Recently humor became a focal point of another political imbroglio for possible presidential candidate, Joe Biden. The lead up to the joke was some individual women coming forth and telling their tales of discomfort and worry as a result of some of Biden’s physical contact with them. Biden has a well-known history of being physically affectionate or “handsy” and opinions vary as to the propriety of his behaviors. This post is not a way to weigh in on that particular controversy. I know far too little about the situations and the individuals involved. Further, I am not interested to evaluate his posted video response to controversy as a real or non-apology. I take no sides relative to those topics in this post. What I want to focus on is the joke he was heard to say at a union conference on Friday, April 5th, 2019. I want to explore how the joke worked or didn’t and attempt to explain why it did or it didn’t. Largely I think it failed to do as he wanted and this becomes a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to use humor to address controversy in the political realm or otherwise.
The context and set-up for Biden’s joke is pretty clear. First, there is a controversy around his behaviors. Some individuals have explained their discomfort at some of his actions while others have not had the same responses. These issue come at a time when issues of personal space and violations thereof are being discussed more broadly and as a result of the #metoo movement. Women and others have become more comfortable raising their voices to show their particular situations and their responses to the acts. Powerful people from across a variety of societal realms have had allegations and charges brought upon them due to this increased awareness on issues regarding personal space and touching. Some have been brought to trials whereas others have faced little to no consquences. The specifics for Biden’s case fit directly into the overall cultural influences described and are in a sense emblematic of a particular cultural moment.
The joke came as a result of his introduction to an electrical workers union where he hugged the individual introducing him, Lonnie Stephenson, a white male. I add those biographical bits, because as with most humor, context matters. The crowd was also largely white and male. As Biden began speaking he made a little joke, that “He had permission to hug Lonnie.” Laughs were had. But the joke did nothing but flame the fires of the controversy. It did nothing to put the issue at ease. Obviously Biden and his supporters would like this to all go away, and often, a well-timed and snappy bit of humor can cause an issue to evaporate. It worked for President Reagan when he fended off the worry about his age when he quipped he wouldn’t use the “youth and inexperience of his opponent against him.” As brilliant a line and move as that was, that was in debate where making points is expected and the venue is antagonistic. There was nothing like that here. Biden was campaigning, and he was campaigning during a time when issues of sexual harassment and such are forward in the cultural milieu. Age isn’t a character flaw, but touching people and making people ill at ease because of behavior might very well be. The former is what happens to us all, whereas the latter is behavior one can choose to or not to do.
There are a couple of ways one could take his joke. One he was using the humor to indicate that he’s aware of the issue and will deal with it in a forthright manner. Another response is that he’s using the humor to try and cast aside the issue and in a sense say “It’s no big deal.” The danger in this approach is that it seems that he’s laughing off the issue indicating that he has a tin ear—that is, it’s not something he feels he needs to seriously address. He can also be taken to be joking about something that you just don’t make light of, especially in public and especially as a candidate who is to represent a large number of people, many of whom find this issue to be central and certainly not to be made light of. Being seen as insensitive and or unwilling to listen and understand is often problematic for political candidates. If part or the main of your job is to represent people, being unable or unwilling to hear and listen to folks, then this makes one unfit for the job. Biden did post a video attempting to address the issues which indicates that he is taking it seriously, but it seemingly fell flat.
The problem with the joke, coupled with the video is that someone could conclude that Biden simply doesn’t really care about the complaints of the folks involved. He doesn’t make much of an attempt to deal with the thorny issue that women felt deeply uncomfortable with his actions even if he didn’t have creepier or lascivious intentions. And that seems to be the problem. Since he doesn’t deal with it, he doesn’t really think it’s a problem worth effort and attention. The fact that he jokes about the issue in the cavalier way that he does twice in the same venue, to a bunch of other men, reinforces that conclusion. Instead of using the joke to acknowledge the elephant in the room, he comes across as using the humor to try and make the issue seem less than important—something he needn’t talk about as an individual or a candidate. The historical silencing of voices of the abused is one of the reasons the #metoo movement has grown in the way that it has.
The main problem with the joke as it relates to his political life is that it doesn’t help him. It seems at odds with his video apology that he is taking some parts of the issues raised against him seriously. What one would have hoped, or what I would have hoped if I had advised him to use humor, was that the joke would not detract from people’s perception that he was being serious about this issue and listening to people about it. This was not the effect had.
In ending this, let me raise a couple of other points. I don’t know Biden, I don’t know his views of women. I have no idea the level of authenticity the man has given the words of apology he gave. I don’t know if he was being a calculated political operative when he made the joke he did, or if he was genuinely trying to use the joke to address the issue, but did so in a ham-handed way. Most of the rest of us opining on this likely do not either. So perhaps we need more information before we fasten our opinions. Perhaps we’ve all we need, or have all we’re gonna get. I don’t know. Another question I would ask anyone who finds his behavior lacking, is to describe what could he do that would be acceptable given the situation? How does he, or anyone, make this better? Politics is a strange, oft- irrational game, and very rarely does a politician issue a full apology. Maybe he should’ve started there rather than a joke. It would open up avenues for more voices to be heard and this seems to be in line with what we expect of those who represent us.