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February 17, 2020
Feeling a little crazy, vape fam? A bit emotional or off your game? Maybe even beaten down or depressed? It’s probably the nonstop gaslighting. Wikipedia defines gaslighting as “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes such as low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim's beliefs.” If you’ve been advocating for your right to vape, something you’ve likely chosen to do for your health to displace smoking,chances are you’ve been subjected to this kind of manipulation.
We had a look at the list of 11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting in Psychology Today and illustrate each warning with examples from the current battle against vaping and people who vape.*
1) They tell blatant lies. Where to even start? The list of lies about vaping is long and ever growing. Health Canada was compelled to dispel the myth of popcorn lung early on to quell fears. Michael Bloomberg liked the lie that marijuana would lower your child’s IQ 10-15 points so much that he brought it out of retirement and applied it to vaping nicotine. Stanton Glantz, darling of the anti-vape world, claimed that combustion is not as important as we once thought it was and that more children take up vaping than is mathematically possible. The old antifreeze story is revived on a regular basis to whip up fear. There are too many lies to enumerate.
2) They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof. When the World Health Organization published its Q & A list about vaping, the backlash was swift. The scientific community, academics, medical professionals, media personalities, harm reductionists, and vapers all pushed back. They made claims that were so obviously false that they couldn’t defend them. So the WHO made some changes to the worst of their statements. They didn’t apologize, they didn’t publish a notice of retraction, they didn’t send the corrected version to the journalists they initially contacted- they just quietly made some changes.
3) They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition. Children are often weaponized in the argument against vapers: that they don’t care about their own or other people’s children. There’s nothing more sensitive. Many people who vape have children and quit smoking through vaping because they are parents and want to be around to participate in their children’s lives. But you don't have to have kids to care about kids.
4) They wear you down over time. The attack on the vape industry and on vapers more generally shows no sign of letting up. Businesses face ever changing regulations and restrictions and a growing number are unable to keep up with the financial demands, laying off employees or shuttering completely. People who quit smoking through vaping have caved to the pressure of friends and family members and returned to smoking rather than continue to counter the fake news about the dangers of vaping. Advocates find it increasingly difficult to find the energy to participate in an environment that is endlessly hostile.
5) Their actions do not match their words. Anti-vape advocates are constantly promoting the idea that they “care about vapers’ and smokers’ health” and yet they would remove an alternative to deadly cigarettes that is working for people at twice the rate of traditional NRTs (nicotine replacement therapies). They also promote the idea that they don’t have “enough evidence” to support vaping while denying the evidence (research, studies, public health data) that they do have access to.
6) They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you. They commend you for quitting smoking while simultaneously lobbying to restrict or deny you access to the product(s) that are keeping you smoke free.
7) They know confusion weakens people. We crave stability and normalcy. It is disorienting to hear public health officials and other authorities that we implicitly trust, or are meant to trust, disseminate misinformation or make rules that don’t make any sense. For example, Health Canada is currently reviewing whether their own statements regarding vaping can be repeated by industry or whether that constitutes an infraction.
8) They project. Anti-vape activists make the claim that people who vape, and the vape industry, simply do not have the evidence to support vaping as harm reduction. In fact, all of the evidence does point to that conclusion while the anti-side is reliant on hypotheticals, false narratives, misdirection, and moral panic. Advocates have science and evidence on their side, the anti side is wholly reliant on emotional storytelling.
9) They try to align people against you. The public campaign against vaping and people who vape is constant, passionate, and often repeats the lie that vaping is a tool of “big Tobacco”, or meant to attract children, or puts children at risk. This is an age old device intended to whip up panic. There is no evidence to support any of these assertions and that is why the argument is presented to appeal to emotion rather than logic.
10) They tell you or others that you are crazy. This is a classic gaslighting move. Generally this follows a period of denying all evidence and appeals to reason and compassion, once the vape advocate is exhausted and emotional and says something untoward. The outburst is then used to demonstrate instability and often used to stereotype the group. It is a vile and overused tactic but effective. Another version involves the denial of personal stories and insistence that they/you “could” do something (quit smoking cold turkey, or quit by using traditional NRTs) that hasn’t worked in past.
11) They tell you everyone else is a liar. For example, when the very same body that warned of the dangers of smoking ahead of everyone else asserts that vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking, all of a sudden that authority’s credibility is questioned. As is the credibility of countless health officials, cardiologists, tobacco harm reduction experts, etcetera. The only “trustworthy” sources are those who stand in opposition to vaping, regardless of how crazy or demonstrably false their statements.
So how do you counter this kind of gaslighting? That’s the tricky part. In a one-on-one situation the answer would be to extricate yourself as soon as possible. On this massive scale that is a lot more difficult, particularly as some of it is coming from the very authorities charged with making the rules.
Remember that the facts are the facts, whether they’re acknowledged or not. Don’t twist yourself into a pretzel trying to accommodate “alternative facts” in order to have a discussion. Just keep countering falsehoods with facts and leave it at that. Defend yourself decisively but don’t argue with people hell bent on proving you wrong. They’re not all going to come around: don’t waste your energy on trolls or on people who make a living at being anti-vape.
If you do sense yourself becoming overly tired or emotional- take a break if possible. Remember that for some people, getting you to a point of exhaustion and frustration so high that you say something regrettable is a measure of success. But if you do happen to lose your temper, be gentle with yourself and move on. There’s no point in beating yourself up- the other side will do plenty of that without you pitching in.
Don’t repost propaganda-style articles: they’re getting enough air time as it is without your assistance and oftentimes people only read so far as the headline. If the headline confirms a preexisting bias, you’ll only perpetuate the myth(s). Even if your point is to demonstrate what you’re up against, many people will take this as evidence that the “experts” or “mainstream” are all on one side and you on the other.
Don’t allow anyone to divide you into groups. None of us is more or less deserving of personal autonomy or access to harm reduction, whatever form that comes in. We are stronger together- don’t look for (or accept) artificial divisions. The tactic of pitting one disadvantaged group against another, or members within the same community, is age old for a reason: it works. It keeps people who otherwise would naturally come together from gaining too much power. We can make as much space as we need to for friends and allies.
Finally, remember that moral panics (and the gaslighting and myth building that so often accompanies them) eventually die off. True, a lot of damage may be done before that happens and you should be prepared for that. But you are on the right side of the argument and that will (one day) be evident, even to some of your most strident opponents.
*Expanded version based on the original article “The Great Gaslighting” on Controversial by Default
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