So Joe Biden does more than hug women, apparently — he also does “slow hair kissing.” He’s been doing these sorts of things for years. He’s been doing them, sometimes, to men, as well. Exhibits: placing his hand on the thigh of a state trooper, appearing to nuzzle former senator Al Franken’s ear.
Joe Biden says it was “never [his] intention” to make anyone uncomfortable. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset,” he said in a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday. “And I get it.”
Joe Biden doesn’t make everyone uncomfortable: Stephanie Carter, who had been the alleged “victim” in a “Creepy Uncle Joe” meme, wrote an essay on Sunday clarifying that Biden is a friend. She’d viewed his extended shoulder rub as comforting and supportive at her husband’s swearing-in as defense secretary.
Those are the Biden tiles; we’re all playing with an identical set. The facts aren’t in question, as there were almost always photographers present. But over the past several days, some people have arranged them, ominously, into “PREDATOR,” or earnestly, into “TEARDROP,” and some people have arranged them innocuously into “PARROT,” and Scrabble morons like me have spelled out “TOE” and called it a day.
Into the facts, we can throw the nuances. The double-letter and triple-word scores. The context, the backstory, the things we’ve gotten better at understanding and talking about.
People of all genders have vastly different comfort levels when it comes to being touched, or being touched by strangers, or being touched by vice presidents.
People are allowed to be the narrators of their own stories. They do not have to be offended by something because someone else was; they also don’t get to declare something inoffensive just because it wouldn’t personally bother them.
Sometimes, the exact same gesture is welcomed when one person performs it and unwelcome when it comes from another source.
Some gestures are generally accepted as friendly rather than predatory — a handshake, a smile. But in certain circumstances, even those can feel wrong, in ways we can struggle to articulate and feel crazy if we try. Some gestures look creepy but in certain circumstances aren’t creepy at all, in ways we can struggle to articulate and feel like chumps if we try.
Not all buffoonery is malevolent. Not all buffoons can perpetually get away with saying, “I didn’t realize,” because after a while, after enough onlookers have said, “Hey, that’s gross,” they should have realized.
As the vice president of the United States, could Joe Biden — a man accustomed to supporters lining up for handshakes and autographs — have wrongly assumed women and men to be more comfortable with physical contact than they actually were? Sure. As vice president, should Joe Biden also have been ultra-aware that women and men who were uncomfortable might feel they were unable to say so? Sure. Yes. Definitely.
Playing Joe Biden Scrabble is a losing proposition because the context you’re applying to the game can have such a drastic impact on the final score.
Where is the Anita Hill square, for example? Where is the square that acknowledges Biden’s presiding role during her agonizing Senate testimony and how his explanations for his handling of it have continued to be tepid?
Where is the ugh square? The square that acknowledges that most people criticizing Biden, including Lucy Flores, are not classifying what he does as sexual assault. They’re classifying it as an ugh. A withering sigh that says: “Ugh, don’t do that.” You won’t be arrested or fined for it, but if you want to model impeccable good-guy statesmanship, then don’t.
Or, don’t do it to everyone, at least. Going forward, remember that Stephanie Carter and Lucy Flores received nearly identical treatment, and one of them ended up spelling “COMFORTING” and one of them used nearly the same tiles to spell “MORTIFYING.”
This is the point in the discussion where a lot of folks want to throw their hands in the air and threaten to stop playing the game. To claim that it’s too hard, there are too many rules, that it’s impossible to navigate a world in which some women are fine with things and some women aren’t — that the subjectivity of it all makes it impossible.
The subjectivity doesn’t make it impossible, though. The subjectivity makes it human.
I can’t help but feel that every time we have another national conversation about sexual harassment, what we’re looking for is a way to make it into a Scrabble game. A way to say: Here is the instruction manual, here is the point system, here’s how you win.
But it doesn’t work that way. It never will.
We can’t learn universal lessons by analyzing Joe Biden’s actions, because his case is full of subtleties — just like every human interaction. We are not Scrabble tiles, we are made up of particulars, not points.
The questions we need to ask ourselves are not, Am I playing the game the right way? How many points is a shoulder rub or slow hair kiss? The question we need to ask ourselves is, Am I playing the game that the people around me want to play?
This column has been updated.
Monica Hesse is a columnist who writes frequently about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.