Saturday, August 3, 2019

Say It Ain't So, Joe!

Joe Biden has lost the Democratic presidential nomination four times already, so he probably won't mind too much losing it, or the general election, again.  The Democratic establishment (by which I mean not only the Party leadership but the corporate media punditry) seems determined to anoint him, and that means it will be an uphill struggle to stop him, but we're still several months from the primaries and almost a year from the national convention.  A lot can change in that time, as it has before.

There's been some consternation about Biden's handsiness, his irresistible fondness for violating other people's personal space.  It's not the only reason to reject him, and probably not the most important one, but a good many anti-Biden people have thrown tantrums over it.  People's -- especially children's -- boundaries around physical affection should be respected, but I'm not sure how sincere a lot of the outrage has been.  I'm not defending Biden here, but there are so many double standards in partisan politics that I've become more than a little cynical, and as I say, Biden has a lot worse on his record.

A couple of weeks ago (I've been procrastinating again, sorry), someone posted a video clip on Twitter of Biden at some campaign event, kissing a young woman lightly on the lips, after which she leaves the stage.  I haven't been able to find it again in the bowels of Twitter, but of course a version of it has been posted on Youtube.  The young woman, wearing a Biden t-shirt, turned out to be his granddaughter, and she didn't exhibit any of the discomfort some other people, including young children, have exhibited when Biden caresses their shoulders or sniffs their hair.  The clip was, of course, overanalyzed, so that her serious expression as she steps down becomes a cry for help against her rapey Grandpa, but I don't see it.  My reading is that she's concentrating on not stumbling as she leaves the stage; she might even be thinking Oh, no, people are going to make a big thing out of that.  I doubt anyone but her and her family know, and I wouldn't care to see her interrogated publicly about it.  Pick on Joe, but leave the kid alone.

What I noticed in the comments under the tweet went beyond just hatred of Joe Biden.  It was a remarkable squeamishness about familial affection.  For parents or grandparents to kiss their children or grandchildren on the lips was disgusting, numerous people said.  Not in their family!  Any family that indulges in such behavior is sick and perverted.  One person posted a 2009 photo of Melania Trump kissing her son Barron, who was three at the time, on the lips; he's kissing her back.  The poster was disturbed by the kiss -- parents shouldn't do that, she said.

I don't really have an opinion about the propriety, let alone psychopathology, of family members kissing each other on the lips.  Again, people's boundaries should be respected, but the reactions to the Biden clip and the Melania / Barron photograph went beyond that: even if the kids didn't know it was wrong, it was wrong and abusive and sick.  Now, my own family was not very affectionate; I can't remember the last time either of my parents kissed me or my brothers.  But I know that families differ widely in their practices and attitudes, and I don't know how to draw the line in principle, as opposed to individual comfort.  A child might be traumatized by demands that she kiss an adult relative if she doesn't want to do it, but the harm comes in the coercion, not the kiss, as far as I can see.  And no one, needless to say, justified their strictures: they were just certain that they knew.  If they thought it was disgusting, then it was objectively disgusting, and no one ought to do it.  That, to me, is a sign of something seriously wrong.

Graham Shaw's 1982 book The Cost of Authority: Manipulation and Freedom in the New Testament (Fortress Press) contains much intelligent discussion of community and power, but I've always been dissatisfied with his remarks about the apostle Paul and the controversy over meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.  (I bring this up not because the Bible has any authority, but to show that the problem I'm discussing now is not new.)  There seems to have been concern among the Corinthian Christians over Christian freedom to eat: meat was usually connected to sacrifice, whether to Yahweh or to the old gods.  "As the false gods to whom food has allegedly been consecrated have no real existence, it might be assumed that Christians are free to eat it. But not everybody knows that the false gods do not exist, and they feel shame in eating such food" page 80).  The Christians in Corinth were not Jews but Gentiles, so they would have grown up eating meat from those sacrifices.  Paul acknowledged Christian freedom - after all, it was a pillar of his teaching - but encouraged his congregation to limit their freedom in consideration of the weaker faith of some of their fellows.  Shaw writes:
Much in Paul's response to the food question has been self-regarding, authoritarian and manipulative, but this should not conceal either the radical nature of his teaching or the sophisticated way in which he permits the conscience of others to limit the freedom of the Christian [85].
This fits oddly with Paul's confrontation with Simon Peter, recounted in Galatians 2:11-21, over the freedom of Jewish Christians to ignore traditional purity rules so that they might eat with Gentile Christians.  Paul brushed aside the conscience of weaker brethren, which he dismissed as "hypocrisy" (Gal. 2:13), to insist on "the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus" (2:4).

Shaw continues:
What seems to worry Paul is not that the other person might remain unenlightened, but that he might be shocked.  Thus he concludes the passage: 'Give no offense to Jews, or Greeks, or to the church of God' ([1 Cor.] 10:12).  The moral sensitivity of other people would seem here to be a constraint on the Christian's freedom.  Paul is trying to avoid a situation where freedom is aggressively asserted without regard to the response of other people [85].
The letters to Corinth are later than the one to the Galatians, so perhaps Paul modified his views in the light of further experience.  But it would seem that he should have restrained himself when Peter suffered pangs of conscience and shame, and stopped eating with the Gentile Christians.  Not only Peter but the rest of the congregation must have been confused, but Paul didn't worry about their scruples; he aggressively asserted his freedom.

Paul also exulted in proclaiming Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and a folly to the Greeks.  Where was his concern for offending weaker vessels then?  Christians might argue that the crucifixion is an essential part of Christian faith but Christian freedom is not; but it appears from Paul's letters that not all Christian preachers made the crucifixion as central as he did, hence his pride in doing so.  Christian freedom, which he tied to the crucifixion, was important enough that he quarreled publicly with Simon Peter over it: Paul was willing to divide congregations over Christians' freedom from the purity commandments, so it was not a trivial issue, except when it was.

This episode is useful because we no longer eat meat that has been sacrificed to any gods, so we can focus more on the principles involved with a minimum of gut-level reaction.  (There are other such controversies in Paul's letters, such as whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised, and the status of women as teachers in the churches.  Paul wasn't any more consistent or clear on these issues than he was on food.)  I see Shaw's point, and even agree to some extent; but I think it works both ways.

Paul and Shaw frame the question in terms of "knowledge" (conflated, perhaps inaccurately, with gnosis) invoked by some Christians to justify their freedom, versus the tender consciences of the weaker brethren.  I suspect this is not quite fair to the freer Christians, especially given Paul's own practice, and too indulgent of the weaker ones.  I think that letting the more restrictive believers set limits on others is how you end up, for example, with women covered from head to toe to protect the "weakness" of men.  There needs to be some restraint on the power of more restrictive members of a community to control others.  Of course the latter will try to present themselves as victims of the former, and to claim that the only alternative to their restrictive position is total, destructive license.  In Paul's case, he declared that if women cut their hair at all, they might as well cut it off entirely.

The territory between the two poles can be viewed as a continuum -- or a slippery slope, as it's often called -- and the problem is that there's no obvious point at which to stop, at least in theory.  In practice, a slippery slope is invoked to claim that though a given practice -- gay marriage, say -- may not seem so bad, but if you allow it, why not permit marriage between humans and animals, or incest, or polygamy?  The proper reply is that if these latter practices can be shown to be harmful, then they can be forbidden, but they aren't grounds for forbidding gay marriage.

So, back to grandfathers and granddaughters, or mothers and sons, kissing each other on the lips.  The people who were repulsed by Melania and Barron didn't give any reason for their revulsion; it was just obvious to any decent healthy person that what they were doing was wrong, and if we don't draw the line there, we can't stop Donald Trump from grabbing women by the pussy.  Or something.  But where will we draw the line?  Not so long ago, it was obvious to all decent healthy people (including many gay men) that two adult men kissing was disgusting, sick, perverted.  Some people are horrified by women breastfeeding infants in public, or even by the mere idea of women breastfeeding: it's barbaric, it's animalistic.  (If we don't stop them, why not let men just "all hang out" in public?)  Many liberals who endorse same-sex marriage are squicked by the thought of cousins, even third or fourth cousins, marrying.  When the movie The Watchmen featured a nude male blue CGI character, many people panicked, and claimed that the trauma of the sight of a penis was equivalent to seeing one's grandparents copulating.  There was also a tendency to claim that the blue penis was on screen for the entire two and a half hours of screentime, which was false -- that slippery slope again.

One thing that especially bothered me was the question of where the anti-kissers wanted to draw the line, what kinds of physical expression of affection between parents and children they considered acceptable.  There have been periods, fairly recent, when expert opinion discouraged parents from being affectionate to children at all.  There was no valid scientific reason for this position; it probably sprang from the hangups of the doctors in question. We know that young children especially need to be cuddled, held, and probably kissed if they're going to grow up healthy, and that people of all ages need physical affection and contact.  Perhaps some individuals don't, and their limits should be respected -- for them; but if they denounce others' affectionateness as sick and perverted, they should be opposed and blocked firmly.

I've considered the possibility that the people who denounced relatives kissing had experienced abuse of some kind themselves; but I don't recall any who actually said they had.  They simply claimed that such kissing was intrinsically sick, harmful and repulsive.  Not everyone agrees, however, so how to resolve the conflict?  I don't think it can be resolved.  It can only be negotiated.  But I think we need to push back against people who try to impose their limits on other people.  Those who draw the line elsewhere should, as Graham Shaw argued, show consideration to others, but the 'weaker brethren' should also show consideration for the 'stronger,' which they don't seem inclined to do.

Now, I'm not claiming that this sort of squeamishness is something new, or even more common now than it used to be.  I have no evidence for such a claim, and don't believe it anyway.  I think it has always been with us, as shown by its long pedigree in religious and other domains.  What surprises me is that it's still so prevalent, and still so virulent.  When I was growing up in the 60s, many (including me) took it for granted that these superstitious hangups were waning and would soon fade away altogether.  I don't think that's going to happen, which is all the more reason why we must resist those who want to impose them on others.