You are undoubtedly aware of the controversy swirling around the behavior of Vice President Joe Biden. How are we to understand his repeated invasions of female space: the unwanted smooches, shoulder massages, hair snufflings, and so on? How are these behaviors to be understood if, as expected, he enters the 2020 presidential race? How is his behavior to be understood in the light of #MeToo – is it a disqualifier, or is it just a bit of paternalistic overenthusiasm, not as sexually transgressive? In our age, after Weinstein and Rose and too many others, we are not quite sure what to make of behaviors that may legitimately make us feel more or less creepy, but do not appear to be intended as sexual predation?
Biden has offered some guidance on these points:
“Social norms are changing,” he said in a tweet. “I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it.”
In trying to answer the questions posed above, I find Biden’s offering helpful – but probably not as he may hope. It seems to be the utterance of a man who, despite 40 years in public life, is unable to respond to crucial changes in the way women and men are expected to interpret and respond to one another; a man who – despite his years of public service – cannot imagine what it would mean to represent all the people.
His response seems to me none too charmingly old fashioned: that of a male who has not gathered that women have interpretive rights; that failure to “respect personal space” –as trendy as those words may sound – is not really where the problem is located. Most importantly, he has not learned that the interpretation of his behavior is not up to him, as a man. Once interpretations and responses to communicative behaviors were the rights of men. Women’s role was to shut up and smile and suppress our uneasiness because our bodies were not our business. We were not fully human and had very few, if any, interpretive rights.
But over the last half-century, slowly and reluctantly, perceptions have begun to change. Rape laws were rewritten so that rape was no longer seen and punished as a property crime by one man against another, but as a man’s illegal appropriation of a woman’s body. More and more, we understand interactions between the genders as political, rather than sexual – about power rather than desire. And as we are gradually coming to understand, the important defining term is “equality,” achievable only in case there is an equivalence of power – no paternalism, no forced intimacy, no excuse about meaning well. Men today must fully grasp what it means to understand women as fully equals. Since that new understanding overturns a few hundred millennia of something very different, it’s not surprising that both men and women get confused and don’t really know how to act toward and feel about one another.
#MeToo is an important first attempt at codification of this new sociopolitical order, and Biden is only one of the most recent hapless males to be enmeshed in its web. But #MeToo, while invaluable, is not perfect – it will require some tweaking if it is to usher in a millennium of new fairness and justice. A Franken should not be treated as harshly as a Weinstein – but what should the difference be? Both of their infractions are best understood as expressions of inequality – but the two are unequally unequal, and our decisions about how to treat perps must be able to reflect this disparity.
Biden, like many of his fellow misbehavers, didn’t understand the deeper meanings of his actions. That does not get him off the hook. (A hundred years ago it might have, but time goes on and progress is made, however slowly.) If we want a president in 2020 who is capable of functioning in the post-Trump era, we must accept nothing less than one who is able to absorb the new rules and understandings of the second decade of the second millennium A.D. Of course that includes new social rules. Arguably a man who still doesn’t grasp the reality that women’s personal spaces belong to women does not meet those criteria and should be regarded as unelectable, whatever his other virtues.
That understanding has been bubbling up for a long time. Until the early 20th century, women in England endured the law of entailment, as we recall from Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey. Women could not legally own real estate, so real property had to pass from one male to another, even a distant relation, rather than to the wife or daughter of the deceased. By the early 20th century physical entailment had vanished, but men still could claim control over women’s symbolic property – the physical space they inhabited and their psychological selves. Finally, a century later, we are coming finally to understand that space is space and ownership is ownership, and equality can be a reality only if male and female forms of both work similarly. That is one important thing that Joe Biden needs to learn and demonstrate that he has learned.
What else does Joe Biden need to learn?
I am reasonably sure that Biden is no Weinstein, or Rose, or Louis CK: he does not rape or parade around naked or masturbate in front of women. But he needs to see traditionally and unequivocally sleazy, slimy behaviors as the end of a continuum, and desist from the practice of the whole continuum: we could call it “the continuum of gender inequality.” We may represent it thus:
Purely verbal actions: mansplaining, interruption, unresponsiveness à nonsexual and physical demonstrations of inequality: touching, hair-sniffing, kissing à sexually suggestive verbal expression: jokes, innuendos, invitations à sexually understood but not acted-out representations: grabbing, deep kissing, hands in inappropriate places à clearly sexual and clearly illegal actions: rape and nakedness.
(I assume for all of the above non-consent on the part of the woman.)
These may look and feel very different, but we all have to understand that they all stem from a single source and have a single effect, whether intentionally so or not: to call attention to and reinforce women’s political and social inequality. It
may seem hard to determine whether or not a piece of Bidenesque behavior should be considered an expression of inequality, or merely an expression of affection, but there is a simple diagnostic. If the behavior only makes sense if done by a man, to a woman; or if its meaning would shift significantly if the genders of the involved individuals were switched, we can be pretty confident that power is an important consideration, and that gender difference is being used to create a power difference.
Just as, in 2020, we will not elect president a man who would encourage unequal treatment for people of color, whether literal or symbolic, in these enlightened times we should be beyond voting for someone who has often demonstrated a similar attitude toward women, of whatever form. If we don’t do that, we are guilty of perpetuating the misbehavior and making it less likely that things will change. Tolerance for Uncle Joe’s handsiness is closely related to our acceptance of Hillary Clinton’s electoral loss (if indeed such it was). I am ambivalent about Kirsten Gillibrand’s insistence that Al Franken retire, but the above argues in her favor. (There exist, I think, equally persuasive arguments on the other side.)
The candidate who gets our vote in 2020 should, above all, be a person comfortable with the times in which he is living.