|image source: www.sosaschool.com
Unless you’ve managed to live off-the-grid this season, you’re probably aware of the hashtag #TrumpCantRead and the evidence various commentators (including the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal) have presented to suggest that Donald Trump has difficulty reading and thus avoids doing so. I suspect these commentators are onto something, yet this hypothesis has actually made me feel a bit more sympathy for him.* While I feel strongly about calling out people for destructive behavior, shaming someone for something they can’t control—that crosses the line.
You see, lately I’ve been working on learning more about the psychology of shame. After seeing Brené Brown’s TedTalk “Listening to Shame,” I bought one of her audio books that delves deeper into the subject. Shame is a powerful emotion that drives so many destructive behaviors (chauvinism, perfectionism, bullying, etc.). Like the fight-flight-freeze response, humans respond to shame by either puffing up, shrinking, or appeasing. Shame often manifests in violent ways: from suicide to cruelty to others. As psychologist Mary C Lamia points out, “Narcissistic personalities often have the emotion of shame at their core.”
Let’s imagine for a moment that Trump really does have trouble reading. Perhaps it is dyslexia; perhaps it has something to do with his attention span or countless other issues that ideally would have been identified in childhood. According to a Frontline documentary I saw, his father was a man who praised toughness and mocked weakness. Perhaps little Trump was deeply ashamed by his struggles in school and developed coping mechanisms to mask his struggles and deflect these feelings. Perhaps his coping response was to puff up—to lash out at others. Jessi Sholl writes that “To compensate [for our shame], we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding out.”
Hmm… sound familiar?
Here’s the thing about shame: When someone’s toxic behaviors are in response to their shame, trying to shame them into changing only makes them more ashamed—and thus even less likely to change. (this especially applies when trying to intervene with loved one who has an addiction problem)
Here’s the other thing: Shame is highly contagious. While the intention of the #trumpcantread conversation may be to suggest that Trump isn’t well educated on key issues, all the other people out there with reading difficulties get the message loud and clear that their struggles are shameful and their adaptations (getting news from t.v. instead of newspapers or enjoying movies over novels or having someone type their Tweets for them, for example) merit ridicule.
And that, is a real shame.
P.S. I recently met a pastor who shared how, despite his severe dyslexia and previous beliefs that college wasn't for him and his only career options were manual labor jobs, he courageously went back to school and had just completed seminary. Bravo.
*That is, in the same way I feel more sympathy for a school bully after hearing about her horrid home life.