#BelieveWomen, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Roots of (Deeply Socialized) Gaslighting

#BelieveWomen, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Roots of (Deeply Socialized) Gaslighting

As I write this, it is Advent. During this time, many Christians ponder the controversial #BelieveWomen story in which Mary told Joseph she was pregnant through surprising means—and he almost divorced her because of it, until he heard from an angel that her tale was true. It’s maybe not surprising that he didn’t believe her—after all, I know A LOT of people who still bristle at the idea that she was impregnated by God.

Reflecting on this story (especially at a time when a lot of people are putting down another teenager, Greta Thunberg, rather than believe what she has to say about climate change, even while Ohio Politicians are putting forth entirely unfeasible bills about reimplanting ectopic pregnancies) spurred on a lot of thoughts in me about whether or not we #BelieveWomen, and what’s going on rhetorically when we dismiss what women say, even when it’s more clearly evidence-based than Mary’s story.

In other words, this week I’m looking at how easy it is for many of us to be socialized into the practice of gaslighting large groups of people–women among them–simply because they are seen to be part of an outgroup. I will also look at how we unhealthily rationalize these behaviors by framing them as somehow logical and rational behaviors.

NOTE: Because, like all systemic behaviors, patriarchy is reinforced by women as well, many women also see women as an outgroup. Those who are fighting these systemic patterns often cut across the gender spectrum, as do those who reinforce it. But that doesn’t mean that women authored patriarchy or are primarily to blame for it, as I’ll discuss a bit toward the end of the article.

Defining Gaslighting

Gaslighting, if you don’t know, is the practice of trying to get someone to disbelieve in evidence-based views, often messing with a person’s sense of reality. While the original definitions often require intent, in reality, it’s hard to prove whether someone is doing this intentionally or not.

The type of gaslighting I’m talking about today I would class as a deeply socialized form of gaslighting—one that was taught to me so well that I ultimately needed a jolt to see it was unhealthy. I do think much gaslighting is intentional, but not all of it is—at least not in the same way.

I’m hoping today’s analysis will show how these unhealthy systems can worm their way into even what we think of as logical, critical-thinking-based literary assessments–and how in turn those unhealthy patterns can lead to the relative disenfranchisement of large groups of the population.

What Birthed This Article

I’ve been thinking about all of this lately because I just finished listening to the audiobook of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel of The Handmaid’s Tale, and that act had me thinking back to my original reception of The Handmaid’s Tale about fifteen years ago.

Working through all of that has helped me understand the insidiously subtle forms of toxic patriarchy we all get socialized into and must convince ourselves to work against. This article’s all about unwrapping how those communication dynamics work.

In a time of Advent and dystopian religio-political apocalypse, it seemed fitting to dive into this subject this week.

My History with Dystopia and A Handmaid’s Tale

I don’t know if I mentioned here before specifically, but I came into this religio-political apocalypse having taken a graduate course in dystopian speculative fiction. During that semester we read all manner of fiction whose goal was to provide dire prophetic warnings about the future in hopes of inspiring people to stave off the worst.

One book we did not read during that semester, but I had read previously, was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

My Initial (Visceral) Assessment of the Book

In short, the first time I read it, I thought it was…okay. But a little, well, unrealistic.

See, I found it interesting, and parts of it felt “true to life” to me, but a lot of it I dismissed. I realize now that was because I found it too extreme, too “unlikely.” 

The Injustice of This Assessment

I would have been appalled to find out that Margaret Atwood had incorporated nothing in the book that hadn’t already been done to women in some part of the contemporary world—that while it made potential sense to disagree with the particular form of the dystopian world, that all of the elements were already present in our current world.

Despite my excellent education and wide reading (encouraged by my moderate parents!), I doubt that I would have believed it, honestly. That means I participated through this assessment, however unwittingly, in the practice of gaslighting women.

Defending America as a God Term/Halo Effect Combo

And let’s be honest, part of the issue was the idea that “surely it couldn’t happen here in the US.” (Ah, America as god term with a halo effect—to be seen as holy and defended against critique at all costs. That’s a very unhealthy attitude so many of us Americans have internalized in ways we don’t realize.)

That’s part of what was going on with me. But there was more to it than that.

Ah, Patriarchy Meets My Perceptions of “Moderate” Educated Religion

I realize now that much of it came down to this: because I had come to believe so wholeheartedly in how different our view of religion was from other people’s more “extreme” forms of religion, because of how much I’d been taught to believe that our form was pretty much wholly rational, I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief enough to enter into this intensely, abusively misogynistic dystopian world and find it realistic.

This is ironic, because I realize now that I had internalized a subtle form of that same misogyny, and that was at least part of what encouraged me to dismiss the valid fears behind Atwood’s kind of misogynistic dystopian vision.

The Place of “White-Evangelical-Centrism” in This Gaslighting

The Handmaid’s Tale was, after all, written by a woman. And “one of those progressive ones.” (I’ve talked about the subtle forms of “white Evangelical-centrism” here.)

Unconsciously, at the time I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, because I knew it was focused on “women’s issues” and by “one of those progressive women,” my brain still interpreted the story as clearly being driven by fear and anger.

While I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I can see now how I those things encouraged me to tone-police and thereby gaslight its evidence-based vision, to avoid listening to the validity behind its concerns.

Defining Tone-Policing

Tone-policing, if you’ll remember, is a particular defensive excuse to avoid listening to a person’s views because they don’t present in a listener’s approved emotional style. I talked about how swear-policing is often used to tone-police, especially in the “Christian Nice” community, here and here.

Emotions, Tone-Policing, and (Dis-)Believing Women

As I’ve described several times before (see, for example, here and here), I’d been taught that anger was always bad, and the only place to bring it was to God.

Kicking up a fuss, speaking truth to power—there were places for that, but honestly only once you’d removed the seeming emotion from these things, washed and purified them clean of those dangerous “negative” emotions. And—let’s be honest—“prophets” speaking truth to power, or preaching, were only supposed to be men.

My Socialized Views of Women and Moral Disgusts

Or so I’d thought. (My denomination was struggling with the question of whether women should be allowed to preach during much of my childhood—and have only realized recently how much this topic deeply affected my moral disgusts toward women having assertive voices generally. In fact, this has been one of the most difficult articles for me to write, to date, because of how deeply I internalized these power structures on a visceral level.)  

Yup, Definitely Patriarchy! And Moral Disgusts of Women as “Emotional”

So, well, I realize now that I’d internalized the idea, even in our “moderate” space, that only men could be trusted to do this properly. Women, after all, were somehow inherently emotional, and anger was especially to be distrusted from them.

If a message was in any way “tainted by anger,” and especially carried by a woman, and a progressive woman from Canada, no less, well, that was highly suspicious to me. Surely, it seemed to follow, it couldn’t be believed.

Not Just the Community I Grew Up In

I don’t really put this on the community I grow up in, by the way—much of this type of attitude is pervasive throughout Western culture and in other areas embedded in patriarchy.

But Yes, a Very Particular Form of Defending Patriarchy Where I Grew Up

But yes, our community’s particular combo platter of White-Evangelical-centrism, fear of perceived extremes and patriarchal underpinnings led us to embracing a particular form of subtle tone-policing and gaslighting of women’s voices as a group. And because we were “moderate,” this was insidiously classed as a belief that was seen to be somehow rational and reasonable when it was far from either.  

Of course, at the time, I wasn’t fully conscious of the nuances of this process of rejection that was going on in me. At the time, I as a discerning reader blamed the lack of artistry in the book, the lack of nuance, and especially the lack of narrative believability.

The Toxic Sides of “Christian Moderate Nice”

I realize now that all of this was part of my upbringing into a world of “Christian Nice”—and not just Christian Nice, but “Christian moderate Nice.”

I can see now that I and my people had worked hard to try to achieve a sort of purification by remaining in the middle. To see ourselves—and to get others to see us—as “the rational ones.” Maintaining that position required us to distance ourselves from what we saw as emotionally driven decisions from the flanks.

And yet, as I’ve described before, our distancing of ourselves from seemingly negative emotions had encouraged us to distance ourselves from some hard truths—one of which was that our rhetoric of “Nice” was still operating on an insidiously misogynistic basis.

Insidious Forms of Toxic Patriarchy

I realize now that the logic I’d just described—the logic by which I’d rejected the valid concerns of The Handmaid’s Tale—were part of that insidious participation in unhealthy forms of patriarchy. In fact, it was baked into our views of conflict—views that we justified using our interpretations of the Bible.

Certainly, we didn’t overtly hurt anyone. (Or so we told ourselves.) But our false equivalencies—our assumptions that we “weren’t as bad” as those cult leaders and televangelists—led us to be quite defensive against valid, evidence-based critiques from “those progressive folks” we should have taken more seriously.

The Need to Repent/Be Influenced

Using the language of Christianity, I would argue today that we—that I—needed to repent of these views. To repent in the ways in which we were diminishing women created in the image of God by dismissing their real concerns.

No Need to Be Overly Influenced!

This doesn’t of course mean that I needed to fully agree with all critiques in order to be “progressively pure of all fundamentalism”—that itself would be a form of fundamentalism.

It also doesn’t mean I needed to submit myself to abuse from anyone.

Not at All a Rational or Just Response

But it does mean that I was being unjust in failing to #BelieveWomen simply because they were women. However I was justifying it, it was definitely not a rational, just, evidence-based response—one that was “waiting for more evidence to prove the point.” It was a deeply visceral—I would even say deeply defensive—one.

Defending Patriarchy Over and Above Truth and Justice

See, I realize now I was prioritizing protecting myself–and, more importantly, my people’s–patriarchal form of thinking from critique as more important than recognizing the truth in the critique.

In short, I initially rejected the valid concerns represented in The Handmaid’s Tale because I too had been socialized into a subtle variant of the same system it critiqued—patriarchy.

Took Me a Jolt to See the Depth of Socialization

And, to be honest, if it weren’t for events in my life combined with the events of the ongoing religio-political apocalypse, including the #metoo and #churchtoo movements, I’m not sure whether I would have come to see how messed up these views I held were.

Indeed, I’m sure I still hold many parts of these views—I’m working on that. I’m a work in progress, and I will continue to combat these views inside myself as well as others.

Justly Assigning Both Hurt and Blame

But in the meantime, I know this much is true: The real villains in this story aren’t the progressives critiquing patriarchy and voicing concerns about it. The problem is toxic masculinity and the ways it hurts a wide variety of populations. And of course we all reinforce that system, and all need to address even the insidious forms such as those I just suggested.

But these days, let’s be honest: Both sides are not the same. Conservative folks are flying the patriarchy flag MUCH more strongly than progressives, who are at the least not regularly mocking those who are trying to fight it.

And I know while we are all hurt by this unhealthy system we’re a part of, that hurt lands much more on women and minorities and those who defend them than it does on the “good silent people” working harder to seem righteous than to speak up on behalf of those being hurt by this unhealthy system.

Acknowledging the Complicity in Silence and Calling Us to Assertiveness

I have been one of those “good silent people” in the past, and I’m calling to my people–and, in fact, all people–now to rise up with me into assertively defending those who are marginalized and abused by the current rhetoric and policies.

More Resources for Understanding the Stress Impulses Behind Conflict—and Speaking Up

Looking for more resources to help you identify and deal with visceral stress responses in yourself and others, especially in conflict situations? Our “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” is perfect for you, as it helps you understand and deal with the stress responses behind all kinds of conflict situations. To get it, sign up for our email newsletter in the top bar or by checking the box when commenting on this blog post, and confirm your email address. It will be sent to you in the final welcome email.

And don’t forget to check out our Facebook page—this week’s memes will focus largely on the theme of #BelieveWomen in honor of this post. Pass them on!

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic systemic patterns that abuse, marginalize, and oppress large groups of people. We can do this thing.

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#BelieveWomen, The H…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 10 min