We need to talk, yet again, about Joe Biden.
Only this time we’re not really talking about Joe Biden. Joe Biden is just an object lesson for all of us in the on-going dialogue about bodily autonomy and consent for physical contact.
For most of history as written by men of European descent, we have followed a sort of chattel-based idea of what behavior is appropriate between men and women; the gold standard of male behavior had to do with treating women the way you would want your wife or daughter treated. We still see that mindset now whenever a man responds to allegations other men committing acts of abuse or harassment by saying “I’m the father of daughters so I would never want guys to say that stuff to them!”
That’s wrong headed-thinking, as many before me have pointed out, because it values women only in their relationship to men, not as beings with inherent worth and dignity of their own. The correct response to mistreatment of women is “I am a human being and I would not want another human being treating me that way so I cannot accept any human being being treated that way.” Gender and relationships should be utterly irrelevant in how you treat people.
While that idea sounds logical and simple, it’s almost brand new. And no one is quite sure how to use it in practice.
The idea of every human being having inherent worth and dignity just by virtue of drawing breath is so controversial that we have never, ever, in all of human history managed to get it right. We see failures to acknowledge it at every turn: Unequal pay. Chattel slavery. Chattel marriage. Unfair divorce law. Legalized martial rape. Locker room talk. Dismissed claims of workplace harassment. Unfair criminal sentencing practices. Domestic abusers walking free.
We get it wrong at every turn and it’s why we have needed so many waves of civil rights movements to alter the landscape of society just to establish basic fairness. These movements and these changes don’t come without turmoil and the wise person welcomes all the messy discussion of what has happened in the past and what should happen in the future.
Which brings us to the question of whether Joe Biden is a wise person.
We all know Uncle Joe is a hugger. There are a million photos of him hugging people at public events, probably dating back to his earliest campaigns. And under the old rules, his hugging was no biggie. Would you be ok with the Vice President hugging your wife, in front of a million people? Sure! He’s Uncle Joe! He doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s cool.
But you – and he – forgot the part where you check with your wife about whether she wanted the hug. And women for generations forgot to ask themselves if they wanted the hug. We all just went with the unspoken idea that it was fine because it wasn’t anything illicit. It’s just a hug, right? Men can hug women and it’s fine, right?
And it was fine. For many years, that was considered fine. Today, however, in 2019, it is no longer fine and several women have spoken out to say just how not fine they found Biden’s hugs. We need to have a conversation about how to deal with the once-fine becoming the not-fine. This conversation is hard because we are literally standing on the border between the past and the future as it applies to this issue.
We are mere steps into a new phase of history, a phase where women are, for the first time, actively defining what is acceptable in terms of how others conduct themselves in relation to our bodies. If I had to draw a bright line between the Before and the After, I would paint it right up the crack of Harvey Weinstein’s ass. He is the tipping point between what was ok and what will be ok next.
Not that I’m comparing Weinstein’s level of violence and depravity to Joe Biden’s overzealous application of hugs. They aren’t the same thing at all. What is the same is the years of silence from women who were the objects of those wrongs, both large and small.
Just as everyone in politics knew Biden was a hugger, everyone in Hollywood knew Weinstein was a sexual predator. It went on for years, half in shadow, half in plain sight, and it took until 2017 for it all to come under the scrutiny we are seeing right now. In the case of men like Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Bill Cosby, the reckoning has been dramatic and suitably punitive. What they did was clearly wrong by any metric.
In the case of guys like Joe Biden, well. That’s different. His actions weren’t criminal. They were simply presumptuous and inconsiderate. They didn’t violate the law or even the rules of conduct that applied for most of his public career. How do we deal with that? What reckoning should men like Biden face when we confront them with their past and their future? That’s the conversation we have to have.
Nancy Pelosi hit the nail on the head when she was asked about Joe Biden this week. She said “He has to understand in the world that we’re in now that people’s space is important to them, and what’s important is how they receive it and not necessarily how you intended it.”
Joe Biden needs to apologize for not knowing better in the past, because he really didn’t seem to know. And he needs to pledge to do better now that he does know. He needs to show us he’s doing better by going in for the handshake, not the hug.
It’s not only Biden who will be grappling with this in the days and years to come. We all need to be thinking about how we treat others and how they want to be treated. While I don’t envy Biden the public scrutiny as he undergoes his personal period of reflection, I am pleased that we as a society are having this conversation at last.