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What controversy around Biden’s behavior says about shifting social norms

The past behavior of former Vice President Joe Biden toward women has sparked conversation around the boundaries governing physical contact and consent. Biden has said that norms have evolved since he entered the public sphere. To discuss how that may be true, Judy Woodruff turns to New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister, The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty and Harvard University's Frank Dobbin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some of former Vice President Joe Biden's past personal behavior is sparking conversations about boundaries when it comes to physical contact and consent.

    They go beyond himself to questions about social norms that were once tolerated by many women, but may no longer be acceptable.

    To be clear, none of the public accusations about Biden's actions approach sexual assault or serious misconduct. What the four women who've spoken out recently, including Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state legislator, have said is that they were uncomfortable when Biden either hugged them, kissed them or touched them inappropriately.

    Biden addressed the matter on Twitter today.

  • Joseph Biden:

    In my career, I have always tried to make a human connection. That's my responsibility, I think. I shake hands. I hug people. I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, you can do this.

    And whether they're women, men, young, old, it's the way I have always been. And it's way I have tried to show I care about them and I'm listening.

    And, over the years, knowing what I have been through, the things that I have faced, I have found that scores, if not hundreds of people have come up to me and reached out for solace and comfort.

    Social norms have begun to change. They have shifted. And the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. And I get it. I get it. I hear what they're saying. I understand it.

    And I will be much more mindful. That's my responsibility, my responsibility. And I will meet it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that was on Twitter today.

    And now let's look at some of the issues surrounding all of this.

    Rebecca Traister is a writer for "New York Magazine" and for The Cut. She's author of "Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger." Karen Tumulty is a columnist covering national politics for The Washington Post. And Frank Dobbin is a sociologist at Harvard University who studies sexual harassment and diversity training.

    And we welcome all three of you to the "NewsHour."

    Let me first get your reaction, just your take on what the vice president had to say today.

    Karen Tumulty, you first.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Well, I think that this shows, among other things, sort of how rusty he is at this.

    His initial response to this was essentially to say — to the women who were accusing him of making them uncomfortable, was to say, I'm sorry that your feelings got hurt.

    This is a very different kind of statement. This is him sort of acknowledging that the fault lies in his own actions and promising to change those actions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Professor Dobbin, how did you? How did you read what the vice president said?

  • Frank Dobbin:

    Well, I think it's a little surprising that he didn't follow the issue over the last nearly 40 years, since he was in the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991.

    But I think it's an indication of kind of a generational shift. There's a generation of people that just hasn't really been aware of what kinds of changes in social norms there are. And, in this case, he at least acknowledges that he was out of synch with what was going on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rebecca Traister, how did you hear him?

  • Rebecca Traister:

    Well, I do think that especially the final part about acknowledging that norms are changing and that he's engaged in this conversation is what he needed to say, but he did need to say it five days ago, and really 20 years ago, 10 years ago, two years ago.

    He's billed himself of late as somebody who's very interested in these issues. He's involved with It's On Us, talking about issues around changing norms around gender and power. And yet he was very slow to respond with what he needed to say.

    And what he doesn't address in this statement is the degree to which norms are also changing around the role — the paternalism of that kind of touching is also reflected in his policy record. He's been in power for 40 years in the Senate — or 30 years in the Senate and then as vice president.

    And he has also had a sort of paternalistic role in his positions on abortion, reproductive health, his role as the head of the Judiciary in the Anita Hill hearings. He's had — he needs to address a lot about what has shifted in our politics and norms and our ideas about gender and power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to broaden this to talk about what is going on if terms of our entire country, our entire society at this point.

    Karen Tumulty, have norms changed?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Yes, I think that the MeToo movement is sort of evolving from a movement into a norm.

    And by that, I mean part of all of this is all of us understanding that, when women come forward with these accounts, that we both give them the benefit of the doubt in their version of events, but also the benefit in the doubt of the validity of their feelings about it.

    But at the same time, I think we do have to recognize that not every offense has — carries the same degree of severity, and that, you know, a lot of these just come from, you know, behavior that is just clueless. And if the person who is, you know, alleged to have committed these sort of understands the degree to which this behavior makes people uncomfortable and is sensitive to that, I do think that there really ought to be a path to redemption for lesser offenders, as it were.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I want to explore that, but I want to come back, too, to what you said, Professor Dobbin.

    You said — you talked about a generational shift. You know, what did you mean by that?

  • Frank Dobbin:

    Well, there has been a change in norms since 1991 and the Clarence Thomas hearings.

    What we generally recognize explicitly as OK and as not OK has changed pretty dramatically, things like trying to date someone at work. But this kind of behavior is, he would call it just emotional behavior. He would just call it part of the way he does his job.

    One of the things that I find disturbing is that we have undergone a pretty massive social experiment since the early 1990s. In 1991, at the time of the Clarence Thomas hearing, about 25 percent of medium and large companies had some kind of harassment training.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Frank Dobbin:

    By the end of the 1990s, about 75 percent had some kind of harassment training.

    But if you look at reports of harassment and surveys of workplace harassment, harassment hasn't really declined very much in that time. So I think, at the extreme ends of the continuum, when you think about what's OK and what's not OK, you know, we know that sexual assault at work is widely viewed as not OK, and that trying to date an underling, and persistently trying to date an underling is considered to be not OK.

    But a lot of stuff in the middle, people haven't gotten the message about. And that's one of the reasons we still see high rates of harassment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rebecca, how clear is it what is OK and isn't OK right now in a workplace, in a public setting?

  • Rebecca Traister:

    Well, I think the question of clarity is a tough one, because, when you're changing norms, you are — you're literally changing the rules in the middle of the game.

    But there's no other real way to do it, right? So, and that's — I think when Professor Dobbin talked about the generational shift, you have people who were born in an era in which certain kinds of behavior were normalized, before the term sexual harassment was even coined, which wasn't until 1975, which, by the way, is after Joe Biden was already elected to the Senate, which happened in 1972.

    So, we are changing the ideas about what is permissible and also the interrogation of what kind of power, the sort of access to women's bodies. What does it mean to be a powerful man who feels he can — what he sees as emotional connection, but winds up being uncomfortable physical touch with a woman who is his junior, but in his field, a peer?

    These women are working with him or other politicians. The game is changing. And that means that there isn't always a clear answer. But the key thing is, you have to listen to the people who are telling you, this feels like it's conveying something that is uncomfortable to me or that conveys you don't think of me as an equal, it feels diminishing.

    We have to listen to the conversation about it before we can just say, OK, this is OK, this is not OK. It is an ongoing and evolving process of trying to change the way we approach power and gender.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Karen, is it easier now to hold people accountable for their actions?

    I think we're all trying to figure out, is there a way to sort through this now that brings us to some conclusion that more of us can agree with?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Oh, I think it is absolutely easier to have these conversations, and especially over the last year-and-a-half, since we have seen so many brave women come forward in the MeToo movement and tell their stories and be believed.

    But, you know, at the same time, you have had — I mean, the obvious comparison, is, you know, Donald Trump sits in the White House right now having boasted about, you know, grabbing women by their genitals and being accused of actual sexual assault by a number of women.

    So it isn't like I think we have very, very clear standards at this point. But it is true that the conversation is happening, and that's a very welcome development.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Professor Dobbin, where should people turn if they're looking for guidance on what's right? I mean, where do they turn? What do they — who do they look to?

  • Frank Dobbin:

    Well, the problem is, the law isn't very clear about that.

    What court cases say is unwanted sexual contact or unwanted physical contact. But who's to say who wants it? I mean, obviously, in this case, Biden thought that he was being friendly in these cases, and so he — I assume he thought that the women who have come forward wanted that contact.

    But I think there's a bigger issue, which is, we have been trying to prevent harassment with sexual harassment training, and it doesn't work. It doesn't change the incidents of harassment in the workplace. It can make things worse by exacerbating the behavior of the worst kinds of harassers to begin with.

    It tends to be preaching to the choir. And then our solution, when people experience harassment, is a grievance process in most companies that doesn't work, that backfires, and that women don't use because they know they won't get any kind of resolution.

    So, when you asked earlier, is it easier now than it was, it's easier, I think, to report a high-profile man, a senator or a CEO of a company or Jeffrey Weinstein. But, you know, for the person whose manager is harassing them at a McDonald's at 11:00 at night, they don't really have anybody to go to, because their only real remedy is to talk to their manager, who's probably the person who's harassing them, or to use a grievance process that they know won't produce positive results, because they never do.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Frank Dobbin:

    So, I think we're in a kind of conundrum here. We don't know how to resolve the problem.

    I think the — it's great news that the MeToo movement is making some public progress in what the norms are, but I just don't see much changing in the workplace.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Rebecca Traister, what do you say to people, women or men, who are looking around saying, what's my guidance here? How do I know where the boundaries are today?

  • Rebecca Traister:

    Well, again, I would emphasize, listen to the people who are telling you. They're describing the experiences of feeling like their boundaries are being violated.

    But also look to the power imbalances, because so much of what enables behavior is not just harassment and not — this is obviously — when we're talking about Biden, we're not talking about any kind of violent assault — but what enables sexism, the sort of diminishment, you know, in another category, racism.

    It's unequal power distribution. And when you look at politics, when you look at businesses, what you see is a lot of power that's been in the hands of men, and for a long time in the hands of white men. And part of the criticism here isn't just about saying individual people did something bad.

    It's actually a critique of the way that the system has distributed power unequally, and that some people have been in a position to have access to women's bodies or to make the rules, to make the norms around their preferences and their ideas.

    And as some of the people who have had less power are gaining a voice and saying, actually, that hasn't — that makes me uncomfortable, I feel like I have been denied an equal share of this power, I have been being denied respect and a hearing, I think that's a bigger critique that we're talking about, is saying, let's change some of the structural dynamics that have put so much power into the hands of certain kinds of people for so long in so many realms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sobering thought and a subject I know we're going to come back to again and again, because it is an important one.

    Rebecca Traister, Karen Tumulty, Professor Frank Dobbin, thank you, all three.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Frank Dobbin:

    Thank you, Judy.

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