Last month, a King’s College professor told a harmless joke on an elevator during an International Studies Association conference — and now, he’s facing disciplinary charges.
According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Richard Ned Lebow was on a crowded elevator when Simona Sharoni, a professor of gender studies at Merrimack College, asked him what floor he needed, and Lebow jokingly answered, “ladies’ lingerie.”
Seems harmless, right? At the very least, nothing to write home about, right? Apparently not. Sharoni got so offended by the joke that she filed a complaint with the International Studies Association.
“I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we froze and didn’t confront him,” she wrote in the complaint.
It gets worse: ISA actually determined that Lebow’s joke had violated the group’s code of conduct.
After finding out he was under investigation, Lebow attempted to resolve the matter himself — adult-to-adult and bureaucracy-free — by writing to Sharoni. He didn’t exactly apologize but he did insist that he “certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable,” adding that what he had said was simply a “standard gag line” that he’d heard often when he was young in the 1950s.
“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,” he continued.
But it didn’t do any good. In fact, it made it worse. Mark A. Boyer, the association’s executive director, told Lebow that his comments had indeed been deemed “offensive and inappropriate” and that Lebow had made it even worse by reaching out to Sharoni and calling her complaint “frivolous.” Lebow was told that he had to write an “unequivocal apology” to Sharoni, one that focused on his actions rather than her feelings about them, or else face sanctions. Lebow refused, and as a result, Boyer told The Chronicle of Education that the case is still pending.
While I’d agree that telling Sharoni that her complaint was “frivolous” probably didn’t do Lebow any favors, I’d also say that he was correct. To me, as a woman, the complaint was frivolous. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are very serious and pervasive problems, and ones that definitely deserve attention. This, however, did not. It was a simple, harmless joke, and reporting every simple, harmless joke as if it’s some kind of egregious offense against women is going to cause a multitude of problems.
That Sharoni was not able to deal with something so simple and so innocuous on her own does not amount to making strides for feminism.
For one thing, it threatens to end humor altogether. If people start getting in trouble for making simple jokes such as Lebow’s, then people are going to stop telling jokes altogether. In fact, if all women started conducting themselves like Sharoni, it could become near impossible for anyone to have a normal conversation without freaking out that they’d accidentally said something wrong. It really is terrifying to think about.
For another thing, this really does make women look weaker. Like the joke or not, it really does seem like something that Lebow and Sharoni should have been able to handle between themselves without involving a bureaucracy. That Sharoni was not able to deal with something so simple and so innocuous on her own does not amount to making strides for feminism. What it does is make feminism look petty, which is an absolute shame considering how much feminism is needed.
This story was previously covered in an article in Reason.