In accusing all creeps of gaslighting, we dishonour the real victims | Barbara Ellen

If the word is spread too thinly, it will cease to be such a powerful tool to educate and empower women

All women need the term “gaslighting”. Well, all people really. Rebecca Humphries didn’t even realise that she needed it until she was cheated on by the comedian Seann Walsh in the 2018 Strictly Come Dancing scandal.

She’d had suspicions but, as she wrote at the time, Walsh “aggressively and repeatedly called me psycho/nuts/mental, as he had done countless times… when I’ve questioned his inappropriate and hurtful behaviour”. When her friend mentioned gaslighting, it was a relief to know that there was a term to describe her experience. Humphries, who has just spoken at the House of Commons about coercive control, says that single word gave her the vindication and courage she needed.

Gaslighting is about systemically dissolving another person’s sense of self, until they’re questioning their every move and instinct. It’s a pernicious process whereupon reality is distorted, inducing a state of psychological near-paralysis in the disoriented, anxious victim. When it happens within a romantic relationship, imagine the person you’re supposed to feel safest and happiest with, spinning you around, until you can’t breathe, or get your bearings. Now imagine that happening all the time.

Gaslighting is real and dangerous, primarily about dominance and control, and can happen to anyone. That’s why the term has proved to be invaluable – educating and empowering women to trust their instincts about any abusive situation where their sense of judgment has been crumbled up like a stock cube.

We need to guard against overusing and cheapening this valuable term, though popular culture has seized it so decisively that sometimes it seems as if there’s a national gaslighting epidemic. Increasingly, the term is applied inappropriately to all manner of situations (romantic, social, political). This phenomenon extends even beyond a programme such as Love Island, where male contestants are routinely denounced as “gaslighters!”, when at least some of them are just regular boorish players who’d say anything to get laid.

It serves us to remember that gaslighting is a specific form of structured abuse. It’s not a convenient umbrella term for all mendacious or unpleasant behaviour; it isn’t gaslighting every single time someone lies, or makes excuses. Put simply, all gaslighters are lying creeps, but not every lying creep is a gaslighter.

Now there’s a problem with the term gaslighting being over-popularised and spread too thinly, although I acknowledge that the far bigger problem is when gaslighting exists and is not named. Certainly, it’s crucial to believe and support people who’ve fallen prey, not least because they’ve been robbed of the ability to trust themselves.

Still, it can’t help real victims to have the term overworked and thus degraded. As gaslighting increasingly becomes part of the popular vocabulary, perhaps we need to be a little careful and protective of it. It’s not just another buzzword, it’s a powerful term that heals and validates people, like Rebecca Humphries, when they need it most. For the term to continue to help women, it needs to retain its potency.

Kyrgios should leave the temper tantrums to better players

Nick Kyrgios in his game at Wimbledon against Rafael Nadal.
Nick Kyrgios in his game at Wimbledon against Rafael Nadal. Photograph: Shaun Brooks/Action Plus via Getty Images

What’s the difference between being a “bad-boy character” and immature and rude? The Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios went out boozing in my manor, Wimbledon, the night before he played Rafael Nadal in the tournament. Kyrgios lost the match, but, as is his habit, won in terms of attention. He whinged about Nadal’s timing, served underarm, spat on the turf, slated the umpire (accusing him of being power-crazed up in his chair) and hit the ball straight at Nadal’s chest (Nadal deflected it with his racket).

Later, Kyrgios admitted that he had meant to hit the ball straight at Nadal and refused to apologise, saying: “That dude has got how many slams, and how much money in the bank account?” As well as bragging about not training properly, Kyrgios also likes to complain about media criticism. Really? If anything, Kyrgios seems rather over-indulged.

Although now ranked 43 in the world, Kyrgios is clearly gifted and has beaten the likes of Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Nor is he without wit or charm, but that doesn’t make his rudeness any less grotty. For one thing, the umpires he berates are merely doing their job – it’s as uncool to shout abuse at them as it is to be rude to waiters.

As for boasting about not training enough, Kyrgios is now approaching his mid-twenties – if he doesn’t concentrate on his game now, he’s likely to end up as one of the sport’s forgotten men. As his critic and admirer John McEnroe could tell him, it’s one thing to be the “bad boy of tennis” but you’d better be damn good at the sport first – in fact, you’d better excel, and continue to do so.

Is Kyrgios too chicken to show how much he cares? Right now, it seems that he’d rather take the easy option of behaving like a brat without backing it up. How many slams, Nick?

We haven’t paid for every morsel of Harry and Meghan’s lives

Meghan and Harry with Archie
Meghan and Harry with Archie: ‘Are the couple to be allowed nothing of their own?’ Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are being criticised for keeping the identities of their son Archie’s godparents a secret.

Many people feel that, as the couple receive money from the civic purse, they have no right to withhold such information. Sure, Harry and Meghan probably should have given up this information – concealing it is only going to make the story bigger. Other than that, why should they feel at all obliged?

What exactly do people think they’re buying with the money we give the royals? I’d have thought it related to undertaking public duties as active representatives of the royal family. Few could deny that the couple more than fulfil this brief, and appear to be constantly working as part of the Firm.

However, what’s this got to do with being pressured to divulge every detail of family life? It would be amusing to think that Harry and Meghan are trolling certain sectors of the media, by withholding the information. However, considering the sustained hostility that Markle has endured, perhaps she in particular is just feeling over-protective about anything to do with her child.

Are the couple to be allowed nothing of their own? Of course royals such as Harry and Meghan “owe us” when they receive money from the public purse, but that doesn’t mean they’ve sold their souls.

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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