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Institutional Gaslighting: Investigations to Silence the Victim and Protect the Perp

When interpersonal injustice – discrimination, harassment, or assault – is perpetrated within the context of an institution such as a workplace or school, the institution often responds with action intended not to understand the transgression, but rather to protect itself by silencing the victim or survivor. While the individual is already vulnerable due to the precipitating harm, “institutional betrayal” often causes the victim to feel doubted and unsupported. This betrayal is uniquely poignant because it is often committed by a team of esteemed people who are framed as the arbiters of justice. In reality, that respected team is intended to protect its institution. In effect, the goal of those who investigate the wrongdoing is not to decipher the truth or dole the consequences, but rather to silence the victim, consequently enabling the predator. When a group of respected people within an institution are posed as investigating on the victim’s behalf, but in actuality act to belittle or deny the reality of the harm committed in order to protect the institution’s reputation, the institution can cause the victim to question their own perceptions of reality, feelings, instincts, and even sanity. When an authority figure incites self-doubt in the victim, they are employing a tactic of emotional abuse referred to as “gaslighting, a term coined in reference to domestic abuse.” Perpetrators, whether they are individuals or institutions, use “gaslighting” to get what they want, typically “without ever taking responsibility for their actions or even [their] precipitating desires.” When an institution gaslights a victim in order to protect its own reputation, the institutional betrayal silences, invalidates, and harms recent survivors in their most vulnerable states.

The more shameful the transgressions are, the more likely an institution is to gaslighting the victim to silence and bury the issue that occurred within its contexts. In accordance, institutional gaslighting is prevalent in many interactions in the aftermath of sexual assault. Tales of student interactions in Title IX offices across the country are defined by dismissal and gaslighting tactics. The perpetrator of gaslighting causes the victim to question their own perceptions of reality, feelings, instincts, and sanity through various tactics. Some of such tactics include “withholding”, which occurs when the abuser refuses to listen to the victim. Another tactic is “countering”, which occurs when the abuser questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. The abuser employs the tactic of “diverting” when the abuser questions the victim’s thoughts to distract from the issue at hand. “Trivializing” is when the abuser makes the victim’s feelings seem unimportant. Lastly, “denial” is when the abuser pretends that they are not aware of what actually occurred. Institutions commonly betray their members through their use of gaslighting to inspire doubt, disbelief, and dismissal. These abusive tactics culminate beginning with the first steps after an interpersonal injustice is realized.

The interpersonal injustice of sexual assault is frequently met with institutional gaslighting throughout the duration of reporting. A person confides they have recently been violated to their core and discloses that their bodily autonomy was stripped of them, used, and disposed of. Instead of being met with empathy or reassurance to restore a sense of security, the student is met with degrading questions to shift blame. The victim is often asked if they were drinking, and subsequently often met with disdain, doubt, and discouragement. If the student still questions whether they may pursue the case, a Title IX university representative will usually say that the student will need to read through an inch-thick stack of paper filled with legal jargon and policy loopholes. The near sixty pages plopped on the table, if read, will likely lead a student to conclude that no satisfactory action to prevent reoffense will actually be taken. The college’s sexual assault officers will rarely forget to emphasize that the student should not go to the police or involve anyone but the school itself. In these interactions, an institution essentially tells the still-shaken survivor that the institution lacks concern for the violated. The institution trivializes the survivor’s pain while simultaneously dehumanizing the survivor. When the institution works to bury cases of harassment instead of working to understand the story, the institution degrades the vulnerable.

When someone expects to trust the judgment of an institution, but the institution then betrays justice, survivors are gaslighted. For instance, Harvard University’s Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR) was created to pose as an impartial investigative process to Harvard students, faculty, and affiliates, particularly for sexual or gender-based harassment. The premise on which Harvard’s ODR was founded is in itself manipulative and deceiving, as, in reality, Harvard pays the salaries of the ODR’s employees thereby creating an incentive to protect the institution. The Harvard ODR’s inclination to minimize and suppress the report of the wrongdoing is demonstrated by their biased language. The ODR refers to the victim as the “complainant,” and the person who was reported for committing a discriminatory act as the “respondent.”  This subtle characterization, along with microaggressive questions about dress, drinks, and double standards is all indicative of an insidious doubt. When genuine harm has been committed and an institution concludes that the harm is less significant than in fact it was, an already vulnerable student, who has already felt abused, is then undermined and unsupported by the institution. For instance, Harvard’s ODR relayed a police report for an arrest for domestic abuse to the college as a report of a physical altercation. The Harvard office investigators countered reports by Cambridge City Police and the Massachusetts District Court when finding a male student innocent, a student who the city, district, and state had charged with domestic assault. One of the strongest predictors of if a survivor of sexual assault will be revictimized is the level of hostility or respect an institution gives survivors. Therefore, when trusted institutions take action to underplay the crime and silence the victim, the institution causes significant harm against the healing of the victim and proves that one can perpetrate harm without their being held accountable for the offense.

The prevalent pattern of institutions discounting the credibility of reports of assault and dismissing survivors has tremendous consequences on healing. A 2016 study found that among veterans exposed to military sexual trauma, perceptions of institutional betrayal correlated to victims attempting suicide and self-harm. First, the institutional betrayal echoes the abuse a survivor may just be escaping, which leads to further emotional and psychological distress. Second, the commonplace devaluing of a victim’s testimony hinders the victim at every step for safety and justice. Third, the psychological consequences of institutional gaslighting after a sexual assault are likely immense. In order to dissuade a perpetrator from reoffending, help survivors heal and lower the likelihood of revictimization, and end the systemic pattern of gaslighting the vulnerable, institutions need to prioritize truth in investigations over institutional expediency.

In order to support those in the wake on an interpersonal injustice, individuals need to reassure survivors that many institutions act in self-interest, as opposed to acting on the principles of unbiased justice. Although institutional gaslighting is pervasive, it often takes decades of reports of injustices for any large-scale action to be taken, as demonstrated repeatedly with cases of systemic injustices over history. Therefore, individuals can feel alone in being targeted and continuously victimized by institutional gaslighting, which is why the reassurance of friends and family is of utmost importance. Survivors deserve to be believed and supported in their desired course of action, without being intentionally intimidated. Survivors and supporters should be reassured by their truth and their status on the progressive, compassionate side of history. While institutions shamefully engage in abusive tactics of gaslighting, every survivor in the wake of injustice has stood up and told their truth to the best of their ability at the time being and has, therefore, propelled the journey towards justice.

Photo: “Egg and Hammer