In the vernacular, the phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people. —
The term “gaslight” refers to Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, which was made into the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.
It is the classic story of toxic masculinity: A man manipulates and emotionally abuses his wife, inventing false narratives (that a letter she held in her hands and read never existed, for instance), altering her physical world (secretly turning the gas lights on and off), and belittling her quite accurate understanding of the real world she occupies until she starts questioning her own sanity.
“Gaslighting” has long been used by psychiatrists and therapists to explain dynamics in interpersonal relationships. But with the rise of Donald Trump, it jumped into popular culture to explain the political upturning of reality, where up becomes down, black becomes white, and where facts are invented out of whole cloth to fit a counternarrative, not connected to the real world around us. Hence, Trump could say without batting an eye that Hilary Clinton invented birtherism; the election was stolen by a conspiracy of brown people, tech companies, and Republican-appointed judges; and the people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 were really antifa disguising themselves with MAGA hats.
Gaslighting isn’t limited to American extremists. It’s used by politicians everywhere to explain away inconvenient truths, to manipulate the public.
Take, for example, what happened after the police raids on homeless encampments in Halifax Wednesday. Thursday, a parade of three powerful men gaslit us all, creating a false narrative to justify the use of violence.
Gaslighter #1: Mayor Mike Savage
The day started with Mayor Mike Savage being interviewed by Portia Clark on CBC’s Information Morning. You can listen to the interview here.
Gaslight: “We’ve been working with the people involved through our navigators and through provincial support workers to provide options for them and make sure that they had better options than living in a tent or a shed that nobody should have to live in.”
Reality: There are two navigators who do outreach to people on the street and work to connect them to social services, including getting them to hotels and housing when they’re available. The raids on the park happened when one of those two, Eric Jonsson, was on his honeymoon and out of town. Jonsson is the navigator responsible for the Spring Garden area, and clearly he was not involved in the city’s eviction on Wednesday, although he did rush back to Halifax afterwards to try to provide what support he could.
Moreover, every single rough sleeper we spoke with Wednesday said they were not offered any alternative housing arrangements whatsoever. Each said they had no idea where they would go. It’s possible that on some theoretical bureaucratic level, “better options” were in the works, but the reality of those options never filtered down to the people sleeping rough, in part because the man whose job it was to facilitate that process, Jonsson, was not around.
Jonsson is well-liked among the unhoused and semi-housed. The fact that the city timed its eviction for when he was out of town demonstrates that officials had no interest in tying the evictions to the provision of social services.
Gaslight: “Originally, it [the evictions] was out by law enforcement folks who were leading this. It wasn’t led by police, but police were brought in when the situation got more active. And obviously, we would have liked to seen the sheds removed without incident and that the people who were living in them take up an option to go to more permanent housing, whether it’s a shelter or until the shelter is available at the hotel, which was offered to people.”
Reality: Police were present from the get-go — long before any protestors were present — from the first eviction in Horseshoe Island Park, and they physically dragged a man out of his tent at Peace and Friendship Park. As Zane Woodford reported:
At Horseshoe Island Park, where the Halifax Examiner spoke to evicted residents on Wednesday morning, that appeared to be the case. There were seven police officers lined up with city staff watching five people who’d been living in tents on the site pack up their possessions and go.
They were all ticketed, and two people said they were never offered any sort of temporary shelter, as the city has repeatedly claimed all people living in tents and shelters are. When they asked police where they should go, they were told to leave the peninsula.
At Peace and Friendship Park, the officers combed the grounds for debris after city staff packed up evicted residents’ belongings and loaded them into trucks.
One man there told reporters he’d been dragged from his tent by police at 6am and told to get out. With income assistance and a rent subsidy, he has nowhere to go.
Gaslight: Clark noted that “some of those people were fined, though, Mayor, also on top of that, they don’t have the money for that.” To which Savage responded: “They weren’t arrested, there was no criminalization of homeless. I have seen on Twitter criminalizing homelessness. That’s entirely not true. You know, if we wanted people to go to jail, they would have been arrested. And we don’t want to arrest people. You know, there were people arrested yesterday for obstructing police. There was nobody arrested for being homeless.”
Reality: So far as we know, it’s true that no homeless people were arrested, meaning charged with criminal offences and processed at the jail. But Clark’s point was that, as Woodford reported, they were being ticketed and fined, which necessarily brings them into the justice system: they can’t pay the fines, which starts a cycle of late penalties and interest, and makes it that much harder for them to get on their feet financially. Savage deflected that reality by talking about something else entirely.
Gaslighter #2: Councillor Shawn Cleary
A couple of hours after Savage’s CBC interview, councillor Shawn Cleary was interviewed by the utterly credulous Todd Veinotte, sitting in for Rick Howe and News 95.7. Cleary repeated many of Savage’s mischaracterizations, but took the gaslighting even further with an attack on the media.
Gaslight: “I think in the media, and especially when you’re in something like you’re dealing with here, it is difficult because in some cases the media were part of the story. I know I saw a number of videos online of that which sent to me of media being told to stay back, and one of the issues, whether your media or whether you’re just a regular citizen, you know that the police needed a line because there was actually heavy equipment like a forklift lifting a very heavy, poorly built shed that could have fallen on people. You know, you can’t have people moving into that zone for their own safety. And so I think there could have been and I certainly do want to speak to the media, but there is the possibility that the media are a bit skewed in this because they felt a little miffed, that they were told, you know, to stay back and so on from there. You know, I’m not saying that that, you know, skewed all the stories, but that could I’m sure. But also, too, I’ll certainly cut them some slack. If you’re in the middle of this and you see violence all around you, kind of hard to not feel anything. But obviously you’re going to have Cortisol running into your body that’s going to, you know, restrict your your ability to critically think. And so, you know, in a stressful situation, I think would be easy to, you know, take a one-sided view of this.”
Reality: First, understand that Cleary was not at the Memorial Library when the police action was going down, and yet he’s criticizing people who were there for their understanding of events. This is the very definition of gaslighting: Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?
More to the point, Cleary has no understanding of how reporters work (he once attacked me for being without a journalism degree, as many reporters are). Reporters — and especially the experienced, highly regarded reporters at the scene Wednesday — know how to act dispassionately in difficult situations, and how to focus on the reporting without getting involved personally in a story.
No reporter wants the story to be about them, and yet reporters are well-schooled in their rights and responsibilities; they know that they can’t interfere with police operations, but they also know they have every right to witness and film those operations. That right is well-established in law, and held up by multiple courts.
Yet, on Wednesday, police first tried to remove reporters from a vantage point from which they could film the protests. The reporters correctly held their ground and refused to leave. This is responsible, dispassionate reporting, civilly insisting on the right to report without letting the emotion of the moment get in the way — the exact opposite of Cortisol running through their bodies and restricting their ability to critically think.
When arrests were made, CTV reporter Sarah Plowman tried to film the arrests, again, from a distance that did not in any way interfere with the arrests, and yet she was physically moved by a cop trying to prevent that responsible reporting.
I arrived at the scene after the arrests, and while still tense, the situation had calmed down somewhat. But as I spoke with other reporters, none were angry or emotionally charged, and all maintained a professional demeanour.
Gaslighter #3: Chief of Police Dan Kinsella
Police Chief Dan Kinsella held a press conference later in the day Thursday, and continued the parade of lies, half-truths, and obfuscations that are gaslighting. Like Cleary, Kinsella was also not at the site of the police violence.
Gaslight: “A number of protesters were also organized. Armed with sensory irritants and projectiles. They also brought decontamination for the sensory irritant.”
Reality: As Woodford reports: “The Halifax Examiner saw no use of sensory irritants by protesters. The decontamination referred to is milk and water, most of which was brought on scene after police started pepper-spraying people. People were throwing water bottles around the time police started pepper spraying, and again as a municipal worker took a chainsaw to the second temporary shelter.”
Gaslight: “In general terms… [the use of force] starts with officer presence and moves onto tactical communication. And then we begin to move through the use of force continuum based on the threat use exhibited by the subjects. So that’s kind of what we’re faced with. And depending where they take it, we begin to escalate, through the use of force continuum — generally with a plus one attitude and response to make sure that we can have a situation that safely and as deescalated as with as little force as possible. Hence, the use of the sensory spray versus the use of the baton or some other use of force option that we have.”
Reality: The use of chemical spray is not “deescalating” anything.
Gaslight: Addressing the Sarah Plowman situation: “I want to be very clear. Halifax Regional Police respects the right of media, and expects their participation in matters of public interest. And we make every effort to facilitate their access. At this time, we have no specific information in relation to our officers asking media for credentials, as has been claimed. However, there is some context. This was a rapidly evolving and fluid situation. Officers were in the process of containing a situation and establishing operational perimeter. This is for several temporary dwellings that were in fact illegal. A number of reporters chose to set up or film very close to the area where there was active removal work going on, to keep them away from the hazardous situations. Police are responsible for everyone at the scene and for safety reasons and also repeatedly asked a reporter to move from the area back to a nearby area on some steps that the reporters were on. This is not meant to limit access to the events or any reporting efforts, but to ensure that no one would get hurt. The reporter that was being dealt with by the officer refused to comply with the officer’s direction, very specifically given to protect an individual and take them out of harm’s way.“
Reality: As Woodford reported, police first tried to remove reporters from the very steps that Kinsella implies they were allowed to report from. But look at the photo above, and note how far Plowman is from the scene; she wasn’t interfering with anything and was at no personal risk.
I take the police interactions with reporters quite seriously. These are people trying to do their jobs. They are professionals who know their rights, who know how to dispassionately report. In this instance, one of the reporters — Woodford — is my employee, and was doing his job for the Examiner, its subscribers, and everyone reading this. We should not let the chief of police or anyone else hand-wave and gaslight away our concerns for him.
Wednesday’s evictions came two months after the city hired a “empathy consultant” for $7,000 “to provide some training sessions for municipal staff and social service providers.”
Look, I’m the first to admit that having people living in city parks is not ideal. They are at risk — from the elements, from criminals, and for their own health. And there are real public health issues involved.
I’m also aware that a small number of the rough sleepers have mental health and/or addiction problems, which are surely made worse by sleeping outdoors. And this frightens some of the public (I hasten to add that I’ve heard many stories over the past couple of days of neighbours to the encampments befriending and assisting the rough sleepers, and I’ve witnessed some of this community support myself).
So, yes, the goal should be to provide them with a place out of the elements, where they can sleep and have private space out of the public eye, lock up their possessions, and have toilet facilities accessible.
The overall gaslighting notion is that the homeless are being provided that housing, but there’s an obvious disconnect between that assertion and the understanding of the people I’ve spoken with directly.
When this comes up, councillors and the mayor repeatedly put the responsibility on the province and wash their hands of it. But there are plenty of things the city can do to ameliorate the situation while people are sleeping outdoors, without siccing cops on them.
Consider: The Memorial Library is right there. It still has washrooms, and could provide a place for people to store possessions.
The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars maintaining empty buildings like the Bloomfield Centre and St. Pat’s–Alexander School, and it continues to spend millions of dollars for the mostly unused convention centre, but it’s never found the money to install self-cleaning washrooms, or even maintain the existing public washrooms at the Pavillon. And the city can’t seem to construct public drinking water fountains. (Three years ago, I wrote about how millions of dollars were spent to rebuild Argyle Street, but not one penny was spent on washrooms or drinking fountains along the street; “How is it we’re building (supposedly) modern streets that serve pedestrians and we’re not getting facilities that serve basic human needs, like water fountains and washrooms?” I asked.) These inexpensive public amenities would benefit all of us, and not just people sleeping rough. Heck, Lezlie Lowe wrote an entire book about it.
Enough with your “empathy” already.
1. Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs
“PC premier-designate Tim Houston is seemingly faced with a dilemma. He must appoint a minister to the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs with no African Nova Scotian members in his caucus to choose from,” reports Matthew Byard:
This comes as Tuesday’s election saw a record number of four Black MLA candidates voted into the provincial legislature.
Though provincial cabinet minters are usually appointed from the governing party’s elected caucus, technically speaking, it’s not a rule.
According to the legislature’s website:
“Membership in the Executive Council is by appointment, and as such, a member does not necessarily have to be an elected Member of the House of Assembly.”
And so technically speaking, if he wanted to, Houston could appoint a Black minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.
As former NDP cabinet minister, Graham Steele once pointed out:
“The premier doesn’t even have to be an MLA. The last time we had a non-MLA premier in Nova Scotia was Russell MacLellan, for a few months in 1997.”
If he wanted, Houston could appoint one of the newly elected Black MLAs — Ali Duale, Suzy Hansen, or Angela Simmonds.
If he wanted, he could choose to keep Ince, who has served two terms as the minister and will now be serving his third term in the legislature.
He could choose to appoint one of the three Black PC candidates who ran in this election — Archy Beals, Lisa Coates, or Darrell Johnson.
If he wanted to, Houston could appoint any number of qualified and respected non-elected members of the Black/African Nova Scotian community who have extensive background and expertise in issues dealing with so-called African Nova Scotian affairs.
The Examiner attempted to contact premier-designate Houston for input on this story. We did not hear back.
2. 10-year-old pepper-sprayed by cops
5. Speling iz hard
In the harbour
05:00: Atlantic Sun, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Norfolk, Virginia
05:30 Morning Carina, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Southampton, England
06:30: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, arrives at Fairview Cove from Saint-Pierre
11:30: Morning Carina moves to Pier 31
16:30: Nolhanava sails for Saint-Pierre
17:00: MSC Angela, container ship, arrives at Berth TBD from Montreal
18:00: Morning Carina sails for sea
21:00: Elka Hercules, oil tanker, arrives at Irving Oil from IJmuiden, Netherlands
21:30: Atlantic Sun sails for Liverpool, England
Summer is supposed to be a slow news time.