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Gaslighting in Toxic Apologetics

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My previous article focused on warning about potential engagement in Toxic Apologetics. Specifically, discussed how certain narcissistic traits may exist in some who engage in toxic apologetics. And whether it is Latter-day Saint Christian Apologetics, Evangelical Christian Apologetics, or even in the realm of Political Apologetics there appears to be an uptick in gaslighting those who may hold different viewpoints. More importantly, this appears to be an increasing online behavior associated with condemnation, judgment, ridicule, and even censorship. Make no mistake – Gaslighting in Apologetics does nothing to advance the message of love and hope. There is real world harm and consequences if we allow ourselves to engage and persist in such behavior in order to prove our position, value, or belief as superior to those who may disagree with us.

What is Gaslighting and How does it apply to Apologetics?

The goal of Apologetics is to give a sound and reasonable defense for one’s faith – or political position. It is an attempt to justify that there is sound reason for certain teachings, beliefs, or even public policy. Whereas Gaslighting is the attitude and behavior of manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. The term itself stems from the psychological 1944 film that starred Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, debuting famous actress Angela Lansbury. It was adapted into film from the 1938 play.

The difficulty is to understand that when one is giving a sound and reasonable defense – there may be a natural tendency to generate doubt in the other person’s position, thought, or belief. However, when done in appropriate means – it is not created through shame, guilt, or any form of manipulation.

The complexity of Apologetics rests upon the foundation of reason and logic. And it serves four cardinal functions in giving an adequate and responsive defense.

First, there is the required vindication or proof. It is to develop a probable cause in considering the positive case for one’s position. Whether it is through scientific, historical, or other such preponderance of evidence – the end result is to draw out the logical implications of one’s particular value and worldview. It is contrasted against alternate worldviews to show a sense of supremacy of logic and reason.

Second, is the actual defense. Since the original term stems from the Greek Apologia – and is where a person gives an oral or written defense – it brings us to mind the legal understanding. Within the jurisdiction of a given courtroom you have the prosecutor who brings forth assertion of a possible crime, or some form of injustice. The Defense provides a sound and reasonable defense against the claims and accusations brought forth against the individual. In political and religious discussions, one is accused of holding to something one may find invalid, false, or make an allegation or accusation. The apologist makes every available attempt to clarify the position, expose any potential logical fallacies, misunderstandings, and/or misrepresentations. All to answer particular objections, criticisms, or answering any questions. This defense is also meant to clear any difficulties individuals may have in adopting a different worldview, values, or beliefs.

Third, aspect of apologetics is to engage in refutation of opposing viewpoints. It is not so much placing one on the offensive. Apologetics is all about giving a defense. In this function, when it comes to refuting assertions, claims, and accusations, the apologist focuses on answering arguments being presented by those who are opposing the particular teaching, value, public policy, or worldview. And this is not a stand-alone aspect of apologetics because all of these are interdependent one with another.

Finally, apologetics serves as a means to persuade. It is not so much as to manipulating or convincing people that one’s position is true. It is about how a particular viewpoint, worldview, and value is not only true – how it is applicable in a person’s life where they may benefit from it.

Apologetics is not a system of reason and logic to win intellectual arguments. It is to persuade people to commit themselves over to critical thinking and examination of the value and unique the worldview is. How valuable and beneficial a particular political viewpoint is beneficial.

Thus, we can break this down to a defined and simplistic understanding:

  • Vindication – To give a defense through sound, reason, and logic by applying particular and appropriate evidence to lend credibility and support to a particular teaching.
  • Defense of position – by responding to and establishing reasonable doubt as to the accusations, assumptions, and claims in order to clarify, address, and respond to any misinterpretation, misunderstanding, or misinformation being presented.
  • Refutation of Assumptions – establish a sound and reasonable response that provides a logical refutation of particular statements, assumptions, and claims.
  • Persuade through logic and reason – clarify and present one’s argument to show the beneficial of the viewpoint or position. How it stands the test of reason and logic.

Gaslighting is not based on any modicum of sound reason and logic. It is not about clarifying any misunderstandings, misinformation, or providing an adequate refutation of claims and persuading someone to see the benefits of another person’s viewpoint or position. It is to manipulate you into doubting your own value, your own sense of worth, and questioning your own belief in a way that is harmful and deceitful. It utilizes dishonesty, personal attacks, and insults. And typically, when a person is being gaslighted in discussions (specifically, those discussions online when it comes to religious faith, teachings, and values) – it is the person who is bringing forth the accusation that is engaging in gaslighting as part of their supposed apologetic perspective.

Raging at you for an honest question

One of the first signs where there is potentiality for being gaslighted is when an individual rages at you for an honest question. In one recent discussion, I posited a question regarding the use of Galatian 1:6-9 as a possible proof text to deny the authenticity and truthfulness of the LDS Faith. My question was this: “Have you considered the possibility that there is a different understanding and interpretation of Galatians 1:6-9?” The response to this question appeared to be despiteful and what may appear to be from a bitter and resentful place of anger.

It is natural to ask questions. It serves to help understand where another person is coming from. Instead of making a statement of “Well you are wrong about that” it is potentially inviting in a form of discussion to determine what viewpoint and position has a more reasonable and logical understanding.

However, regardless how polite and inviting one may be in their initial question (or ongoing discussion and questioning in the course of conversation) – when condemnation, insults, or other statements are made – it does a disservice. First, to the person asking an honest question. Second, to the person who is engaging in insulting banter and condemnation. And third, to those who are potentially reading the course of conversation.

From the defense perspective – we may be tempted to rage at a person’s honest question because of our own proclivities and bias and prejudices. They may be actually asking a sincere question when we are possibly used to questions being asked in a manner that is rhetorical, sinister, or potentially a way to bait us into a conversation. Not every person asking questions is out to challenge us, make false accusations, or present something that may be a misrepresentation. We embrace and do our best to answer their question.

Denying what happened

In some of my more recent conversations in various groups on Facebook – I have noticed a trend where individuals will use personal attacks. Make false assumptions about me personally. Draw to conclusions that are not based in reality, or sound reason and logic. Naturally, I bring up their own words. And to my astonishment – they deny saying those words or making further accusations of misinterpreting their words, taking them out of context, or even attempting to make it appear they said something that they never actually said. Regardless of the evidence – they deny what they said, how they said it, and the very context and manner in which they said it.

Sadly, this attitude and behavior in conversations online occur more frequently and consistently that causes a difficulty in even attempting to provide a sound and reasonable defense. All I am able to do is to let it lie right where it is at. They deny it and there is no convincing them otherwise. And therefore, to save any consternation, frustration, and emotional turmoil, it is best to simply let sleeping dogs lie. In other words, do not get hung up in attempt to prove that they did in fact say things that are belittling, nasty, and sometimes insidious. It detracts from the initial conversation and pulls you into that place of frustration. Leave it be and move on. And that is the most difficult thing to do.

Twisting the Story

Another common aspect of Gaslighting is the twisting of the story. Unlike denying what happened, someone may actually admit to what happened – however, twist it into their favor as a way to make you look like you are the one being insulting toward them. This is key to understand because in the previous – it is best to leave things where they are and not force the issue of proving they did say some things that were insulting and inappropriate. Here is the reason – because it gives them greater ammunition to twist the story in their favor.

By twisting how you are giving a response – they project unto you their own insecurities, inability, and inadequacy to probably respond to what you are saying. How you are presenting sound and reasonable logic. What clarification you are offering. One common way to recognize this is when they say, “you did not present any evidence at all. Just mere nonsense.” So, you respond as an attempt to clarify. To which they may respond, “Against, you are not presenting anything. Just offering an opinion.”

What they are doing is deflecting it back onto you – twisting it to cause further aggravation, frustration, and the natural tendency is to respond and further attempt to show them you are providing a sound and reasonable explanation. They won’t by it and all you have done is wasted time and energy to convince someone that is not willing to allow themselves to be convinced. They then twist the story by sharing and commenting how you were unable to provide anything to disprove their position. And they do so after they deleted, censored, or even blocked you from giving any more response to their accusations.

Refusing to talk about an important topic

While Gaslighting is typically an insidious form of psychological manipulation – toxic apologetics is full of logical fallacies. One of them is known as the Red Herring logical fallacy. It is a way to present irrelevant information within the context and discussion of relevant information as a means to detract from the initial topic of conversation.

It is to lead away from the main topic of discussion. By distracting from the initial conversation, a person ends up chasing a variety of rabbit trails where there is no cohesive sense of logic and reason. This is accomplished by what is called shotgun questioning where the questions are geared toward covering a wide field with some hit-or-miss effectiveness. And it is not just one, two, or three questions that may have some relevance to one another. It is a myriad of questions that are not related to any single topic of discussion. Another way is to ask questions that appear to have some relevance to the main topic, however, it is coercive and misleading where the objectivity is to distract from the main topic through a series of questioning and answering. It is what I refer to as a cascading questioning. Unlike shotgun questioning, this appears to be asking questions while the previous question is in the process of being answered.

Here are some examples of the two types:

Shotgun Questioning:

“If the Mormon Faith is true, then how come Joseph Smith had multiple wives? how come he was engaged in treasure seeking? And is there a reason the Book of Mormon plagiarized most of the king James bible? How are you able to say he translated the Book of Mormon when he took a peep stone and peered into a hat and read off what he thought the stone was saying? And how come there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon?”

Notice the multiple questionings that veer off into different areas of thought. The attempt here is to distract and mislead. Misdirect from the original topic.

Cascading Questioning

The other example is asking questions in a way that when someone is providing a response and answer to one, the person interrupts and asks another question:

Question: “Galatians 1:6-9 says that even if we or an angel came down to preach another Gospel then they are to be accursed. Do you agree with that?

Answer: “No, because the Apostle Paul was using hyperbolic language. He was making an exaggeration to prove his point to the Gentile Christians because they were being deceived…

Question: “Okay, however Paul also says that we are saved by grace and not that of ourselves. Yet the Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 23:25 says that we are saved by grace after all we can do. Are we saved by God’s grace alone or are we saved by our own efforts and works and then God’s grace comes in after all we can do?

Response: Well, we have to take each passage separately and understand what the appropriate context is saying.

Question: Well, another question, Moroni 10 says that we have to be perfect in Christ. How can you be perfect in Christ if you are still committing sins?

Notice that each time a response is given, the next question comes up to detract from the original question. None of them are given due diligence in discussing and receiving adequate answers and understandings.

Again, this attitude and behavior shows poor judgment, lack of integrity, and presents foolish arguments that appear indefensible. It manipulates the conversation to lead a person into a place of questioning and doubting their own intellectual integrity.

Reversing the discussion to what you did wrong

Unlike twisting the story- this manipulation technique shifts the focus from what the other person is saying and directs the attention on you and what is perceived to be doing something wrong. In this manner, it is to persuade you into thinking that there is some error or flaw in the way you are thinking.

A most common way this is accomplished is when someone makes the following statement: “you never answered my question.” Despite the evidence contrary, that you are naturally wanting to prove, they are convinced you never answered their question and won’t further engage in the conversation with you.

In one conversation, I found myself frustrated because I posted my response to their question four times. Finally, I asked the individual – “Well, what is the answer you are looking for as it seems to appear I may not be answering your question.” The individual actually responded to reveal that the reason he felt I was not answering his question was because I was not answering the question in the manner in which he accepted the response as an adequate answer. Therefore, it was my fault for not answering the question the way he wanted me to answer. It was not that I failed in responding to and providing a sound and reasonable answer – it was because it simply did not fit into his worldview and therefore was not an answer. Thus, the discussion reversed itself onto how I was wrong for not answering his question to confirm his prejudicial and bias viewpoint.

Shaming for bringing something up

This is one of those traits that falls upon the one who is giving a defense rather than the one bringing forth the accusation. And I am guilty of doing this myself. What I have noticed is that when someone brings up a question – or attempts to make a valid point – the knee jerk response is to shame them into bringing up such a question or wanting to address a topic. Typically, it is about certain difficult topics of Church history and our faith.

For instance, I have seen many well-to-do Latter-day Saint Christian Apologist shame someone for bringing up blacks and the priesthood, the mountain meadows massacre, or even early Church history and polygamy. The typical responses I have seen span the realm of mockery, ridicule, and right-out condemnation, judgment, and insults.

With that said, it is far too often of someone who brings up these topics and someone actually engages in an honest discussion and points to cultural and social context where the person being the accusing/opposing one shames the individual for bringing up relevant social and cultural context within the discussion.

In certain political conversations, I have had people say to me, “only idiots bring up whataboutisms”.

Accusing you of something wild you’re not doing

This is problem one of the more insidious traits of gaslighting. Specifically in religious and political commentary and discussion. The idea behind this is to not only insult you – but it presents you as someone who may hold no credibility or merit. It is placing stereotypical assumptions on you. For instance, in some political commentary, I say something and present information to back up what I said. The response is – “Typical trump supporter who is brainwashed and supports racism.” The accusation is three-fold. Supporting a person who was the subject of worship and scorn. Undergoing brainwashing. And falsely accusing of being a bigot and racist. This is typically followed up by certain atta boy’s and accolades. It speaks directly to your ego, to your integrity, and to your personal core values and beliefs – the heart of your character. And of course, you want to defend yourself and prove that you are not brainwashed, not a supporter of someone that may be controversial, nor are a racist. Problem is – if that is how people end up perceiving you – it is indefensible. No matter what you say – they already are convinced you have done something wrong, or you are not doing something and therefore, nothing you bring is worth consideration.

Denying Responsibility for their own actions

Along with denying what happened, individuals engaged in gaslighting in conversations do not take responsibility and accountability for their own actions. They do not care. It is online. In their mindset – it is not to be taken literally. And if it is to be taken literally, then it is not their responsibility how they behave and act. This leads into the next trait.

Playing the Victim

Many individuals who engage in toxic apologetics appear to perceive they are the victims. And they will defend it. They will fall on the sword of victimhood. This is accomplished by how they utilize the previous traits – twisting the story, denying they said or did anything, et al. Here, they present themselves as the victim of mockery and ridicule.

In some conversations I have had over the years, many have engaged in this unique trait by claiming that I am not able to respond because they feel insulted, talked down to, and even criticized.

Other instances I have seen is that many within the Latter-day Saint Christian faith tend to play the victim card all too well. They make statements of persecution, being insulted (when there is no evidence). Again, I have done this multiple times out of sheer frustration and emotional reactiveness.

Telling you you’re lazy because you missed one

This is probably the most common form of gaslighting I have seen in various online forums and discussions. And it is simply wrapped up in this statement:

“You know, you can google it and search it yourself because it is right there.”

Typically, this is stated when asked what evidence the individual has to support their claim. Imagine being a defense attorney and you are questioning the witness for the prosecution. All the witness was coached to say is “look it up the evidence is right there duh!” It is not a valid response and merely is a burden of proof fallacy. And no matter how oft I explain – “I am not the one who made the assertion, so it is not my responsibility to prove your position.” To them, yes – it is otherwise you are lazy and unintelligent to them. It dissolves them of any responsibility to prove their position as being sound, reasonable, and logical.

Therefore, while apologetics is a healthy way of responding to, correcting, and addressing false information, misleading assumptions, and clarifying certain misconceptions, all while giving a defense to refute and persuade with sound, reason, and logic. Gaslighting is a toxic trait within apologetics that shifts any and all responsibility from one person to the next. It is to manipulate the discussion in a way the individual appears to be the real victim, absolving them of any accountability and responsibility for their attitude and behavior, and it is meant to cause one to engage in an unhealthy form of questioning and self-doubt.

Let us be mindful, watchful, and ensure we are presenting ourselves in a way where we are able to quickly disengage from such conversations. Trust me – it will save time and energy. People who are honestly seeking answers to their questions will give us the space to answer them.

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