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As long as Joe Biden remains in the potential or actual 2020 presidential election game, Americans will be debating the propriety of his longstanding touchy-feely style of dealing with women in particular, and how best to respond to these and similar situations and charges. As usual, opinion (at least as expressed in the often hysteria-prone national media) seems polarized between extremes, and as usual, genuine wisdom resides somewhere in the middle.

The best way to arrive at sensible conclusions – i.e., those that permit us to continue functioning as human beings with legitimately differing personalities while respecting the equally legitimate sensitivities and indeed fears of others – seems to be to unpack the several overlapping issues involved, at least in part (because there are good reasons for much of the overlap).

Even the women who have complained about Biden state that his behavior wasn’t sexually motivated, which is definitely a big point in the former Vice President’s favor. Even so, he deserves reprimands on many grounds. First, Biden’s claim, in his first extensive (video) response, that in the wake of the Me Too revelations and movement, the rules regarding personal space have changed, is simply too convenient. So are defenses of Biden claiming that his critics seek to criminalize even normal, often desirable displays of affection, or endorsing his insistence that he’s simply been slow to adjust to changing times.

The “Biden-ists” have a point when the individuals involved who are well acquainted, either as friends or as relatives. In such instances, spontaneous, light physical contact can be perfectly fine – and indeed a necessary form of human bonding. But in these Biden cases, these kinds of relationships didn’t exist. And when that’s the case, the default position should rule out touching unless it’s expressly welcomed.

Moreover, what’s the evidence that intense physical contact among strangers has been the norm in American history before the so-called New Puritans of the Left emerged? For what it’s worth, as long as I can remember, public schools have taught even their youngest students to refrain from touching their peers without some clear sign of permission or encouragement, or aside from contact sports and games. And I’ve never met a parent who has told his or her child that physical contact outside of boisterous play is just fine once the other child protests.

At the same time, the incidence of sexual abuse among relatives makes clear that the mere existence of a relationship can’t seen as license to caress away. Which brings up a second problem with Biden’s actions and his subsequent defenses – and a second reason for entering any social situation with a hands-off mindset. When it comes to physical contact, the object individual’s feelings must be paramount. And mature adults in particular should be actively trying to anticipate them before plunging in. That’s why the idea of personal spheres or zones of privacy have always been so valued, especially in cultures and societies that prioritize protecting individual rights. The very idea of privacy logically assumes that the “contact-ee” is entitled to absolute control over entry into that zone, and that the “contact-er” needs to recognize this form of sovereignty and avoid taking genuine initiative.

As a result, Biden’s suggestion that he should be absolved because his intentions were innocent (which, to be fair, was followed by an admission of the importance of getting up to date) is thoroughly inadequate. He should have been continually aware that, in cases of women he didn’t know, or didn’t know well, it never should have been “all about him.” The women’s potential feelings should have ranked much higher on his scale of concerns – and the more so since Biden’s strongly feminist policy record, including an active role in pushing zero-tolerance-type policies on college campuses, indicate that he’s thought a great deal about such matters.

Even weirder is Biden’s apparent cluelessness about the power issues raised by his actions. After all, the Me Too Era has rightly and finally shone a blazing light on how common it’s been for men to exploit their professional and other business positions for sexual ends. It should be equally clear, therefore that women have long lived with justifiable fears about such exploitation. So even if he was unaware of such context in the episode involving New Mexico politician Lucy Flores, it should be plain as day to him now how uncomfortable and even afraid his (unsolicited) kissing and nuzzling, however gentle and innocently aimed, would likely make her given his role near the top of a political party in which she obviously hoped to succeed. At the very least, in this context, his behavior can’t help but convey a sense of entitlement.   

Moreover, the long-time and often continuing subordination of women in America, and the fact that such invasions of privacy are so common and therefore until recently have attracted so little attention means that “Believe women” is a justifiable guideline. As I wrote in connection with the battle over confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, that’s why the law recognizes that numerous similar considerations warrant exceptions to the presumption of innocence in criminal sexual abuse cases.

Finally, Biden deserves some shots on the Me Too et al score both for never having apologized for his behavior (as opposed to saying he “felt badly” for any discomfort he caused) and then for making light of his accusers and their allegations.

At the same time, let’s not suppose that the object’s feelings also necessarily override all else when the offenses are verbal. Constitutionally, of course, laws and even norms against abusive speech run into strong First Amendment protections. No unwanted physical contact of any kind enjoys such status. Moreover, it’s easy to identify unwanted contact. It either has or hasn’t taken place. (Yes, “in your face-type” approaches are less clearcut.) Bright lines separating acceptable from allegedly unacceptable speech are much harder to find (though not impossible, since free expression is not an absolute right under long prevailing interpretations of the Constitution). Consequently, it’s much easier to abuse even the best-intentioned efforts to curb or ban hurtful speech.

This latter complication, in turn, influences the so-called “snowflake” factor. Specifically, the centuries-long determination of American society to permit even the most hateful speech in most circumstances seems to reflect a belief that in a free society, a high degree of verbal rough-and-tumble is necessary and even often desirable. In addition, psychologically, it’s reasonable to assume that leading a healthy, well-adjusted life entails some ability to roll with most such verbal punches as well. I’m aware of no comparable conviction that a free society requires a high degree – or any degree – or unwanted physical rough-and-tumble, much less that such behavior produces any positive results. And show me the mental health professional who believes that emotional well-being and normality entail sloughing off lots of groping.

The bottom line? There’s no valid reason to stamp Biden as a sexual predator or even a sexist. There’s every reason to view him as an exemplar of terrible judgment and (stubbornly) gross insensitivity on this cluster of gender issues. As a result, Democrats and others who keep seeking better from him are anything but New Puritans. They’re folks who’d like to to see their political leaders display some genuine ability to learn.

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