stop gaslighting us with c-tactile afferents

It’s true that humans need touch, and it’s miserable and unhealthy to go without it. Mary Jo Murphy published some sophistry in the Washington Post, using that to defend Joe Biden’s gropery.

The unwritten rule can be as indelible as any chiseled into a tablet. That’s its genius and its curse. But because norms recalibrate, and today’s are still sorting themselves out, not everyone got the invisible memo that says a person shall not hug, pat, brush, graze, stroke, clasp, rub, squeeze or nuzzle another without first obtaining or at least intuiting consent.

Joe Biden certainly didn’t get that memo. He has operated on his own tactile terms for years, and now he faces an unexpected hurdle as he ponders a twilight run for the White House. Several women have said that when Biden’s exuberant greetings or gestures of support involved touching them, they felt uncomfortable, leading some progressives to hint that he should sit this one out.

Somehow I’m autistic and I did get the memo to keep my hands off people. What gives? This is the definition of bad faith. Somehow, when it’s Joe Biden groping women and children, nobody’s responsible for following the unwritten rules anymore. It’s just too hard, having ambiguity in the world.

It’s kindergarten-level stuff: Sometimes, I don’t want to be touched. That means other people probably feel the same way at least some of the time. Better to stay on the safe side. This is exactly the same reason not to be loud in public. It’s invasive, subjecting others to sensory input they can’t control.

If Joe Biden is such a good politician, that makes it even more likely that he picks up on signals that he’s creeping women out and doesn’t care.

Manhandling, assault, uninvited sexual touching — that sort of contact has long violated social norms (as well as laws). But the move to regulate behavior that makes people “uncomfortable”? This treads on newer turf. Life presents “uncomfortable” moments daily, after all, and they differ from person to person. Should rejecting discomfort be the new norm? Should it be what makes me uncomfortable? Which comfort level should dictate? Good luck finding the line of demarcation. Even if we could, such a taboo would set up a Blakeian battle pitting innocence against experience. “Someone should put the bloody brakes on it,” says Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University and an evangelist for social touch.

Give me a break. As a black autistic man, I’m absolutely required to try and avoid making people around me uncomfortable. I see no reason anyone else should be exempt from this basic aspect of being polite and considerate. It actually pisses me off to hear that normal people can really be as inconsiderate as they seem, without ever feeling bad about it.

Norms governing touch are headed to a place where they can cause harm, says McGlone, who studies C-tactile afferents, the nerve fibers that respond to gentle touch. C-tactile afferents are “beautifully, exquisitely evolved,” McGlone says, and without the touch that they respond to, babies have weaker neural responses and longer hospital stays and do not gain as much weight. But the benefits derived from this nerve fiber — he’s fond of calling it “the Higgs boson of the social brain” — don’t end in infancy. McGlone points to higher rates of mortality among lonely people, who make up a large proportion of the elderly. What do the lonely elderly have in common? They don’t get touched, he says. “Don’t piss around with 3 million years of evolution,” McGlone admonishes. It “doesn’t make mistakes.” Social touch is “a biological necessity.”

Yes, and it doesn’t follow that it’s appropriate for Joe Biden to take it upon himself and fulfill this need for people. It’s probably healthier to experience sexual contact than not, but it doesn’t follow that grabbing women by the pussy is a favor.

If there’s a big social norm encouraging touch deprivation, it’s probably homophobia and not liberal feminists.

What’s clear to biologists may be less so to sociologists, psychiatrists and even behavioral economists. Humans require social touch, but the rules that govern its deployment are not biologically determined. All social borders are social constructs, says H. Peyton Young, an economist and game theorist at the London School of Economics. Norms are “informal cultural understandings” born of repeated experience, Young says. They develop in “bottom up” fashion. “Somebody does something differently, and then somebody else does it, and it starts to spread.” That’s how a new norm is baked. It’s almost wholly experiential, and no authority can proclaim a norm and expect it to take hold.

This is absurd. The ad industry and the media in general create norms top-down all the time. It’s more ok for white people to be racist than it was before. Donald Trump has a lot to do with that. Bernays made it cool for women to smoke cigarettes. People had to be conditioned to using disposable products. Tech companies decided their products will be the normal way to interact. Norms also develop bottom-up. She has a problem with black-and-white thinking.

Young, who wrote a paper on the evolution of social norms, cites table manners as an example of how a norm violation is perceived. In American society, people assume that you don’t start to eat before everyone else. That’s not written; it’s understood. When you see the person next to you pick up their peas with their hands, you feel uncomfortable: What’s this supposed to mean? “When a norm is in place, everything is fine because there is no discordance — the expectations are going along,” Young says. “When there’s deviation, that’s when the worries come in.”

I don’t think I would’ve used the word “uncomfortable” to describe how I feel at the thought of someone eating peas with their hands. Ethiopian restaurants don’t have silverware, because you pick up the food with the bread in your hands. Maybe I’d be puzzled. I’d use the available information to start speculating about the person. That reaction of “uncomfortable” is a major reason autistic people have problems in life.

I’m pretty sure my parents told me directly that you’re not supposed to start eating before everyone else, unless they tell you to go ahead. This is generally something children can learn before they’re literate, so I don’t see much point in writing the rule down for people raised in the culture.

The feelings of the women who were “uncomfortable” when Biden touched them are valid and understandable. But those feelings do not decree norms. If lots of people continue to accept hugging and other kinds of nonsexualized social touch as something they’re comfortable with (even if they’re not enthusiastic about it), then the norm will and should remain with the huggers, especially considering that biology loves a gentle touch.

“Keep your hands off people” is a more fair-minded norm than letting the “huggers” provide cover for the creeps. I don’t want most people touching me, most of the time. Why doesn’t that constrain the norm at all? Why is she ok with norms that steamroll over my bodily privacy, because she decided how I’ll meet my need for touch? The problem is that touch means something more intimate for some people than others. A rule of “don’t touch people when it’s ambiguous” means nobody has to deal with unwanted touch, but everyone that wants to is still free to touch each other. A rule of “I’m allowed to hug everyone because I’m awesome” guarantees a violated minority.

The point is that we live in a multi-cultural society, and the norms have to take that into consideration. The norms should be the ones that maximally respect everyone, without assuming everyone is the same.

That’s certainly true for social touch. If it seems, anecdotally, that reactions to Biden’s hugginess have split along generational lines, with the boomer cohort tending to shrug it off and the millennial cohort tending to call it out, that might be because norms are akin to language. Older people transmit norms to younger ones, but when adolescents leave their homes, they interact with more young people and begin to create new norms, just as they create new language.

This makes it sound like the social norms have nothing to do with feminist activism. It’s more accurate to say that older people are used to a certain impunity for creepiness. Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, whoever, enjoy creepiness as a perk of their social position, which is being contested on human rights grounds.

Yet it’s a slippery slope to say that what makes someone uncomfortable should be outlawed in the unwritten book of norms, because there is great diversity in what people find uncomfortable. The norm by its nature will account for that flexibility. McGlone is right that the minority of “blatant transgressors” shouldn’t fuel a hysteria about touch that discourages nursery school teachers from hugging tots, and caregivers from offering comforting hugs to patients — and politicians from working those crucial C-tactile afferents on the public stage.

This is exactly backwards. Minorities shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable, because the majorities certainly don’t tolerate discomfort either.

Nothing here convinces me that it should be ok for this woman to touch me, ever.