Linguistic Gaslighting: Disclaimers as anti-performative discourse

This is another post in a series on the language of abuse, as part of an online catalogue I am creating which I hope will help others to identify and resist linguistic harm. In this post, I look at how disclaimers (a form of anti-performative discourse) can be used to minimise violence, to coercively control, to manipulate and to gaslight.

“I’m not racist, but ….” [proceeds to say racist thing].
“I’m not sexist, but …” [proceeds to say sexist thing].
“I don’t meant this to in any way minimise what you’ve gone through, but …” [proceeds to minimise everything you’ve gone through].
“I’m sorry for what I did” [proceeds to excuse and minimise wrongdoing]

Imagine a woman whose partner/boyfriend/husband says “I love you” but whose other words and actions are anything but loving.
Imagine a child whose parent says, “I would do anything for you” but who controls, neglects or otherwise harms that child.
Imagine a religious community which says “We are a safe place for people who are suffering” but who who has already demonstrated they are anything but safe.

We might consider these straight up lying. People who say one thing while regularly doing and saying the opposite are liars. But these ways of talking are more than lies. They are also forms of gaslighting, a term that originates from George Cukor’s film Gaslight (1944). In the film, a husband manipulates small elements of his wife’s environment, including the lights in their home. When the wife remarks on this, her husband insists she is mistaken, remembering incorrectly or delusional.

Still from the film Gaslight (1944)

Florence Rush summarises the concept in her 1980 book on child sexual abuse, writing, “even today the word [gaslighting] is used to describe an attempt to destroy another’s perception of reality.” It’s important to say that gaslighting can be intentional or unintentional. The effect is often the same.

We might think of gaslighting as a kind of anti-performative. Within speech act theory, a performative is something you enact by virtue of saying it. The words themselves perform the action. By saying the words, “I promise to meet you tomorrow,” you make a promise. Or by saying “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” you (with the proper authority) perform the act of uniting a couple in marriage.

An anti-performative, then, is something that performs the opposite of what was stated (or intended). Most people who write about anti-performatives look at short bursts of language, single sentences. The scholar Ingvar Johansson gives us one helpful example of this. Imagine a person who is known to be humble in a Christian community which values humility, as a quality of being pious. If this person says “I am always very humble,” then by virtue of saying it, this person is not truly humble. In saying it, they have undone it.

But we can think of anti-performatives another way, beyond the single utterance, to a full text, to discourse (a stretch of language above the sentence level). For example, sometimes even within a single conversation or text a person will say one thing and then go on to say and/or do the opposite. This can be confusing for the reader or hearer, causing them to doubt their ability to make sense of what they have heard. In the context of violence, it can work to minimise violence and to conceal perpetrator responsibility.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

What does this look like in a text?
How can we spot it?

Anti-peformative gaslighting can take on many linguistic forms, no doubt. One of the more common forms I’ve seen involves the use of disclaimers, like the examples at the start of this post. These are “employed to ward off and defeat in advance doubts and negative typifications which may result from intended conduct” (Hewitt and Stokes, 1975: 3).

The goal of a disclaimer is to pre-empt any negative interpretation of someone’s words or actions. Disclaimers can function as an overt way of attempting to control the point of view of one’s audience, to try to align the audience’s vision with one’s own. A person who uses a disclaimer knows it’s possible that their words or actions could reasonably be interpreted in a way that makes them look bad. So they use a disclaimer to try and steer you another direction.

Bronwyn Williams talks about how this works when the disclaimer comes before a racist comment, where a person believes

… they are moral and want to act in moral ways. Consequently, they often frame their comments about race by attesting to their individual moral health, starting their sentences with “I’m not a racist, but….”

Bronwyn Williams, 2004

Here’s another example, from an authentic text.

I do not intend any of what I am writing to in any way minimise or downplay this or to suggest any sort of equivalence. What follows now is not in any way intended to minimise the evil of abuse, or its toxic effects. I am very ready to affirm that it is wrong to ignore abuse or to ignore the possibility of abuse. 

Taken by itself, this might not be an example of disclaimers used as gaslighting. What matters is what happens in the rest of the text, if indeed the writer goes on to do exactly what they say they are not meaning to do.

In other words, disclaimers can be called gaslighting when the writer or speaker goes on perform against their disclaimer, to act and speak in ways that contradict the interpretation of their words that they have insisted on in their disclaimer.

There are contexts where it’s important to watch out for disclaimers, since the presence of a disclaimer implies that something is likely amiss. For example, I often see problematic disclaimers appear in apologies and other texts created in high stakes or crisis moments.

In one such text, a man went so far as to explicitly mark out a relatively lengthy disclaimer after his much briefer apology! After apologising for being “a real jerk sometimes,” being “downright and intentionall mean” and saying “There is no excuse for that kind of attitude or behaviour,” this person goes on to not only explain why he was a jerk but offer an explicit disclaimer. “You may think that’s rude,” he says, “but that would make you a hypocrite …”

If you see a disclaimer such as this, a good question to begin asking yourself, as you read the rest of the text or listen to the rest of the conversation is this:

Has this person spoken and behaved consistently with what they say in their disclaimer?
Or does the rest of what they say and do contradict their disclaimer?


Some further reading:

Cull, M. J. (2019). Dismissive Incomprehension: A Use of Purported Ignorance to Undermine Others. Social Epistemology33(3), 262-271.

El-Alayli, A., Myers, C. J., Petersen, T. L., & Lystad, A. L. (2008). “I Don’t Mean to Sound Arrogant, but…” The Effects of Using Disclaimers on Person Perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin34(1), 130-143.

Johansson, I. (2003). Performatives and antiperformatives. Linguistics and Philosophy26(6), 661-702.

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