In Columbia, Mo., this week, Mr. Biden urged a paraplegic state official to stand up to be recognized. “Chuck, stand up, let the people see you,” Mr. Biden shouted to State Senator Chuck Graham, before realizing, to his horror, that Mr. Graham uses a wheelchair.
“Oh, God love ya,” Mr. Biden said. “What am I talking about?”
How is this kind of gaffe is different from those which amount to inelegant diction or impolitic revelations? The "offense" here is certainly not anti-disability bigotry or insensitivity, and the sociologist of information should not get distracted by (either republican or disability-rights) activists who might want to make hay about the event. Rather, it's a failure to be aware of, or keep track of, a relevant piece of information about someone. As such, it is, before all else, relationally revealing : a basic norm of relationships is to keep track of relevant information about the other. When one utters the phrase "my friend," even if it is ritualized political speech, it triggers some informational expectations. When these aren't met, we find it jarring or even offensive (consider the simple case of getting a form letter that mis-addresses you as Mr. or Ms. -- it quickly becomes even junkier mail than it already was).
Normally, politicians can synthesize relationships such as "my friend..." because their handlers can remind them of information-you-ought-to-know-about-the-other as they make their way toward a handshake. Getting such things right may not mean anything in an objective sense, but in terms of the relational work it does, it can certainly be consequential.
The take-away is that relationships, even those created artificially for the purposes of the moment, always come with informational expectations and obligations.