Do men in power truly understand the damage caused by their "tactile" conduct?

Do men in power truly understand the damage caused by their “tactile” conduct?

It’s been just over a week since former Nevada lieutenant governor nominee Lucy Flores wrote about an uncomfortable encounter with former US Vice President and possible 2020 presidential contender Joe Biden, in which he smelled her hair and kissed the back of her head.

And since then, several more women have come forward (seven now in total) to accuse Biden of inappropriate behaviour, and the media has seen fit to re-visit Biden’s long, documented history of sniffing women’s hair and nuzzling them uncomfortably (resulting in some pretty damning photo montages) – all potentially derailing his not yet formerly declared presidential ambitions.

In an attempt to contain the potential #MeToo conflagration from engulfing his would-be presidential campaign, Biden went into a not entirely unfamiliar, yet distinctly odd, damage control mode.

He first released a statement after the initial Flores story was published, saying that “not once – never – did I believe I acted inappropriately, if it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully”.

When yet more women appeared on the scene complaining of Biden’s handsy and tactile approach, Biden released an additional folksy video statement via Twitter, in which he said he “got it” and “men should pay attention, and I will.”

Reading Biden’s statement and watching his video apology/ non-apology, I couldn’t help but conclude that Biden neither “gets it” nor has he been “listening respectfully”.

For starters, had he been doing either of those things, he certainly wouldn’t have joked about the matter on Friday (a mere week after Flores first came forward), his first public appearance since the allegations surfaced. Too soon does not even begin to cover it…just not funny Joe.

But in that regard, I believe Biden is not unlike a lot of men caught out by #MeToo who promised to “listen” and “reflect” but didn’t. His response is an object lesson in how not to conduct what politicians would call a “listening exercise”.

Firstly, Biden has made it all about him, his intentions and that, essentially, he meant no harm. This is just “who he is”. Then, shamefully, in the video statement he makes a bid for sympathy by bringing up his own tragic history, the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident, as an excuse for his tactile behaviour…he is essentially seeking to “connect” with people.

Biden then attempted to ring-fence the issue to a debate about the norms of “personal space”, which are “changing” according to Biden – something a lot of the commentariat did initially as well, including many here in Australia.

Did he hear anything Flores and others had to say about how his behaviour made them feel— not only uncomfortable, but patronised, demeaned and somehow less than. Has he heard what many women commenting on his actions in a slew of think pieces, from Suzanne Moore in the Guardian to Jessica Valenti in Medium, have had to say about how the power he wielded over women, and the power men often wield over women, made his behaviour all the more inappropriate?

If Biden and many other men who have found themselves in a similar position were truly listening to what Flores and other woman are saying, and what many women have been saying since #MeToo sparked an outpouring of stories about the impact a myriad of behaviours — not just sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, the debate has now expanded to encapsulate the culture and social norms that demean and sideline women — he would not be seeking to make this simply a debate about the norms of “personal space”.

I, personally, don’t really have the patience to seek guidance from etiquette experts, as some have done, to advise men on the exact number of centimetres they are best placed to keep between themselves and women in order “to be safe”– that is not what this is really about. As Valenti put it, “We want a serious conversation about what incessant objectification and diminishment does to us and changes how we interact with the world.”

And if Biden and other men were listening, they certainly wouldn’t be trying to peddle the line that there is some “new” normal now to which they and other would be patronising old-school sexists promise to adhere to if they can only be granted vintage leniency for past behaviour (remember Weinstein’s “but I’m a dinosaur”) — a kind of grandfathering in of paternalism at best and misogyny at worst for the grandfathers of politics and the workplace.

As writer Chloe Angyal pointed out on Twitter, the only thing that’s different now is the fact that men are facing consequences, not that the standards of behaviour have changed.

What worries me about this whole affair is that in US politics the special political magic of Joe Biden has always been his supposed ability to connect with the average Joe, so to speak (white, working class male voters) — the metaphorical Joe Bloggs.

And if his response and approach to “listening” is in anyway representative of how these men or men more generally are responding to #MeToo and the long overdue reckoning and conversations it has prompted, we really are in trouble.

I have this to say to Joe Biden and all the Joe Bloggs out there considering following his example: Don’t be average. Be better.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

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