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Opinion She called his elevator joke offensive. He called her complaint ‘frivolous.’ Who’s right?


“Ladies’ lingerie.” It was a lame, outmoded joke — the sort of thing you say in a crowded elevator to alleviate the discomfort of being jammed among strangers, an artifact of the days of fancy department stores with operators announcing the floor stops.

Those two words — the speaker remembers saying “ladies’ lingerie,” a passenger who was offended recalls hearing “women’s lingerie” — have turned into the latest exemplar in the academy of political correctness gone wild.

The episode, which has not been previously reported, occurred last month in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association. Richard Ned Lebow, a professor of political theory at King’s College London and the 2014 recipient of ISA’s distinguished scholar award, made the remark after someone in his elevator called out to ask for floor requests.

Simona Sharoni, professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, took offense. As she recounted in a formal complaint lodged less than four hours later, Lebow “said, with a smile on his face, ‘women’s lingerie,’ and all his buddies laughed. After they walked out, the woman standing next to me turned to me and said, ‘I wonder if we should have told them that it is no longer acceptable to make these jokes!’ It took me a while to figure out that this man thought it was funny to make a reference to men shopping for lingerie while attending an academic conference. I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we froze and didn’t confront him. . . . As a survivor of sexual harassment in the academy, I am quite shaken by this incident.”

Lebow, informed of the complaint, wrote what he said was intended to be a conciliatory response, assuring Sharoni that “I certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable” and suggested that Sharoni, born in Romania and raised in Israel, may have “interpreted my remark out of context.”

“Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion or humiliation of women,” Lebow wrote. “As such evils continue, it seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal. By making a complaint to ISA that I consider frivolous — and I expect, will be judged this way by the ethics committee — you may be directing time and effort away from the real offenses that trouble us both.”

It turns out that Lebow’s confidence in the outcome was misplaced. Last week, ISA Executive Director Mark Boyer informed Lebow that the disciplinary committee had found his elevator remarks “offensive and inappropriate.” An even “more serious violation,” Boyer said, was “that you chose to reach out to Prof. Sharoni, and termed her complaint ‘frivolous.’ ”

Lebow was thus instructed to issue an “unequivocal apology.” Not surprisingly, he declined. In an email to colleagues, he described the finding as “a horrifying and chilling example of political correctness” that “encourages others to censor their remarks for fear of retribution.”

Sharoni, too, worries that the incident will have a chilling effect, but in the opposite direction, because Lebow’s decision to launch what she called “a public smear campaign directed at me” could deter others from filing complaints.

In an email to me, Sharoni said “political correctness” was nothing more than a “blanket excuse by those who refuse to rethink and change their racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs and practices. From inappropriate jokes in public spaces to unwanted sexual advances and assault, men in positions of power are outraged when they are being held accountable, even if the sanction is as minor as a request for an apology.”

This episode reflects not only a generational and cultural divide but also the unfortunate intersection of two prickly personalities with the bad luck to be stuck in the same elevator. She shouldn’t have leaped to file a grievance; he shouldn’t have added fuel by labeling her charge “frivolous.”

Nonetheless, count me with Lebow. The days of women feeling compelled to stay silent in the face of sexist remarks or conduct are thankfully on the way out. Hear something, say something, by all means.

But for goodness’ sake, let’s maintain some sense of proportion and civility as we figure out how to pick our way through the minefield of modern gender relations. Not every comment that offends was intended that way, and intent matters. Maybe check in with the speaker before going nuclear? Maybe consider that there is a spectrum of offensiveness? That not every stray statement by a 76-year-old man warrants a resort to disciplinary procedures?

Because making a federal case, or even a disciplinary one, over a stray elevator remark is not only, well, frivolous — it’s also counterproductive. Take a culture of eggshell fragility. Pair it with a hypersensitive disciplinary mechanism. What you get is a result that serves only to diminish real, and continuing, instances of truly offensive behavior.

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