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Not laughing, Joe Biden: Domestic violence is no joke

Joe Biden speaks to a crowd in South Carolina.
Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden during the fifth Democratic presidential candidate debate did not apologize for his word choice in talking about addressing domestic violence by “punching at it and punching at it.”  

But he needs to. 

While gesturing punching actions, Biden said, “We, in fact, have to fundamentally change the culture, the culture of how women are treated … No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger other than in self-defense, and that rarely ever occurs. So we have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it. No, I really mean it. It’s a gigantic issue, and we have to make it clear from the top, from the president on down that we will not tolerate it. We will not tolerate this culture.”

Perhaps what we need not tolerate is a culture that thinks the incidence of domestic violence is disconnected from the way we speak and act about it.   

On the same day Biden mindlessly punched at the issue of domestic violence, NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley apologized for telling Alexi McCammond, a female reporter, “I don’t hit women, but if I did, I would hit you.”

Yes, in the same week the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 in a 263-158 vote, Barclay apologized, but Biden demonstrated he just doesn’t get that words, metaphors and gestures matter. 

These are not just thoughtless, empty phrases referencing violence. Even if some of the words Biden says are prudent and expressive of good intent, he misses the point of changing the culture around normalizing domestic violence. And for the record, while VAWA has yet to pass the Senate, 158 elected officials in the House voted against the act.  

Domestic violence is never funny. And it is a pervasive and ubiquitous concern. 

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that a person is physically abused by an intimate partner in this country every 15 seconds — or 20 people per minute.

Four women are murdered by intimate partners each day in the United States. In one year in this country, 10 million men and women are physically abused. 

Yes, men are abused as well. The NCDV reports one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. 

But culturally, the joke is usually on the woman. And this is not new. 

The 1955 classic comedy, “The Honeymooners,”regularly featured comedian Jackie Gleason threatening his wife, Alice with a fist.

“To the moon, Alice!” was his retort and audiences would erupt in laughter. He was about 100 pounds heavier than her and in each episode, threatened to punch her into the galaxy. 

Research shows time is not up for sexist, violent jokes at the expense of women. 

A 2017 study from Western Carolina University “assessed how heterosexual men responded to various forms of humor when they felt their masculinity was being questioned. The men who placed more value on how they conform to expectations of masculinity were more likely to embrace humor that denigrated women and gay men if they felt they had to prove that their masculinity was in check. And they even admitted that’s what they were doing,” Think Progress reported.

While an ignorance about casual language around domestic violence exists, it is true that laws, policies and norms are changing to reflect the severity and inhumanity of domestic violence. 

Colorado Public Radio recently reported, “In April, a Defense Department Inspector General report revealed problems with the way military law enforcement deals with domestic violence on bases across the country.” In 2018, CPR reported, Congress amended the military’s criminal code to include domestic violence.

While professional and collegiate sports routinely have athletes accused of and charged with incidents of domestic violence, tolerance is waning. 

Writing in the University of California-San Diego college paper The Guardian, Jack Dorfman reports, “There are quite a few players who, over the last few years, have been accused and convicted on counts of domestic violence playing, not just in MLB, but also in the NFL and the NBA. None of these cases are morally permissible.”

In San Francisco,  Futures Without Violence has raised $4 million of the needed $6 million to open a Courage Museum dedicated to understanding the impacts of domestic violence, cyberbullying, school shootings, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

As a survivor of domestic violence, an author and journalist writing on my experience and advocating to change the myths surrounding domestic violence, I think it’s time to mend the disconnect.

It is not innocuous for a former vice president running for the Oval Office to use language that is steeped in unawareness of the implications of gestures and phrases. It is not excusable for a major sports figure and TV announcer to say he will hit someone as a response to a perceived offense. I’m not laughing. 

Words have power. Actions have consequences. No kidding.    

Michele Weldon is a journalist, author, senior leader with The OpEd Project and editorial director of Take The Lead. Her sixth book, “Act Like You’re Having a Good Time, will be out in 2020.”

Tags Abuse Articles Domestic violence in the United States Human behavior Humans Joe Biden Joe Biden Violence Violence against men Violence against women

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