Joe Biden would like you to know that he "had permission" to hug Lonnie Stephenson, the President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, when he joined him on stage on Friday, April 5, to address union members. But that clarification struck many people as yet another instance in which the former Vice President failed to properly read the cultural room.
The speech, in which Biden praised union workers and the working class, per CBS, was sandwiched by two such gaffes; the other came at the end of his speech, when he hugged a boy who had come up on stage, and added, "I got his permission to touch him." Though the comments didn't mention anyone by name, they ostensibly stemmed from the allegations made by Nevada politician Lucy Flores, and at least seven other women, that the former Vice President and rumored 2020 candidate had made them feel uncomfortable with unwanted touching.
That Biden seemingly decided to play the controversy for laughs is disconcerting enough, not least of all given that on Wednesday, he used a Twitter video to promise to "be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That's my responsibility and I will meet it." Notably, the video did not include a direct apology to any of his accusers.
Instead, Biden seemed to focus on how "societal norms are changing," which has seemingly "reset the boundaries" on what is and isn't appropriate conduct. While it's true that society has shifted, that shift wasn't necessarily that it once was OK to touch people, or kiss them on the head without their express permission, and now it isn't. It should have never been OK to begin with; instead, society has shifted so that people would hopefully feel less fearful about retribution if they choose to speak out against violations of the self.
Biden should know this; he spent years working on the It's On Us campaign and particularly urged young men to serve as upstanders and intervene if they witness inappropriate conduct. (The It's On Us campaign particularly focused on sexual assault; the women who said Biden's contact was disrespectful, but did not veer into the realm of sexual assault.) Adding insult, then, is the way in which the conference of union workers laughed at Biden's comments on Friday, serving as yet another reminder of how people often diminish women's voices and turn them into punch lines. Notably, the speaker did not tell them not to laugh at the line.
Biden may have later told reporters, "It wasn't my intent to make light of anyone's discomfort," but it's hard to interpret the comments as anything else. To that end, calling Biden's comments "jokes" feeds into the narrative that intent matters more than reception, and that what Biden meant to do holds more weight than the disrespect that the women felt they must bear.
Flores agrees; after news broke about Biden's comments, she tweeted, "To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have."
That conversation cannot happen if one of the parties involved seems at all unwilling to fully reflect on what the other is saying. Per CNN, Biden told reporters at the conference that he was "sorry I didn't understand more," but added that, "I am not sorry for any of my intentions. I am not sorry for anything that I have ever done." In that statement, he drew a boundary – but whether he truly understands why his accusers are upset is less definite, and may prove all the more damning in the months to come.