My old friend Clarinda signs her e-mails “Hugs, Cl,” which I think is a warm and friendly way of closing a letter to people we especially like — good friends, specific co-workers, special neighbors — people with whom we have a positive and informal relationship. Since imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, I have taken to signing many of my emails the same way.
Nevertheless, shortly before former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy for president in 2020, two women came forward, claiming that Mr. Biden touched them in the past — on their head, on their shoulder — “invading their personal space,” and they were angry! Other women came forward, explaining that Mr. Biden’s touching them, hugging them, was comforting and supportive.
On “PBS News Hour,” New York Times columnist David Brooks staunchly defended Mr. Biden, saying critics were “trying to impugn his character on this. They’re trying to insult the dignity and the intention which he goes about his life. And I think it’s completely unfair.” Mr. Brooks recounted a story of when he was a young reporter on Capital Hill and many Congress members used to touch him — “just put their arms on my shoulders and talk to me.” He admitted he was initially taken aback because he was from a different generation and social class than they were, but eventually, he began to see the physicality as “a sign of connection and respect. … They were really trying to meet me as a person.”
Since then, Mr. Biden released a video saying he recognized that “the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset,” and he’s been noticeably arms-length on the campaign trail — causing one woman in Nevada to holler out “You can hug and kiss me anytime, Joe,” at an event earlier this month.
Who knew a hug could cause such an uproar?
Another example of hugging that different sides see as negative or positive, is the term “tree hugger,” first used, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, in 1965. Its definition: “an environmentalist, an advocate of the preservation of woodlands.” Many people, environmentalists, that is, believe in preserving trees and forests, and they enthusiastically espouse the term. However, others, especially developers, would rather cut down trees to build houses, commercial buildings, highways and so on; to them, “tree hugger” is pejorative.
What about the many studies that have proven time and again that infants who are not held closely, hugged and stroked, have trouble developing normally? This early contact promotes healthy psychological and physical development whereas babies not hugged have higher rates of illness and are less likely to thrive.
Further studies show that children as well as adults, especially when faced with stressful situations or actual trauma, benefit greatly from hugs.
Let’s not confuse sexual assault with signs of friendship. What is lovelier than seeing an adult and a child holding hands or hugging — or a senior couple holding hands or hugging? Greeting someone you know with a warm encouraging hug is priceless.
As David Brooks said on PBS News Hour: “It wasn’t a sexual thing. It was a connection thing.”
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing.”