Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Did Trump Invent the Shoulder Shrug?

I gave up expecting Trump to say something remotely interesting a long time ago. His descent into the abyss of incoherence is accelerating by the day, be it a result of mental deterioration or an unwillingness to step outside of his adolescent comfort zone.

His body language, however, has fascinated me since he became President. In the Movement Therapy profession, we talk about a person’s ‘movement vocabulary’, similar to a verbal vocabulary. I witnessed the lack of this nonverbal vocabulary when I worked in a state mental hospital, here in Massachusetts. On the locked wards of this asylum, patients moved about like robots, mostly a result of over-medication. They had lost all their capacity to express emotions through movement. Some approached us with a rambling gait, eyes staring at this new apparition in their otherwise monotonous existence, then went back to rocking in their corner, smoking one cigarette after another. In the dark, pea green halls of this medieval place, we witnessed what untreated, overmedicated mental illness can do to a human being. They were the forgotten souls of our profession and the health care system in general.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the rich and expressive vocabulary of the dancer, the clown and the mime. The late Marcel Marceau was a nonverbal virtuoso. I invite you to relish this amazing mime in action here: Marcel Marceau I Bip As A Skater [1975] 

With this background in mind, what are we to make of Trump’s nonverbal lexicon? Where does he fit into the spectrum of what is possible for a human being endowed with a body that can convey a practically infinite amount of nonverbal messages? 
Some say that Trump is an expert at manipulating his audience through body language because of his expansive, showy gestures. But analyzing movement is a slippery business. You are bound to trip over your own subjective interpretations. Maybe Trump’s unintended genius is his gestural repetitiveness, which matches his diction. Verbally and nonverbally, he is in the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ range, which might resonate with many of his supporters. 

After watching the first 3 minutes of a Trump speech, I came away with less than 10 gestures, which he kept repeating over and over again.

The gesture that stands out, is the palms out gesture, with or without a shrug. In a Washington Post article Why Donald Trump shrugs so much, the author explains that Trump shrugs off everything that is embarrassing or reflects negatively on him. 

You might think that this is a trivial question, hardly worth writing about in these dire times, but without the shoulder shrug, Trump would have to answer for himself every time he makes a false statement, distorts the truth or outright lies. He uses the shoulder shrug like you and I use the word ‘meh’.

According to Darwin, a shrug is the ‘antithesis’ of an aggressive posture, its opposite. An aggressive dog’s hair stands on end, his teeth are bare, but when he is pacified, he will show the opposite body stance: wagging tail in a crouching position, ready to play. That is the brilliance of Trump’s shrug. He does or says something outrageous but exonerates himself from the consequences by shrugging, which matches Darwin’s antithesis theory.
From Darwin's Expressions (1872).
On the left, the man models an "indignant" posture; on the right, he models a full-body shrug display. 

We are all so used to take our queues from what our politicians say, not what they tell us through their gestures. When we pay attention to a politician’s body language, things come into focus that otherwise would have been ignored. What is Melania Trump saying when she swats Trump’s hand away on the tarmac? What is a policeman’s non-verbal message, when he crosses his arms, stands with his legs astride with an inscrutable expression under his assault helmet? These are signals that non-verbal experts get paid big bucks to decode. The problem is that it is not exactly a hard science. Interpreting non-verbal gestures reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant

But the shoulder shrug is so universal and probably baked into our evolution. This gesture is also seen in primates (see: A World of Eloquence in an Upturned Palm). It is the equivalent of asking for something, as the can you spare a dime gesture, or the two-palm version showing helplessness. Just like the tone of our voice, there are myriad ways of performing a shoulder shrug: the apologetic, indifferent, scornful or indignant shrug. You name it, and the shrug will be there to hide behind. 

In fact the shrug has now made it into our emoticon end emoji lexicon, which shows how ubiquitous it is.
So, maybe Trump didn't invent the shrug, but he certainly latched on it, like a blood hound sniffing out the best trail to its prey.
In a previous post: Evidentiality: A cure for Trump’s Pathological Lying, I proposed that our candidates be required to use ‘evidentials’ to accompany every statement they make. Evidentiality is when the language you speak forces you to show evidence that what you say is true. In those languages, you cannot just say ‘he played soccer’, you have to specify whether you saw someone play soccer, heard someone say it or whether you just made it up.

Equally, a temporary moratorium on the shoulder shrug would force Trump to SAY what he really means instead of dismissing it with a shrug. I would love to hear him say:

‘I don’t care if millions of Americans have gotten the virus’.
‘I am proud of having conned the IRS and not paid any income tax over the past 18 years’.
‘I don’t care if I am destroying the democratic process in this country’.
‘I am proud of being a charlatan, a faker and a rascal’.
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