Last month, Richard Ned Lebow, a professor of political theory at King's College, found himself in a crowded elevator with Simona Sharoni, a professor of gender studies at Merrimack College, during an academic conference in San Francisco. Sharoni asked Lebow what floor he needed. He replied: "ladies' lingerie."
It was a stupid joke—a "standard gag line," Lebow later explained, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But Sharoni didn't think it was funny. And so she filed a complaint with the International Studies Association, whose conference they were both attending.
An ISA committee found that Lebow had indeed violated the group's code of conduct.
Lebow tried to resolve the matter himself, and wrote to Sharoni. He said he had no intention of making her feel uncomfortable, but stopped short of a full apology. According to The Chronicle:
"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."
But describing Sharoni's complaint as "frivolous" made the committee even angrier. Lebow was subsequently instructed to issue an "unequivocal apology." He has refused to do so, and could face disciplinary charges. In his mind, the episode is "a horrifying and chilling example of political correctness" that "encourages others to censor their remarks for fear of retribution."
Sharoni, for her part, said that she cannot "remain silent when misogyny is at play."
The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus offered this opinion, which seems right to me:
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?
A misguided elevator joke certainly seems like something two adults could have handled on their own—without formal investigation, and the threat of sanction.