We are currently “in the age of MeToo”. This phrase comes up often in news items nowadays, as a reminder that men sometimes face consequences for not treating women like people now. This has not always been the case, and so it’s deemed necessary to signal MeToo when talking about sexual misconduct; in doing so, we acknowledge that the actual allegations are nothing new but once upon a time, nobody with any power really gave a shit.
It was in the olden days that Joe Biden came to be – a matter of timing that presents a problem for the viability of his potential 2020 campaign. As the former vice president considers a run for the nation’s highest office, we are having a conversation about all of the instances in which Biden doing things that used to be OK don’t seem to be so OK anymore. He is not being accused of sexual assault or misconduct. Rather, the discussion about whether or not Biden should enter the election centres on a storied history of making women uncomfortable.
The discussion began with an essay by former Nevada State Assembly member Lucy Flores, in which she shared a moment that occurred while she was a 35-year-old candidate for the state’s lieutenant governor. During an event in 2014, Biden came up behind her backstage, sniffed her hair and kissed the back of her neck. Flores has been joined by other women sharing similar accounts – including a 19-year-old assault survivor, who did not want Biden’s hand on her knee after sharing the story of her abuse, thank you very much.
None of it is especially revelatory. Actually, quite the opposite. Biden is so well known for being “handsy”, or “tactile”, or whatever other selection you’d like to make from the thesaurus, that he is widely referred to as “Uncle Joe”. In adoration or disdain, the nickname contains awareness of the fact that, as Katy Waldman wrote in The New Yorker, “Everybody knows a story or two or ten of Uncle Joe whispering in a woman’s ear, clasping her waist, or smelling her hair.”
In short, Biden has always been Biden. What is different now is that we are reinterrogating our shared norms and values. The suddenness of the shift has made for a moment of moral panic.
The easiest way to see this is in the uneven distribution of consequences. In a particularly distressing juxtaposition that unfolded in January, the Democratic senator Al Franken gave up his seat in congress as a result of sexual misconduct allegations, while President Trump was able to win the office, despite being repeatedly accused of assaulting women, and caught on tape bragging about getting away with it. (As he can be heard saying in 2005 audio captured by Access Hollywood, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything... Grab ’em by the pussy.”)
Shamelessness is at the crux of our ethical conundrum. See, you have to subscribe to decency in order to be held accountable to it. Biden, for his part, seems to want to be decent. He has not apologised, but he did acknowledge his behaviour. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it,” he said in a video response posted to Twitter. “I’ve always tried to make a human connection,” he continued. “Life is about connecting to people.”
This is the sentiment echoed by those who have sprung to Biden’s defence. As a New York Times reader wrote to the paper, “I ... struggle to understand how it is helpful to render men like Mr Biden ‘unfit’ because of behaviours that were so deeply woven into the social fabric of this country that we are only now beginning to address them contextually.”
Except the old social fabric is precisely what is up for debate. Biden was operating without adequate concern for how whether or not his touch was making women squirm, because that was OK at the time. He was either unconcerned by or unaware of the power dynamics in which women must endure a man’s unwelcome touch for any range of reasons, whether to escape retaliation, or to avoid seeming like an uptight bitch who can’t handle a little shoulder rub. (As far as apologies go, it is perhaps more telling that Biden had to apologise for his role in the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, and Biden failed to subpoena three witnesses who could have corroborated her story. Another headache-inducing injustice of this moment is that Thomas continues to serve, but the need for court reform is a topic for another article.)
In his video response to all of the stories of his grabbiness, Biden said he would be more “mindful”. But this isn’t about Biden’s intent, or willingness to change. Our ongoing retrospective of Biden’s behaviour wouldn’t matter at all if he was coasting off into retirement in a tasteful Florida estate. We are not simply interrogating whether or not being “handsy” is wrong, so much as determining whether or not this is a defining trait we want in America’s next president.
This conversation has become such pandemonium, you would be forgiven for losing the narrative. The distress of MeToo comes from the growing pains of figuring how we make sense of this trendy cultural shift in which it’s no longer OK to treat women as objects. That doesn’t just mean taking down high-profile abusers; it is about discussing the rules governing all sorts of human interaction, and not all of those things have to be literal crimes.
Whether we are talking about assault, harassment or even offhand misogynistic commentary, the issue tends to be a lack of concern for others’ sovereignty. If you’re freaked out about how to conduct yourself “in the age of MeToo”, take a deep breath and go back to basics. It all comes down to the matter of treating other people how you’d like to be treated. It will take us a while to work out all the kinks of this step in our social evolution, but I think we can all agree the golden rule should still apply.
“In the age of MeToo”, it is crucial that we continue to have these difficult conversations, for that is how we will pave the way for a future in which recognising gender equality doesn’t require reference to a movement.
The desire to move forward is also the thing that ought to disqualify Biden from running for president. As my friend and the founder of Run For Something tweeted last week, “FYI: If your argument defending your candidate is ‘He’s from a different generation! Things have changed!’ you’re low-key making the broader argument against your candidate.”
The person we choose as our next leader will have every impact on this ongoing question of what we value as a society. If, according to even his most ardent supporters, this 76-year-old man is “of a time”, well, then, perhaps he should stay there. We are going somewhere in 2020 – and it is not the past.
Lauren Duca is an award-winning journalist whose writing can be found in ‘The New York Times’, ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘New York’ magazine, in addition to ‘Teen Vogue’. Duca is currently a visiting scholar at New York University’s Arthur L Carter Journalism Institute, but she’s mostly just trying to get you to follow her on Twitter: @LaurenDuca