The New Scarlet Letter: Hester, Donald, and the Failure of Shame

Hester Prynne has a few lessons for Donald Trump.

In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Ifell asleep before the end of election coverage yesterday night. We had pulled out the red wine after they called Ohio, and I’d made no effort to stay awake. I dreamt, inexplicably, of dolphins and chestnuts. When I woke up yesterday morning, I lay in bed wondering how long I would wait to walk to my dresser and pick up my phone. In a sense I didn’t want to know who had won.

Surprising even myself, I had cried in the voting booth. This was partially an expression of grief: when I gave my name to the poll workers, they mentioned that a close friend of theirs had had the same name, though he had recently passed away. I’d forgotten that my grandfather had volunteered at the polls for decades. His colleagues offered their sympathies, and gave me a ballot. In the booth, after months of talk about the historical nature of this election, it finally hit me that I was voting for a the first female presidential nominee in our nation’s history. And that I missed my grandfather tremendously, and hadn’t had a chance to grieve.

Later that day, I felt the urge (as we millennials do) to post on Facebook.

My grandfather wasn’t a politician; he was a cryogenic engineer who believed it was his duty as a citizen to help people exercise their rights during every election cycle. He was raised a diehard Republican, but later spent the decades of his life campaigning for the Democrats Rush Holt and Liz Lempert, sitting as treasurer on the local Democratic Committee, and writing hundreds of letters for Amnesty International. He pushed our township towards issuing municipal identity cards for undocumented members of our community. 

He always reminded me of the importance of getting outside your bubble: it’s only then that you can figure out what you really believe.

Didn’t mention: Granddaddio also hated Republicans with a passion. Getting outside his bubble meant, in his view, finding the true path.

I haven’t cried since I left the voting booth and I don’t think I will; I’m numb. As we all know, Donald Trump has been elected President. At a basic level, I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed not only because our country has done this, but also because I feel such visceral disdain for the people who voted for Trump. I’m ashamed that I seem to have inherited the righteousness gene.

Our newsfeeds, ourselves

The echo chamber is hardly news. Neither is the new-normal of conflating political opinion and moral worth at elite liberal-arts schools like the one I went to. (And to which I sometimes pretend not to have gone so that I can actually talk to people. But that’s another story.) We are all standing up for Hester Prynne, who is disenfranchised and a single mother and cruelly shamed by a community that believes her sexuality is sinful. And we are also the Puritans of Hawthorne’s chilly Boston, shunning the wayward wenches who break with our (alleged) values and affixing LIKEs to posts that shame them.

I speak, of course, from my perch inside the body of a white, straight, cis-gendered woman. I felt primarily shame on Tuesday, but also fear. Those emotions are so intertwined that it is sometimes hard to untangle them. I felt fear for myself as a woman; for our nation as a democracy; for the people who felt more fear than I did. I write about shame because it is something I felt, not because it outweighs fear, for it certainly does not. There’s so much shame coursing through my system that I must ask: What is this? What is shame and why do I feel it?

I didn’t grow up in a shame culture — at least, not to my knowledge. Like many Americans, I associate shame culture — accurately or not — with Samurai committing seppuku or with honor killings in the Middle East; my instinct tells me its connotations are distinctly foreign. I can even claim to have experienced its otherness firsthand, while I lived in Botswana as a young child: People in rural areas refused testing for HIV because it involved standing in a line outside the clinic, which was located at the center of the village in full public view. Even if the test was negative, the very act of getting tested was a humiliation in front of the community. Standing in line was tantamount to releasing a sex tape; in other words, admitting your guilt.

As to be expected in a family dominated by North American culture (whatever our location), my upbringing involved far more guilt than shame. My parents were careful to explain why my indiscretions were wrong, and I “felt bad” to the appropriate extent, at least most of the time. Like the docile little Puritan-descendant I am, I felt tremendous guilt.

There have been many studies of the differences between cultures of guilt and shame, and my interest here is not primarily in exploring those (though they are fascinating!). I’m interested in the act of shaming when it fails to achieve its purpose. Why shame when the objects of our shame are — for lack of a better word — shameless?

The shame campaign

In his Christianity Today article, “The Return of Shame,” Andy Crouch takes on the question of shame in the modern world. (He ends up, unsurprisingly, in Christian territory, but his analysis up to that point is useful.) According to Crouch, “[b]estowing and maintaining honor requires the kind of binding community that Western mobility and personal freedom are practically designed to dissolve,” yet shame has not disappeared from our collective conscientiousness. Instead, he explains, we’ve developed “fame-shame culture,” in which “people yearn to feel included in the group, a state constantly endangered, fragile, and desperately in need of protection.” Exclusion equals shame.

What we’ve seen in this election cycle — and in the general sweep of liberalism today — is a new form of shaming: the echo-shame. This is distinct from the oft-lamented “echo chamber” effect, in which newsfeeds on Facebook, Twitter  etc. become ever more self-selecting and cease to reflect the true variety of views. ETC. This has all kinds of terrible consequences, the most recent being the complete obliviousness of the left to the “silent majority” that elected Trump on Tuesday. ETC. Newsfeeds in particular reflect our “yearn[ing] to feel included in the [liberal] group,” and this yearning leads many liberals even further left. When one comment about free speech can result in labels of racistbigoted, Republican (gasp!) no one wants to take that fall—as if there is no middle ground. Echo-shame is the natural extension of the echo chamber, or, perhaps, its very walls. It’s bad to stay inside, but equally bad to leave.

Laugh lines and low blows

Unlike the trolls who “doxxed” female journalists during the so-called GamerGate that Crouch describes, the shaming that pervaded liberal circles pre-election was largely comedic. I adore Last Week Tonight, Saturday Night Live, and even (on occasion) The Daily Show in its post-Stewart incarnation. But I wouldn’t defend these programs and their devastating monologues against the accusation of shame. Of course they shame. They encourage us to laugh at the opposition. I won’t say that it was hard to do.

But these are parodies, one might argue. They aren’t providing us with news! They’re providing comic relief in a time of horror. They’re not trying to change anyone’s mind! True, but they make us all feel good about ourselves, don’t they? We know when to laugh. In many ways this type of shaming is crueler than simple shunning: it is clever, witty and biting humiliation, delivered to loud and eagerly receptive audiences. It’s also wildly ineffective.

Not only is a Trump voter unlikely to engage with John Oliver at any level, but as Ross Douthat wrote back in September, “outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.” The “new [that is, far-left] cultural orthodoxy is sufficiently stifling to leave many Americans looking to the voting booth as a way to register dissent.”

In an extreme, the conservative right becomes Hester Prynne with her “haughty smile.” They know they’re the object of shame, and they will “not be abashed.”

We go low, we go high (and sometimes we go in the middle)

One of my (and everyone’s) favorite sayings from this cycle was Michelle Obama’s defiant call to action: “When they go low, we go high.” It’s an extraordinary and potent phrase, and one the has inspired me for months. Yet it also assumes dissent. There are two sides here, too: them and us. 

We all want to believe that we are the challenged. We are the ones who must go high, because we have been dealt a low blow. This is, I assume, why so many of us have joked about Donald Trump’s tiny hands, his earsplitting sniffles, his Dorito chic. We are on moral high ground, and therefore going low doesn’t really count. (To be fair, Michelle Obama has never, to my knowledge, made fun of any of these things. The rest of us are co-opting her moral high ground for ourselves.)

We liberal millennials have thus walked a thin line. We snicker at “bigly” and unfollow conservatives on Instagram. We have no problem embroidering scarlet letters — so long as we decide who’ll wear them.

Leaving the colony

Here’s the thing about shame: it’s contagious. To “bring shame upon”* someone or something is perhaps even more serious an offense than to be shamed oneself.

* which is in itself a fascinating construct, as shame originally referred to the covering of oneself (as the result of shame). Therefore, the expression to bring shame upon is in essence to bring covering upon, or to obscure. Yet, the central irony of shame is that it traditionally functions to uncover, to highlight or thrust forward in order to humiliate and/or discipline….

Hester Prynne isn’t the only person shamed for her sins. Chillingworth [her estranged husband] is shamed as well, in the form of cuckolding. The entire community, in a sense, bears shame. A visitor to Boston might see Hester’s scarlet letter and say to a passerby: “Ah, I see you have a scarlet woman in your midst.” At which point, the townspeople in their good Puritan way would immediately assure this visitor that Hester had been appropriately punished (shamed) for her misdeeds, and of course, this reflects nothing about the rest of the community, who are all quite upstanding, as one can clearly see from their harsh treatment of Hester… The townspeople, in effect, attempt to liken themselves as much as possible with the visitor, and downplay their relationship to the sinner in their midst.

Why? To cover their own shame. Hester has not only shamed herself, but her community, just as a naughty child embarrasses his parents when they need to pick him up at the elementary school. The misdeed is a symptom of the group, not of the individual. In a far more chilling example, this is the mentality of the honor killing. The source of shame has contaminated the entire family and must be eliminated. Only then will the outside community believe that this family truly stands with the community’s values.

Shame thus layers itself on each member of the community. It’s far from new in human culture to have a society that operates on a “yearn[ing] to feel included in the group, a state constantly endangered, fragile, and desperately in need of protection,” as Crouch puts it. This constant seeking of mutual affirmation is no product of the digital age.

Both sides have employed shame in this election, in too many instances to count. Though the “shame culture” is often used in reference to liberal communities championing so-called “political correctness,” Trump supporters used shame tactics as well. Each side clamored to release the most vicious attack ad. Various residents of Royersford, PA attempted to shame me for my Clinton-Kaine sticker as I walked around knocking on doors. One compared me to a National Socialist, in fact. Another young woman phone banking at my station was told by one phone respondent that he hoped she would “get raped.” Threats of sexual violence against women—at its most primal, the perceived contamination of a tribal bloodline—is a violent cultural marker of shaming that predates civilization.

The topic of sexual violence is not irrelevant and certainly not unimportant, but one that I will save for another piece. While shame works communally to deter certain behaviors within that community, it can also distinguish communities from one another. Shame only works, however, within the boundaries of that community. Once outside, the onus falls on the individual to either shame himself or walk free.

J.S. Atherton has aggregated research on guilt and shame on his blog Doceo. The chief difference, he explains, is whether the effect is community- or individual-driven. As I understand it, in a guilt culture, the community may guilt the individual it believes to be culpable, but the individual fights back if he maintains his innocence. In a shame culture, it doesn’t matter whether the individual is culpable; it is the public opinion that will motivate his next move. In other words, shame tactics are only effective if their object processes that shaming as shame. 

So, in a revision: Shame is contagious. Until it isn’t.

Did Hillary Clinton feel shamed by the “Hillary for Prison” signs? Probably not. She did not care to be included in that group, and therefore their shame tactics had no effect. Trump could run attack ads against her all day long, and although her strategists certainly worried, they didn’t feel shame. 

Did Donald Trump feel shamed by John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, or Paul Ryan? Did he consider Melania’s plagiarism to bring shame upon him? It seems not. He didn’t care.

Shame fulfills its traditional cultural function only if it makes people feel ashamed. In short, there was no point in Clintonites shaming Trump or his supporters, or in Trumpians shaming Clinton and her supporters, because the people getting shamed don’t care. 

If anything, perceiving attempts of shame from the opposition makes people even more defensive of their own doctrine. The other side, they believe, has “gone low.” Even Clinton’s campaign could have gone higher in return. As Brooks wrote, “The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.” I’d argue that both sides are shame cultures. Only one allegedly values inclusion. And that, of course, is a tragic hypocrisy. But humans work in communities, and however lofty we may believe our community to be, red or blue, both sides succumb to shame.

Which brings me to my final thought:

The new scarlet letter

On Wednesday morning, my own Facebook newsfeed was post after post vilifying the new American tragedy: a bigoted, sexist and racist sexual predator elected to the White House. Amid urges to “stay safe,” and “be loved,” there was a rhetoric of regret, anger and shame.

This time, however, a fraction of the shame was not directed towards white men in red baseball caps. Instead, it was directed inwards. People in my echo chamber were beginning to feel guilty that their peers had elected Trump, and by extension, by participating in the democracy of the United States, they had been complicit in that act. And they began to feel ashamed that this was the case. Even worse, the world wouldn’t know how they, individually, had voted. They became the townspeople, eager to demonstrate their own righteousness to the visitor to Boston. And yet, they were also the defeated, courageous Hester.

No one wrote this, of course; the language reflected sadness, shock, horror. My international friends wrote that they were “terrified” about the global consequences. “Please America,” one of them had written on Tuesday night, “don’t f&$% this up.”

And so we arrive at another junction in American history where the world wonders what became of Americans — all of us, not just those who voted for Donald J. Trump.

My family moved to Botswana in 2004, just before the face-off between George W. Bush and John Kerry. After that election, the international community’s opinion of America only continued to decline. As a 10-year-old, my exposure to this came in the form of rude (but perhaps warranted) questions from classmates: “Why are Americans so fat?” “Why is the American President so stupid?” Ironically, it was Bush’s PEPFAR program that paid my father’s salary.

When traveling abroad, I often change my accent to avoid the questions about guns, police, and interventionism. As a proud TCK, my relationship to my country of birth is already complex. I was raised in a house where “Republican” was equated with “evil,” where it was a given that we learned to count to ten in Swahili and German and Spanish and read books of Native American legends just as often as Goodnight Moon. I don’t know why all these things go together, but they do. It was a sandals-and-socks kind of house. No one in my immediate family was overweight. I had been to McDonalds once in my life. Yet I still felt shame when my classmate asked me, “Do you hate me because I’m Muslim?”

It’s an assumption, but I think a valid one, to say that the Americans who are most informed about the global community tend to be the same cosmopolitan class who voted for Hillary, or at least abstained. It is this cosmopolitan community that feels the shame that the rest of the world is projecting onto America. Again: for shame to work, one must feel shamed. Trump’s staunchest supporters reject the shame of liberals because they want to rebel against liberals; they reject (or are numb to) the shame of the international community because they are exclusionist. They have no “yearn[ing] to feel included in the group,” or at least not in those groups, and therefore shame from the left will never reach them.

And that’s why we should feel shame: Our country has failed them. It has failed to provide education, jobs, housing, opportunities in clean energy, and affordable college to enough people in rural America, and we’re seeing the results of that.

Of course there are Trump voters who are bigoted, white-supremacist and ignorant. Indeed, based on the rise in hate crimes and the danger of his rallies, I would say that many of them are. Feeling ashamed of them does not exonerate them from the sickening decision that they made — but it should remind us all that any member of our community can bring shame on us. We citizens of the United States, no matter how we voted, wear a scarlet letter. It could be A for American; perhaps it’s T for Trump. But some wear it proudly. Just as they resisted the shaming of the liberal media, they’ll resist the shaming of their beliefs — indeed, they read into it ever longer narratives of oppression. When the opposition is strong enough, shame ends up only strengthening it.

The self-righteous gene

My grandfather taught me free speech and also taught me that Republicans are evil. I ask myself what he would say, watching election coverage Tuesday night. “Just unbelievable,” he says, shaking his head. Sometimes I seize up remembering the way his “Wee-eelll!” would slide down and then up in vocal pitch. “We-eelll, can you imagine. Donald Trump! It’s a shame.”

In exploring my own feelings of shame over the last two days, I’m struck by the force of the other imaginary voices in my head: the voices not of my peers, or of Trump supporters, but rather of the world at large. I feel ashamed in the eyes of non-Americans because I know that I care enough about this country, and enough about this country’s place in the world, to feel ashamed. It matters to me to be part of this greater community. In a lot of ways, I find myself in Hester’s position after all: able to be shamed, because her community matters to her; yet defiant nonetheless, because as we have learned, shame makes nothing happen. In many ways, self-righteousness is its own undoing.

I want to believe that Granddaddio would have felt ashamed not of Trump voters but of the massive institutional failures that have led them to believe, against all odds and all apparent decency, that he is their best bet. And I want to believe that Granddaddio would have worked his hardest to make sure Donald J. Trump won’t get a second term. He didn’t believe in an afterlife, but if there’s an election happening up there in 2020, you can bet he’ll be sitting behind a card table, checking off names on a list with the ballpoint pen he carries in his pocket protector, handing people ballots and instruction cards and stickers that say: I VOTED.