The recent town hall conducted by Dean Phillips in New Hampshire was met with highly controversial controversy, as it quickly descended into an unpleasant and uncomfortable situation for the attendees. Phillips, a newly elected congressman, faced tough questions from the crowd on a range of issues, including President Trump’s agenda and the current state of healthcare.
But it was the moment when Phillips accused one of the women in the audience of “gaslighting” him that the gathering went off the rails. Phillips’ accusation, which he later apologized for, was met with angry shouts and protests from the crowd.
The controversy that ensued serves as an example of how language can be weaponized when used to protect a position or discredit an opponent. Gaslighting is a term used to describe a form of manipulation meant to sow doubt in a person’s memory or perception. Phillips’ use of the word in the midst of a tense exchange suggests that he was trying to discredit his opponent, by implying that her memories of the event or her interpretation of his words were clouded.
Though Phillips may have been trying to protect his own position in the conversation, his use of the word gaslighting was met with instant backlash. Those in attendance of the town hall felt that he had wrongly accused the woman, and that the encounter between them was symptomatic of larger power dynamics between politicians and constituents.
What followed was an intense discussion during which the woman at the receiving end of Phillips’ insult had the opportunity to speak out against his words and explain how they made her feel. As a result, the woman said she felt attacked and her experience was met with general understanding from several participants in the town hall.
Ultimately, Phillips’ use of the term “gaslighting” at the town hall highlights the need for politicians to think before they speak and the potential consequences of their words. While Phillips later clarified his position and apologized, the incident serves as a reminder that words have power and can be used to undermine an opponent as well as to create meaningful dialogue.