It’s an old joke. Much like the “dirty old man” jokes that were commonplace years ago, this harkens back to the days of fancy department stores with elevator operators who would announce what Macy’s had for sale as the door opened on each floor. And Professor Richard Ned Lebow, told it.
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.
Not funny? Fair enough. You don’t have to find somebody else’s joke a knee-slapper. In fact, you can find it pretty bad, stupid, even awful. But Simona Sharoni found it more than she could take.
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.”
There is no such thing as a “survivor” of sexual harrassment. No one ever lost their life because of sexual harrassment, and given Sharoni’s sensibilities, it seems likely that whatever she endured was of lesser harm than an emotional paper cut. But “ladies’ lingerie” blew her mind. Granted, that may not have taken much.
Is it “no longer acceptable” to make the “ladies’ lingerie” joke? Says who? Why? What about the old joke was the equivalent of [insert your most horrifying and exhausting gender assertion]? Is there not a ladies’ lingerie department anymore? Do women run in terror from Victoria’s Secret? What issue is there at all? What issue makes this old joke problematic?
But Lebow, trying not to needlessly ruffle the feathers of this Yankee gender studies prof, tried to smooth things over.
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.”
So he’s woke, but even so, maybe she went off the deep end on this one?
“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.”
Ah, silly boy with his misplaced confidence that the ethics committee won’t have its head firmly planted in a hairless butt.
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.’ ”
This is reminiscent of those who argue that one can no longer call a woman unhinged, even if she’s completely unhinged, because she’s a she. No complaint by a woman can be “termed” frivolous, even if it’s utterly frivolous. It denies her lived experience and erases her personhood. You can’t make this shit up.
Even so, academic sensibilities no longer have room for jokes or tolerance. More importantly, calling a facially ridiculous complaint frivolous is, in itself, sufficient offense to deserve castigation.
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.”
Missing from this delicate “balance” is that it was just a joke, an old, utterly banal, joke. That saying “ladies’ lingerie” was something worthy of taking offense at all finds no place in the analysis, and that Lebow is called “prickly” for calling the complaint frivolous for no better reason than no male can question a female’s complaint is nuts.
Ladies’ lingerie? There may not be any phrase, any old joke, that doesn’t offend someone with the passionate desire to wallow in misery and female victimhood. That some particularly sensitive gender studies prof loses her mind over something so uncontroversial isn’t a reflection of toxic masculinity, but one prof’s desire to find reasons to be outraged.
But the message of the International Studies Association is clear: it doesn’t matter what some women take offense to. If you don’t want to be exiled from academia, apologize, repent and never again mention their ladies’ lingerie.