From the Merriam-Webster website, the Word of the Year 2022 is “gaslighting,” defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” By that broad definition, gaslighting has been around for maybe a hundred thousand years (since the advent of anatomically modern humans). But common usage of the term “gaslighting” is fairly new. It’s one of those things where putting a name on it suddenly makes it more noticeable. The Age of Trump demands a variety of new terms. The linked post lists a few of these, noting that “the word is at home with other terms relating to modern forms of deception and manipulation, such as fake news, deepfake, and artificial intelligence.” I’m afraid the Internet and social media and video manipulation technologies have contributed to the popularity of these “modern forms of deception.” More than ever, we all need to tune up our baloney detection kits.

Who? Me?

And who, pray tell, would employ these suddenly fashionable gaslighting tactics? Maybe everyone. I notice it watching commercials during sports events (one of the few remaining channels for advertisers to reach a mass audience). Advertising beer, a group of good-looking young adults are having a great time and drinking beer. If you drink beer, that will be you (they suggest). Advertising pickup trucks, a guy with a scrawny beard who has probably never touched a chainsaw in his life is shown driving up the side of a mountain with a smiling gal in the passenger seat. Buy our pickup truck and you, too, can be a (pretend) cowboy. Most revealing are the “buy our new drug” commercials, which, after showing the possible benefits in lowering your blood pressure or clearing up your skin condition, are apparently required to disclose a long list of very unappealing possible side effects — which usually flash across the screen in very small print for about two seconds. In radio commercials, the required disclosures are usually given at the tail end of the spot, read by a speed talker in a burst of strung together words.

Politics has always featured exaggerations and glaring omissions in candidate speeches and television ads. Pretty much nothing said by a candidate can be relied upon. Recent US elections have moved even further away from truth and honesty. It’s like a performance contest where contestants are simply expected to spew a string of falsehoods, and the majority of the electorate judges candidates on how fluently and convincingly the candidates can lie. Best liar wins. The surest way to lose a primary or an election is to be an honest candidate. Once upon a time, if the media caught a candidate telling a flat-out lie, that hurt and possibly doomed a candidate’s chances of being elected. We call that “the good old days.”

Governments, of course, have always done this sort of thing. The Korean War wasn’t a war, it was a “police action.” The Ukraine War isn’t a war, it’s a “special military operation.” No government ever acknowledges that its war of aggression is a war of aggression, it’s always a defensive war against some serious threat (almost always entirely fabricated). Examples abound. Corporations and individuals are theoretically liable for fraud or defamation if they tell outright falsehoods and extract some sort of gain thereby. But governments are fairly unaccountable, so government falsehoods flourish. The word “propaganda” generally applies to false government claims, which most of us think applies to communist and authoritarian regimes that practice top-down propaganda themes and campaigns. But Western governments have done the same thing over the years, if not quite so blatantly, and now it’s fair to say there is a lot of grass-roots propaganda being produced in the West. Thanks, Internet. Twitter now seems to be embracing it as a business model.

The Internet tells me that the term “propaganda” was an early-20th century adaptation from the Catholic “congregation for the propagation of the faith,” which reminds us there is another civil institution that is rarely or never held accountable for its false statements: religion and churches.

LDS Gaslighting?

As the term has become popular over the last year or two, I have seen it pop up in a lot of LDS discussions. In these discussions, the term “gaslighting” means not just misleading someone for personal or institutional gain, but going further and really messing with someone’s mind. Figuratively rearranging the furniture while you are asleep, so to speak. Think of the visionary writer George Orwell. Ministry of Truth. Thought police. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

It’s easy to make some LDS parallels. The Strengthening Church Members Committee. Correlation. We have always been forthcoming about seerstones and polygamy. It’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. But we need to think a little harder about the issue.

On the positive side, one could claim that all religions, all denominations, do this sort of thing, so it’s only to be expected that the LDS Church does it. They all put forth a carefully edited version of their own history and suppress bad events and episodes. They all tell tall tales about miracles and divine acts at their founding and periodically thereafter. They all claim God’s endorsement and support. They all marginalize and sometimes hound critics and apostates. Defending a church one could also say that no adult is naive enough to actually take a church’s own presentation of its history at face value, although I’m inclined to think that yes, you really can fool some of the people all of the time. Are Mormons more naive in this respect than adherents of other denominations and religions? Here are a few examples of positive actions by the Church:

  • Opening up the LDS archives under Leonard Arrington and making most (but not all) documents available to most researchers.
  • The Joseph Smith Papers project, making just about every document having a connection to Joseph Smith easily available and supported by scholarly editing and commentary.
  • The Gospel Topics Essays, which were a good faith attempt to honestly identify and defend some troubling LDS doctrines and historical claims. They aren’t perfect, but they are more forthcoming than other LDS publications.

On the negative side, the Church sure tries very hard (1) to get members to voluntarily limit their sources of information about the Church to LDS-approved sources, and (2) to constantly reinforce through what can only be termed indoctrination the standard LDS narrative of a divinely directed founding and a personal “I know” testimony. Here are a few examples of negative actions by the Church:

  • Calling the Nephite interpreters Joseph Smith claimed to dig up with the golden plates the “Urim and Thummim” (biblical instruments in the Old Testament that had nothing to do with the LDS story), then later conflating Joseph’s seerstone(s) with both Nephite interpreters and the Urim and Thummim.
  • Excommunicating Fawn Brodie for writing an unflattering but well researched biography of Joseph Smith. Recall that she tried to get access to documents in the LDS archives but was denied access.
  • The unacknowledged activities of the Strengthening Church Members Committee, which after being publicly outed was then described by an LDS leader as a “clipping service.”
  • The unacknowledged accumulation of the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund, which after being publicly outed was sort of downplayed as just saving for a rainy day. Most of the membership seems okay with that explanation, ignoring the obvious fact that if saving for a rainy day to the tune of a hundred billion dollars is a perfectly acceptable institutional activity for a religious institution, why keep it secret?

So mull over these examples and, if you like, add some of your own, either positive or negative. Here are a few prompts:

  • As suggested earlier, do you think Mormons are more naive than the average citizen or believer when it comes to being misled and gaslit? This isn’t a rhetorical question. The Church does encourage its members to pursue higher education when available.
  • If so, is that confined to LDS claims or does it extend to financial schemes and political claims as well? Is the average LDS just a sucker waiting to be bamboozled?
  • When some LDS read up on LDS history and doctrine and then come to think they were deceived or misled, is that a credible response? Or is it like someone who complains about what a used car salesman told them about the used car they bought (because any adult should know better than to accept such claims at face value)?
  • Have you ever tried to get an LDS teenager or young adult to read LDS history? Good luck. This relates to the prior bullet point.
  • What do you know about Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit? Would you like to know more?