I appreciate when normal people honestly explain their thought processes, because it helps me understand the world. It’s just that they say the most infuriating things…
I generally like Lili Loofbourow’s writing, for this reason. It’s heartening to see someone mid-radicalization. Her beat seems to be writing about the sexual harassment story of the week. This week, it’s Joe Biden:
She’s trying to expel the patriarchy from her head, and it’s not working all the way:
Reading Lucy Flores’ account of her experience with Joe Biden, in which she described him putting his hands on her shoulders and kissing the back of her head just before she was to speak, I was keenly aware that I was supposed to find his conduct charming. I wanted to find it charming. Rationalizations rose up unbidden: Oh, calm down, I thought to myself, he’s just being affectionate. I imagined him as he might have imagined himself in that circumstance—a kindly man lending his protection to a young woman earlier in her career. I imagined him feeling proud of his generosity and goodness as he put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her head. Nothing predatory or malign about it. So yes: I felt mildly exasperated with Flores for making this an issue.
This surprised me because I completely identified with what she described. I physically shuddered at the very idea of a strange man smelling and kissing my unwashed head. But a machine started up in my brain whose function it was to suppress that reaction. Neither shudder—hers or mine—was supposed to be part of the propriety calculus; it lived in the domain of flinches and squirms and private preferences it’s impolite to mention. Biden’s conduct was avuncular and public. It was well meant. As another woman told the Washington Post, similar unwelcome intimacy from Biden made her uncomfortable “even though it was intended as a compliment.” That his behavior made Lucy Flores want to disappear from her own campaign event—that the very idea of it happening to me made me writhe in sympathy with her—was somehow coequal to or less important than our own mannerly, socialized need to acknowledge Biden’s apparent good intentions.
She can empathize with both parties. That’s good. What’s missing is revulsion at the fact that Biden can be a creep and proud of himself at the same time. It’s a slave master, arrogant prickish benevolence. I mean that literally. Quoting George Fitzhugh, slave master:
We do not set children and women free because they are not capable of taking care of themselves, not equal to the constant struggle of society. To set them free would be to give the lamb to the wolf to take care of. Society would quickly devour them…But half of mankind are but grown-up children, and liberty is as fatal to them as it would be to children…Liberty and equality throw the whole weight of society on its weakest members; they combine all men in oppressing precisely that part of mankind who most need sympathy, aid, and protection…
…A Southern farm is the beau ideal of Communism; it is a joint concern, in which the slave consumes more than the master, of the course products, and is far happier, because although the concern may fail, he is always sure of a support….The intellectual enjoyments which wealth affords are probably balanced by the new cares it brings along with it.
…A state of dependence is the only condition in which reciprocal affection can exist among human beings–the only situation in which the war of competition ceases, and peace, amity, and good will arise. A state of independence always begets more or less jealous rivalry and hostility. A man loves his children because they are weak, helpless, and dependent. He loves his wife for similar reasons….slaves are always dependent…
It’s an offensive attitude to take towards another human being. That’s the reason it’s creepy to touch people like that. The mindset makes your skin crawl, just thinking about it. But I guess not Loofbourow’s…
This is what some of the responses in the aftermath of Flores’ account have been missing: that an individual reaction to Biden’s “tactile” chumminess is more complicated than what we’ve been given credit for. The way this machine works in my own mind is familiar and confusing; so is the strange meta-discussion about Biden’s conduct that’s ensued. In BuzzFeed, Katherine Miller correctly observed a certain automaticity infecting our discussions of this incident. There are lazy formulas: Is Biden “canceled”? People say they “believe” Flores—but there’s little to doubt, since Biden has literally been filmed doing exactly what she describes. Belief here is standing in for the framework we use for survivors of sexual assault, one that doesn’t quite work. Biden defenders are offering refutations, saying, He and Flores were never alone! when she didn’t claim that they were. They are claiming close friendship with Biden, when those who have complained had no relationship with him at all. Miller writes that these reactions are so bizarrely out of step with the incident itself that they register a mismatch between the scripts we have available and the reality we’re trying to describe.
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, a least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. To give a single example, the word free still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as “The dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds.” It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free,” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispenses with was allowed to survive.
Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. Newspeak was founded on the English language as we now know it, though many Newspeak sentences, even when not containing newly created words, would be barely intelligible to an English-speaker of our own day.
It’s true. I can see Biden more clearly because I know enough about slavery to recognize the patterns. ALL THE STRUGGLES ARE RELATED. The stated justifications for slavery are super taboo, but that knowledge of slavery is the missing key to explaining the Biden problem. I would’ve guesed that the kneejerk, nonsensical responses had more to do with tribal identification, but I guess Miller’s right that people literally don’t know how to explain the problem and think they’re not supposed to.
This resonated with me even though my own machine (or program) was operating on a slightly different axis: Reading Flores’ claim, I felt the same faint defensive surprise I felt the first time I heard someone explain what sexual harassment was and why it wasn’t OK. (But isn’t he just trying to make her feel pretty? the program says.) I felt much as I did when I first encountered a principled objection to catcalls—specifically, that they made women self-conscious and nervous and unsafe on streets they had every right to occupy unperturbed. (But it’s a compliment!) I felt as I felt when I read my first-ever explanation of how a lot of behavior that the movies taught me to see as charming fit the definition of stalking. (But this is how love looks!) That many women did not feel pretty or complimented or loved was not, for a very long time, factored into the equation. Deprogramming means learning, over and over again, that this isn’t just the order of things. It’s a framework in which men are granted the freedom to behave messily and spontaneously while their conduct is excused and naturalized and made lovable—boys being boys, Joe being Joe. And others endure it like it’s weather.
This is totally amazing to me, because my dad’s social worker job meant I could classify abuse as physical, sexual, or verbal by grade school. How the fuck do you feel defensive surprise upon hearing about sexual harassment? Talk about identification with the oppressor!
This is the kind of epiphany people like me have to achieve over and over again. That something is done openly and has been for years does not mean it is harmless or that it should be publicly accepted. It is important to recognize that no one has claimed that Biden’s actions felt to them like sexual misconduct. It is also important to recognize that the women who nevertheless say they didn’t like it are seen as rude and intolerant, ungrateful and unkind. (Or even, per one theory, malicious.) We have been laughing nervously at Uncle Joe on C-SPAN for years—a figure whose membership in one’s extended family came with the license to be inappropriate, but also meant you could never directly ask him to stop. It’s why the internet has taken up the Creepy Uncle moniker—a darker construal of what the “Uncle Joe” nickname implies—a figure whose uncomfortable gaffes are seen as lovable and whose paternalistic intimacies we code as innocent.
So I gently disagree with the claim that every individual knows already how they feel about these allegations—or that they’ll fall firmly into a camp of exoneration or a camp of blame. The truth is, I feel both ways about Biden’s behavior. I feel both the way I’ve been taught one should feel—that it’s no big deal, he meant well, and life is full of shudders and challenges—and the way I personally feel when I am touched in similar ways by similar figures: repulsed, infantilized, small. I suspect I’m not alone.
It’s great that she’s getting there and showing others the way, but holy shit is this stuff aggravating to read. She’s literally describing her own stunted moral development,
OMG you can make principled moral arguments and people will have no idea what the fuck you’re even talking about. This is a consequence of not teaching philosophy in schools. The knowledge of how to think systematically about ethics is forgotten. In 1776, it would be abnormal for a propertied, voting white male not to know about philosophy.
I don’t personally care very much about Joe Biden. What I do care about is the extent to which this conversation, messy and undisciplined and confusing though it’s been, has illustrated just how many women have had to deal with a tactile “uncle” of some kind or another. Up until now, there has not been a good language for it. We are not alone in our private discomfort with these public behaviors, wishing we could disappear and wondering why we couldn’t receive these attentions more graciously. (It’s in the open, so it must be fine! No one else seems shocked.) Finding a language for it seems like an important first step toward not only objecting, but coming to a new and better consensus.
Up until now there has not been a good language for it? This is what Andrea Dworkin said in 1976, in “The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door”:
For the moment, I will refer exclusively to the first definition of rape, that is, “the act of seizing and carrying off by force. ”Rape precedes marriage, engagement, betrothal, and courtship as sanctioned social behavior. In the bad old days, when a man wanted a woman he simply took her— that is, he abducted and fucked her. The abduction, which was always for sexual purposes, was the rape. If the raped woman pleased the rapist, he kept her. If not, he discarded her.Women, in those bad old days, were chattel. That is, women were property, owned objects, to be bought, sold, used, and stolen—that is, raped. A woman belonged first to her father who was her patriarch, her master, her lord. The very derivation of the word patriarchy is instructive. Pater means owner, possessor, or master. The basic social unit of patriarchy is the family. The word family comes from the Oscan famel, which means servant, slave, or possession. Paterfamilias means owner of slaves. The rapist who abducted a woman took the place of her father as her owner, possessor, or master.The Old Testament is eloquent and precise in delineating the right of a man to rape. Here, for instance, is Old Testament law on the rape of enemy women. Deuteronomy, Chapter 21, verses 10 to 15—
When you go to war against your enemies and Yahweh your God delivers them into your power and you take prisoners, if you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and find her desirable, you may make her your wife and bring her to your home. She is to shave her head and cut her nails and take off her prisoner’s garb; she is to stay inside your house and must mourn her father and mother for a full month. Then you may go to her and be a husband to her, and she shall be your wife. Should she cease to please you, you will let her go where she wishes, not selling her for money; you are not to make any profit out of her, since you have had the use of her.
A discarded woman, of course, was a pariah or a whore.
Rape, then, is the first model for marriage. Marriage laws sanctified rape by reiterating the right of the rapist to ownership of the raped. Marriage laws protected the property rights of the first rapist by designating a second rapist as an adulterer, that is, a thief. Marriage laws also protected the father’s ownership of the daughter. Marriage laws guaranteed the father’s right to sell a daughter into marriage, to sell her to another man. Any early strictures against rape were strictures against robbery— against the theft of property. It is in this context, and in this context only, that we can understand rape as a capital crime…
This motif of sexual relating— that is, rape— remains our primary model for heterosexual relating. The dictionary defines rape as “the act of physically forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse. ” But in fact, rape, in our system of masculinist law, remains a right of marriage. A man cannot be convicted of raping his own wife. In all fifty states, rape is defined legally as forced penetration by a man of a woman “not his wife. ”8 When a man forcibly penetrates his own wife, he has not committed a crime of theft against another man. Therefore, according to masculinist law, he has not raped. And, of course, a man cannot abduct his own wife since she is required by law to inhabit his domicile and submit to him sexually. Marriage remains, in our time, carnal ownership of women. A man cannot be prosecuted for using his own property as he sees fit.
In addition, rape is our primary emblem of romantic love. Our modern writers, from D. H. Lawrence to Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Ayn Rand, consistently present rape as the means of introducing a woman to her own carnality. A woman is taken, possessed, conquered by brute force— and it is the rape itself that transforms her into a carnal creature. It is the rape itself which defines both her identity and her function: she is a woman, and as a woman she exists to be fucked
In masculinist terms, a woman can never be raped against her will since the notion is that if she does not want to be raped, she does not know her will.
As you can see, quite a lot of work has been done in terms of theorizing the patriarchy. Loofbourow’s mistake is to think that, if she hasn’t heard of it, someone hasn’t already figured it out. She’s saying that we need to go back to pre-1976 and start over with learning how to even talk about why you can’t just sniff women’s hair and grope on children.
Consider: this is not a complicated problem for a lot of men. It’s simple. “Touch me and I’ll kick your ass.” Why is that?