Gaslighting the Garbage Collection Debate

Something I am proud to say I have outgrown is the embarrassment of having to ask someone their name even if we’ve met before. Sometimes this meeting could be just minutes prior to me having to ask again, which increases the embarrassment, but I still find it necessary because it adds a personal touch.

One thing I have not been able to overcome, though, is admitting to someone that I have zoned out during the portion of the conversation where they are talking, particularly if it was at some length, which would put me in the uncomfortable position of having to ask them to repeat everything they just said.

Instead, you pick up on conversational cues and the most recent subject to piece together an idea of the topic of discussion. If Saturday’s Chronicle editorial was one of these instances, and you didn’t focus on what was being said until it was nearly complete, then the point of the editorial would read differently than to the person who read it all the way through.

The editorial’s jump quotes, those that summarize the full text, suggest that the topic is the Sheriff making a point about littering and that anti-littering is a good message to reinforce.

But those who skimmed the piece and only focused as they neared the end would have received a much different message, “county commissioners can help the cause by implementing a mandatory garbage ordinance in the county requiring that every household gets trash service” the editorial states in the second to last sentence.

This is an example of what is called priming giving way to gaslighting.

Priming is a theory often mentioned with agenda setting, framing, gatekeeping and other parts of media theory that focuses on how the sender of messages attempts to persuade the receiver of the message through limiting the context in which an issue is discussed.

Priming is often analyzed through choice of language. For example, if a reporter uses undocumented person to describe someone in the country who arrived here by means other than the legal immigration system rather than illegal immigrant than both word choices are a way of priming your audience for your viewpoint on the immigration issue that follows.

This editorial primes with the consistent use of littering as a crime in the legal and moral sense. Several examples are seen throughout, “law-abiding residents are sick and tired of those who just ignore littering” and “littering is wrong and it reduces the quality of life of everyone who lives here.”

Priming is not necessarily a bad behavior from a media outlet. News, especially in the opinion section, is only useful in the context in which it is presented. Also, these statements are hard to disagree with on principle.

That’s why what the editorial does isn’t priming but rather gaslighting. Gaslighting is a principle in which the originator of an argument presents the position in such a way that the opposing view is confirmatory or contradictory if it remains in the context in which the originator proposes. What does that mean? Let’s look at an example of the first.

This week, a lawsuit moved forward against the University of Virginia after it expelled a medical student for questioning microaggressions. The reason UVA gave was that the student was being confrontational and disruptive, and when the student refuted these claims, the university pointed to that as further evidence of its charges. That is confirmatory gaslighting.

The contradictory gaslighting is presented in the editorial. The majority of the piece builds the argument that littering is not just illegal, but immoral, and if you are law-abiding, good citizen then you are to be anti-littering.

The last part introduces mandatory garbage pick up as the solution to littering thus implicitly stating that to be against this implementation, in this context, is to be pro-littering. It attempts to create the argument that to be against littering is to be for universal garbage collection because you can’t be one without the other.

This argument breaks down if you remove the context of littering and instead approach the issue through individual rights or fiscal responsibility. The BOCC is currently about two years into a three year study process as to what universal garbage collection would like for the county.

Right now, too little information is available for us to be able to form an opinion on it. In the absence of reliable data, we default to principle which is against any government mandate on its citizens.