Saturday, December 02, 2017

WORDS ~ black swan; gaslighting.

Reaching, now, for an extra strong word magnifying glass to refresh memory about hidden meanings behind two terms used in modern journalism and commentary.

First: black swan.

Yes, any stray British readers might initially connect "The Black Swan" to something rather pleasant - a pub sign, common enough in the British Isles. The words, as used these days, have a more sinister meaning.

Swans are generally expected to be white, sight of a black swan would be surprising. A 2007 book by Lebanese American writer, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan explains use of the term "black swan" as a metaphor, to encapsulate the concept that a given, impactful, event came as a significant surprise, completely unexpacted by any known measure. The event, however, does usually become rationalized in hindsight, as if it could have been expected.

The term black swan derives from a Latin expression, its oldest known reference comes from the poet Juvenal's characterization of something being "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno"- translated: "a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan." When the phrase was coined, the black swan was presumed not to exist. The importance of the simile lies in its analogy to the fragility of any system of thought. A set of conclusions is potentially undone once any of its fundamental postulates is disproved. In this case, the observation of a single black swan would be the undoing of the phrase's underlying logic, as well as any reasoning that followed from that underlying logic.

A few examples of what are, and are not, black swan events:
9/11 was; the Fukushima event was; sinking of the Titanic was; result of the Brexit referendum was not; Donald Trump becoming president of the USA was not. The last two events, while surprising to many, were hardly outside the realm of regular expectation - in both cases there was a 50/50 chance of their happening - before our very eyes!

Nassim Taleb stated that a black swan event is an outlier, because it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Additionally, it
carries an extreme 'impact' and in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

AND, gaslighting, another term used metaphorically nowadays.

Gaslight, back in the 19th century and early 20th century before electric lighting was generally available, was light for street and domestic lighting was produced by the combustion of illuminating gas. There are probably not too many people still around who remember gas lighting in homes and streets. I do! I remember the lamplighter - a guy who, each winter evening, would walk along with a long-handled tool, lighting the wicks of street lamps powered by gas. I remember, too, that one of my parents' first homes had gas lamps in the downstairs rooms. I always felt wary of these, relieved when electricity replaced them.

The term gaslighting, now, is almost exclusively used metaphorically, to describe an insidious mind game. A method of intentional emotional and psychological manipulation, a form of mind control and intimidation used to confuse and debilitate the person targeted.

This metaphorical use of the term had its origins in a 1938 play Gas Light, in which a man seeks to convince his wife that her mind is unravelling. When she notices that he has dimmed the gaslights in the house, he tells her she is imagining things — but they are as bright as they were before. The British play became a 1944 American film starring Ingrid Bergman, with Charles Boyer as her abusive husband.

I guess it was inevitable that the metaphorical meaning of gaslighting might be in danger, over time, of becoming devalued or misunderstood. As Amy Glynn wrote at Paste magazine in a piece headed Zeitgeist by Gaslight
Gaslighting does not occur en masse. You cannot be gaslighted by the government, the media, the Koch Brothers or Monsanto. By definition, gaslighting is personal, intimate, and can only be done to you by someone you trust. A gaslighter is a specialty narcissist or sociopath who uses intimacy, personal approval, knowledge of the specific details of your life and personality, and importantly, isolation, to unhinge you If you think you’re being gaslighted by the government, the media, Big Pharma, the Pope or that guy on Twitter who said you were wrong and wouldn’t back down? You’re not.

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