joe biden, the puddle, & the one-sided conversation
Joe Biden hasn’t officially announced his candidacy for the 2020 race but he’s an early favorite. He has the best name recognition of any candidate in the race, having been VP for 8 years with Barack Obama, and blah blah blah blah I’m not here to give you the man’s CV.
I’m here to explain why, in my opinion, Joe Biden is both not a monster and not a good candidate for President.
Here’s one interesting thing that happened when sexual violence and rape culture moved into more mainstream discourse: some people steered the conversation into a problem-solving tournament framework, rather than an opportunity to discuss and implement systemic change.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love me some problem-solving, and problem-solving is one important part of systemic change.
For example, when we found out that Matt Lauer was a crapfaced pig monster, the ongoing presence of said crapface on NBC’s Today show was a problem that needed to be solved. So NBC solved it, and fired him. Sweet!
Now, in a perfect world, such a consequence would have been merely the first step in a more involved process, in the same way that when you discover a puddle under the dishwasher, the first thing you do is get rid of that puddle before it fucks up the floors. But are you done after the puddle is gone? No, of course not, because your dishwasher is still broken. The next time you go to run the washer, you’re going to see another puddle. Then you’ll need to problem-solve that puddle (again) and you’ll have (another) chance to address the bigger issue of the fatally broken machinery in your kitchen. Or you can just assume that once the puddle is gone, the problem is gone, try to run the washer again, and see what happens!
Did we see anyone in a position of power take the next step toward cracking the machinery at NBC to see what was broken in there? Of course not. The problem had been solved. Misogyny is over at NBC; they fired Lauer, didn’t you hear?
Problem-solving is satisfying because it consists of a finite conundrum, a single knot that needs to be either tied or pulled apart, a single tweet to delete, a single dirtbag who needs to be fired, a single lapse in judgment for which a PR firm can be hired. Problem-solving requires short-term focus, short-term commitment, and short-term expenditure of energy. Once the problem is solved, you can quit working so hard and go back to your regular life.
Our permanent toxicity toward women is not a finite conundrum.
The eradication of misogyny requires lifelong focus, lifelong commitment, lifelong expenditure of energy. It will not be solved in your lifetime. If you have done your work well, then you will not have that regular life to return to because you will have shifted the framework of what regular life is. Maybe by one inch. Maybe.
Misogyny is not a problem that needs to be solved; it’s the broken dishwasher, not the puddle. Our machinery is woefully fucked. That’s the discussion we need to be having.
Yet so much of the discourse around #metoo and sexual politics remains problem-solvy in nature, which means that for our discourse to remain relevant, it continues to need a “problem” in the form of a person who has fucked up, so that we can “solve” that person by making them disappear for a time. Wipe ‘em up, move along, good work today.
The biggest problem that I see around such a simplistic approach to complex and deeply-rooted social issues is that we’re having two different conversations at all times.
It’s like we’re all in a Book Club. Half the room wants to discuss the book and the other half of the room wants to discuss whether or not the book should be banned. These are two very different discussions, each with its own right to the floor. But when those conversations are happening simultaneously and mutually one-sidedly, it looks a lot like this:
Laura: What did you think about the Lydia character? I thought some of the descriptions of her were pretty sexist.
Jane: I don’t think we should throw this whole book away because of one flawed passage. There are so many great female characters in this book! Like Amanda! She’s an engineer!
Laura: Sure, Amanda has a great job, but I really didn’t like the way her character is basically being gaslit by her husband.
Mary: I totally agree, which is why I think we should stop talking about the book right now and see if we can get it removed from our library system.
Did you notice the disconnect between Laura and Jane? Laura wanted to talk about the book’s treatment of a character that she found troubling; Jane leaped to defend the book from a threat that Laura hadn’t made.
How about the disconnect between Laura and Mary? Laura wanted to talk about the book’s depiction of a relationship that she found troubling; Mary leaped to end the conversation and remove the book from public access.
This is the way that we talk about lots of #metoo stories: One person tells a story, a thousand other people leap to defend the accused as a uniformly good person no matter what, and a thousand others leap to call for the accused to be stricken from the record now and forever. Both reactions betray massive insecurity about our own ability to stomach the controvertible nature of character.
Honestly, we can’t handle the truth, that a person can be capable of tremendous good and tremendous harm in the same lifetime. We can’t handle it so hard that we make the stories go away, either by discrediting the survivors and glorifying the reputations of the perps, or by believing the survivors and rushing to redact the entire perp from our lives. Problem solved.
We are not having a discussion right now. We are each having one side of a discussion. We might as well be speaking different languages at each other, getting louder and louder, as if that helps.
It pisses me off when I hear calls for thoughtful discourse around rape culture, sexism, and the over-sexualization and objectification of women, and the crowd responds as if we man-hating bloodthirsty feminists have just demanded someone’s head on a platter, or maybe someone’s balls in a gravy boat. Did I miss a memo from the bloodthirsty feminist collective? Because I didn’t order anyone’s balls today.
I didn’t say that someone needs to disappear.
All I said was that we need to talk about Joe Biden.
Joe Biden, like millions of men, has unhealthy boundaries with women.
He frequently acts upon an unexamined sense of entitlement to women’s bodies that makes women feel uncomfortable. I would not want to be alone in a room with him. I would not even want to be in front of a press corps with him, because clearly, “alone” is not a prerequisite for Uncle Joe’s invasions of the space and safety of women and girls.
I find his lack of awareness, lack of respect for women’s bodies, and lack of personal growth on this issue disturbing and disqualifying.
Do I find Joe Biden to be a more appealing option for President than Donald Trump? Yes.
Would I support him in the primary? No.
Would I vote for him if he won the nomination? Yes.
Do Joe Biden and Donald Trump demonstrate substantively different attitudes toward women’s bodies? No. Trump’s entitlement to women may be more offensive, but Biden’s is also offensive. The fact that I have found a more offensive person against which to compare Biden does not lessen the offensiveness of Biden’s ick factor.
The difference between their attitudes is in volume, not message. They’re both saying, “This is mine to touch.” Trump is shouting, Biden is whispering, but they’re saying the same thing.
Do I think that Trump will release some sleazy messaging about “Creepy Joe” with absolutely zero shits to give about the hypocrisy of criticizing his political opponent for HIS OWN FUCKING BEHAVIORS? Fucking absolutely, and yes, before you even ask, I will be eating my feelings about that.
Do I pity Joe Biden for the coverage he’s been getting over the last week? Yes. Watching someone face embarrassing truths on the internet is always pitiable, even if you hate the scumbag, and in this case I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I would save him from this, even if I could. Because the woman who spoke up is getting it way worse, and that’s not pitiable, it’s a fucking outrage.
Do I believe that Biden has asked himself whether he’s hurting girls and women? No. He believes his own impressions of the exchange and trusts his own instincts about what’s appropriate to do with a young girl’s body. In his mind, the problem of “not hurting girls” is solved by his character, his kindness, and his own certainty of self.
Every man who has ever crossed a line believes his own impressions of the exchange. He believes them to the exclusion of all other voices.
One of the key qualities that I’m looking for in our next President is a basic understanding of consent that has been integrated into that person’s behavior to the extent that they habitually default to respectfulness of body autonomy. It’s not that high a bar, people. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Please notice what I did not say about Joe Biden:
Joe Biden is a great man who has a little trouble with close-talking. So what? Are we going to crucify him for that?
Joe Biden is a folksy, old-school politician who might not understand the nuance of contemporary sexual politics, which is fine, because look at him, clearly he’s a nice man.
Joe Biden is better than Trump so we should all agree to vote for him before he announces his run.
Joe Biden is EXACTLY THE SAME AS DONALD TRUMP.
Joe Biden is a sex monster who should live out the rest of his days in shameful recluse.
Joe Biden is dead to me.
If we could get people like Joe Biden out of politics we could finally have some real progress for feminism!
I didn’t say those things because I’m not here to problem-solve Joe Biden.
What would problem-solving Joe Biden even look like? We could cancel him. We could shit all over the women who have come forward to share uncomfortable stories about him. He could move forward with a campaign and simply never stand next to a woman again, Mike Pence-style. Those solutions solve the problem of Joe Biden’s hands, but not the problem of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies.
I didn’t say those things because the facts of Joe Biden’s behavior both challenge my understanding of Joe Biden as a principled man, and confirm my understanding of Joe Biden as a deeply flawed and sadly unchanging instrument of the white supremacist patriarchy. He’s not Prince Woke Charming; he’s not Hannibal Lecter. I’m not rushing to silence him with rapid social execution, and I’m not rushing to silence his critics with rabid fanatical defense.
He’s not simple but neither am I, and neither are you. We can hold his admirable qualities and his alarming qualities in our heads at the same time, and accept that his admirable qualities remain so, while his alarming qualities pass the threshold of what we consider acceptable for public service.
Do not get it twisted: Joe Biden isn’t the issue. If Joe decides not to run, sexism will not be solved in the 2020 election. He’s one puddle under our broken machine. If left unaddressed, he will fuck up my floors, so yeah, I’m taking a minute today to wipe him up.
But I’m not here to make some performance of problem-solving misogyny, one handsy groper at a time. I’m not looking for the next guy to fire or the next puddle to wipe up off my floor. I’m trying to open up the damn machine and learn something about what’s really going on in here. I’m here for the long-term work of observing, identifying, analyzing, and eventually, maybe, evolving past everyday hostility toward women and girls.
That’s the discussion we need to keep having.
If you liked this post, you may also like The Spectrum of Hostility: “Hostility toward women is a spectrum, not a binary state. It's not as simple as "I help women," or "I hurt women." You do both. I do both.”
Thank you for being here!