I heard this week that somebody called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels.” This is not the first time something like this has been said and I’m fairly certain that it won’t be the last. I will readily admit that I have an undying love for Michelle Obama and that love probably motivated me to sit and write about this. But know that I would feel the same way about any similarly egregious remarks.
Let’s be clear about a couple of things. First, Michelle Obama is a remarkable human being. She has compassion that overflows and a presence that is unconditionally welcoming. She is intelligent, wise, strong, independent, caring and should be remembered as one of the most empowering and supportive first ladies that this country has ever seen.
Secondly, these comments are inexcusable. I understand that the American constitution protects citizen’s rights regarding freedom of expression – my argument is not whether the individual should have been allowed to say them. However, I do hope that these ignorant slurs will be drowned out by overwhelming positivity.
With all of that, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about what the motivation behind these comments were. Before this person sat at their keyboard to type that message, what were they hoping to accomplish? What need in their life was so lacking that hurling such brazen insults would have led them to a sense of greater fulfillment? The words were inflammatory. The words were hurtful. In many ways, the words cannot be explained with any sort of rationale.
And that’s what makes them so interesting to me!
When I first started thinking about this, there were two options that I considered but that were pretty quickly discredited. First, the author may have simply had a break with reality. It could be that the person who wrote this was completely disconnected from the reality that most of us experience. That would at least explain how the person was able to abandon any sort of truth and instead describe their own alternate universe. However, this just didn’t add up. Even with our culture’s wide-spread acceptance of fake news, I still have faith that someone motivated by such obvious psychoses would not get any sort of play on the broader stage. We love a good take down and this would have been too easy a target.
Then there’s the old adage: Any attention is good attention. We mostly encounter this when dealing with unruly children. They’re acting up, we say, because the attention that they receive from people who may be disciplining them is better than being ignored. I liked this explanation a lot more than the first and was pretty satisfied with it for a long time. Something still wasn’t right, though. It didn’t go far enough at explaining how someone could ignore so many signs that this was plainly and simply a bad idea. Attention from others can be a powerful motivator, sure, but with what I know about human behavior, it just didn’t seem to do enough to explain it for me.
Human beings are social animals. Being connected to other human beings, in a tribal sense, was the difference between survival and near-certain death. Becoming social allowed us to devote more time to caring for offspring, to divvy up tasks and specialize, and to succeed; we have had a sense that we are better for most of history ever since. Feeling connected – more so than getting attention for something that we do – is one of the most powerful motivators in the human experience. Feeling connected flows from feeling accepted as part of a tribe. There are real, biological underpinnings as to why this need is so strong for us.
When we don’t feel connected, all sorts of bad things start to happen. Our feelings of loneliness are often tied to feelings of desperation – sometimes we act on those feelings. It’s not just something that we want. It’s something that we need. We need to feel in tune with others. A lack of connection can motivate us to do things that we would never do from a place of security. We need to know that we are not alone. This happens in our brains well below the reach of language and conscious activity. Our drive for connection isn’t something that we rationalize or explain away. When our insides sense a lack of connection, it surfaces emotions of fear, frustration, anxiety and these emotions motivate us get connected. At all costs.
Which brings us back to where we started.
Statements like this one about Michelle Obama seem so difficult to understand because they don’t surface from a place of rationality. They surface when people feel alone and need to not feel that way. Whoever wrote these words, I can almost assure you that they feel lonely. What they said about Michelle Obama had almost nothing to do with her and more to do with a sense that saying those words would bolster the author’s standing in their own social circle – that it would ensure that they would remain in touch with a group of people who would understand.
It doesn’t excuse what was said. Just because our needs are often outside of our conscious awareness, doesn’t mean that we need to simply act blindly and wildly, without thought. We are humans, after all. We are the thinkers of the animal kingdom. But it can be a helpful lesson – for all of us – to think before we speak or before we judge. It can be helpful for us to pursue understanding, with a sense of empathy, that when someone has needs that are not met they’ll do whatever they can to meet them.
When people feel alone, they just want to feel connected.