So now Joe Biden is being told he’s made several women uncomfortable over the years. I believe it.
So what does this mean? How damning is it, and what should Biden do about it? What should WE do about it? And who is this “we”?
Ladies and gentlemen, I remind you of the word polysemicity. It means “the same thing has different meaning for different people.” For example:
~ Two young people leave college to work at a start-up: one is essentially avoiding the hard work of college and imagines he’ll get rich, the other is embracing an amazing chance to work his butt off.
~ Two different women leave their husbands: one is basically a quitter whose fear of commitment flares up in the face of difficulty, the other has realized that her and her husband’s life goals will never be compatible, and their marriage was a mistake.
We can say “If I did X, here’s what it would mean to me.” We can’t add “…and therefore that’s what it means when someone else does it.”
It’s certain—not just possible, certain—that Biden thought he was being friendly and he was occasionally perceived as being invasive.
And let’s remember that this happened a small number of times. If he’s kissed a million babies and shaken a few million hands, he’s undoubtedly gotten a few interactions wrong. Throw in some jet lag, some heckling, and a few please-give-my-clueless-nephew-a-job moments, and I’m certain he’s been clumsy, short-tempered, and tone-deaf more than a few times. So have you. So have I.
And so he’s caressed the hair of too many women without asking permission. And he’s kissed too many women on the back of the head when he thought it would be reassuring or charming or even expected—and it wasn’t perceived that way.
Let’s all agree he’s gotten it wrong dozens of times. And yes, usually in the same direction.
So what about it?
Here are some principles we teach our kids all the time:
~ Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean somebody did something wrong.
~ Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean somebody hurt you on purpose.
~ Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean that you pursue revenge.
~ The best thing to do when you feel bad is to tell the person who hurt your feelings.
If #MeToo were teaching these principles, almost everybody in America would get behind it. Instead, they’re frequently teaching the opposite:
~ If you feel bad, somebody is to blame.
~ If somebody is to blame, assume they hurt you on purpose (were “oppressing” you).
~ If somebody hurt you on purpose, they have to pay for what they did.
~ You are not responsible for interrupting their upsetting behavior at the time.
These are NOT values most of us want our children to learn. We should aspire to much better in ourselves, and encourage much better in our adult peers.
If you want to truly empower someone who feels bad, tell them “I know you are uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean someone did something wrong. But tell that other person to stop. And then get on with the rest of your life. Feeling uncomfortable doesn’t cripple you.”
But these days even the smallest unwanted touch is perceived as representing immoral social inequality, deep disrespect, centuries of privilege. As a result, when an unwanted touch makes someone uncomfortable, they’re told (or they tell us) that they’re as victimized as if they’d been physically injured. And that the “perpetrator” must be labelled and punished.
Think about America’s 100 million adult women. Do you really think that most of them care deeply about an acquaintance’s unwanted caress on the back of the head? Do you really think that most people don’t differentiate between feeling uncomfortable and being physically injured?
All the rhetoric in the world won’t change this simple fact: most people would rather be insulted than assaulted, would rather FEEL demeaned than BE battered. Yes, of course those aren’t the only two choices. But every adult knows that those are fundamentally different experiences, and only political activists ignore that.
By eliminating the difference between the two, gender activists have created an enormous class of victims. They say that women are so weak that they can’t be expected to handle minor violations of their space like adults.
It just two short years we’ve gone from condemning men who rape, to condemning men who demand sex for job favors, to condemning men who treat women disrespectfully, to condemning men for casual, non-sexual gestures of affection or good will.
Whether fueled by #MeToo or personal rage, some people have apparently lost all sense of proportion about this. Disqualifying anyone whose gestures are intended to be harmless (or supportive) from public life will NOT repair the real harms of the past, nor will they prevent the serious harms of the future. No rapist will refuse to rape because he’s learned not to touch someone’s hair without permission.
We’re also letting the worst definitions of touch stain all non-sexual touching. And we’re suggesting that women can touch men in public, but men can’t touch women in public. Don’t say “turnabout is fair play”—this will harm women as much as men.
Adulthood requires that we realize there’s a difference between FEELING uncomfortable and BEING unsafe. As a therapist, I work on that issue with people every week. Does every American woman have PTSD (the real thing, not some metaphorical angst)? No. But women today are being taught that feeling uncomfortable means they’ve been violated. This neither helps women thrive nor shapes men’s behavior.
It’s far too simplistic to say “just always believe women.” We wouldn’t say ‘always believe African-Americans,’ or Jews, or Gays, or men, for that matter.
But I do believe every woman who says she felt uncomfortable in a situation. Everyone deserves the dignity to define their own experience. When you start to label experiences as violent or morally wrong, however, that’s way more complicated. The right response is inquiry, not damnation. And to remember polysemicity—if you did something it might mean something different to you than it did to the person who actually did it.
That’s the basis of our society. #MeToo doesn’t change that. All the actual violence and unfairness in the world doesn’t change that.
As Whoopi Goldberg said in discussing Joe Biden, “I want every women to be able to say ‘I’m not comfortable’ with something.” And I want every person to whom that’s said to pay attention. That’s what we owe each other, and that’s the price of living together.