but the proponents are bad. While quoting it endlessly, they distort the principle beyond recognition. In response, the opposition now opposes the principle even in principle. What’s a good term for this common phenomenon?”
I would call it a gaslighting feedback-loop. Gaslighting is a colloquialism that was made popular by the movie "Gaslight" (1944), in which a husband schemes to make his wife think she’s crazy with a series of lies and dirty tricks so he can get her committed to an asylum and steal her money.
Mr. Srinivasan has indeed outlined a common phenomenon in today’s media-soaked culture and politics. So I wondered whether I could find an appropriate cartoon in my archives to illustrate the principle.
It didn’t take long. My April 28, 2019, Palm Beach Daily News cartoon about an open-carry activist, disingenuously posing as a fisherman so he could legally parade around public streets with an arsenal, fills the bill.
The root issue behind the cartoon is the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to bear arms. Many Americans hunt, target-shoot and own guns for security and personal protection. We quibble about some of the risks involved, but most Americans acknowledge and respect the Constitutional right.
Despite this, right-wing politicians and gun lobbyists have gaslighted for decades about the Second Amendment being in danger of repeal, and equated the prospect of tightening regulations with government tyranny and loss of freedom. Fear-mongering rhetoric, such as “they’re coming for your guns” escalates every time there’s a public outcry after a mass shooting.
Gun rights activists also frequently insist that tighter regulations would unfairly punish good people for what bad people do, and respond with “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.” Though simplistic and illogical, this grievance has become the rationale for state legislatures proposing radical laws to arm teachers in the classroom and to legalize open-carry possession in public.
Of course, you can’t have bifurcated politics without the other side becoming equally strident. Therefore, an increasing number of gun opponents call for banning all handguns or semi-automatic weapons or, yes, getting rid of guns altogether. As a result, you get heavily armed guys parading around because they think their Second Amendment rights are threatened.
In reality, not everyone has been sucked into this escalating feedback-loop of half-truths, fantasies and fallacies. Most Americans support the Second Amendment but also believe tighter firearms regulations and registration would be a good idea — including a lot of gun owners. Unfortunately, our gaslighting addiction has created a political chasm that apparently can’t be breeched.
The public’s gullibility to blatant distortions has tainted many issues and created a breeding ground for con artists in government. It’s time for Americans to recognize the danger of this dynamic and shut off the gas. After all, there are those who love to play with fire.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Cartoonistry: Gaslighting is too common in our polarized country