Should Hugs Be Politically Lethal?
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To help Lucy Flores, a politician who served in the Nevada State Assembly from 2011-2015, increase attendance at a political rally where she was scheduled to speak, Vice Pres. Joe Biden generously went out of his way to attend and show his support.
How did she thank him? She waited five years, and then, during the start of Presidential campaign announcement season, she attacked him, using a method that has now become dangerously tempting: weaponizing for political purposes, Biden’s benign if insensitive physical behavior. In New York Magazine, she wrote an essay, “An Awkward Kiss Changed How I saw Joe Biden.”
Flores complained in the op-ed that Biden invaded her space: he approached her, she reported, from behind, put his hands on her shoulders, and kissed her on the head. She referred to this as “inappropriate behavior” which made her, she wrote, “uncomfortable.” Flores wrote that she was embarrassed, and felt powerless. “I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. “Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?”’ she wrote.
She says she was “shocked and confused” and could not move or speak. Imagine!
I am a supporter of women’s rights and an opponent, of course, of sexual abuse. But in this case my reaction is: “Really?” In this instance, and too often, the definition of “inappropriate” is becoming dangerously sloppy.
If you watch a great deal of video footage of political events, you’ll see that nonsexual hugs, touches, and kisses— men to women, women to men, women to women (not yet men to men)—seem omnipresent—and quite acceptable. If a kiss on the head, and a touch on the shoulder, made Ms. Flores feel so vulnerable, she should stay out of politics.
Indeed, I would argue that Ms. Flores is the one who should be apologizing to Vice President. Biden. If she was so aggrieved by his behavior, why did she wait five years to speak of it? There are good reasons for women not to come forward in real time with real abuse. In this case, it seems possible that her motivation is to soil the reputation of a man who is a potential candidate for the Presidency. Subsequent news reports confirmed that Ms Flores is a friend of Biden opponent Bernie Sanders. If this is the case, she should be ashamed of herself.
Why? Because Lucy Flores’ comments, so trivializing in relation to instances of actual sexual abuse, are dangerous to the cause of victims of such abuse. Her frivolous allegations and the attention they are receiving, undermine the effectiveness of those women who have credible and serious grievances related to sexual violations.
Many women have come forward who have endured serious and criminal verbal and physical abuse in the workplace by supervisors – people who held their economic wellbeing in corrupt hands. These courageous women, in telling their own stories, have helped others in similar positions improve their situations and outcomes.
In contrast, what did Lucy Flores’ “expose “accomplish?
Nothing but dilute the very serious issue of sexual abuse of women in the workplace. Of course, When a man is in a position of power over a woman, that power is sometimes abused in sexual ways. This abuse needs to be addressed in no uncertain terms and the situation immediately rectified.
In social situations, too, we should all feel free to call out genuine sexual abuse.
But is that really what is at issue with Vice President Biden?
Numerous photos, critics point out, appear on the internet that document Mr. Biden’s physical behavior in other circumstances.
And they do.
These images show an older gentleman doing nothing more than putting his hands on someone’s shoulders, cupping someone’s face, or whispering in someone’s ears. I’m not sure when this behavior became so offensive. If you have not in your life been innocently but gratuitously hugged or touched, you probably have spent your life in solitary confinement.
I’m writing this as an older person who was for decades in a profession, finance, that in its earlier days had very few females in it. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have been hugged by both men and women. Sometimes there was even a peck on the cheek.
Depending on the situation, this physical attention was always an expression of friendship, caring or maybe even gratitude for some maternal intervention. Never did it make me feel embarrassed or powerless. I still appreciate it when a man helps me on with my coat, which courtesy these days could be considered paternalistic. To stoop to describing any of these courtesies as an “invasion of my space” seems ludicrous. Unfortunately , the issue of “space” has become a tool for brandishing an offense that allows some people these days the political advantage that they crave.
Giving gravitas to trivializing accusations such as Ms. Flores’ will be extremely damaging to relationships between men and women. But even more seriously, if her tactic is successful, in a time of legitimately heightened sensitivities, it risks creating a new watermark that takes even more good and serious candidates, male or female, out of the running for political office – if anyone of them ever got too near to, hugged or kissed, anyone at all.
Though Vice President Biden did nothing egregious, he created a video apologizing. That should be the end of it. Enough mea culpa. Let’s move on with the real business of the country.
Ms. Flores’ accusations do deserve consideration: and then, they should be dismissed as trivial. We insult real victims by comparing her subjective discomfort at hands on her shoulders and a kiss, to their danger and pain at far more serious and criminal violations; and we should starve a story of oxygen and let it die if it uses hyped-up emotion with little actual substance.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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