Maybe, in a crowded lift packed with people whom I didn’t know, I was feeling a little claustrophobic. Maybe I’m too fond of old jokes.
But when a voice from the front of the elevator called out: ‘What floors would you like, people at the back?’ I retorted: ‘Ladies’ lingerie!’
Many UK readers, I know, will think immediately of Are You Being Served?, the BBC sitcom set in a London department store, that opened each episode with a lift attendant chanting: ‘Ground floor, perfumery, stationery and leather goods, going up!’ In the States, that joke is just as well known.
I was in San Francisco, a London-based Professor of International Political Theory at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA — the professional association for people who study international relations), and several colleagues around me chuckled. Perhaps they felt, like me, embarrassed at being crammed into this box with strangers.
Professor Lebow’s (left) ‘Ladies’ lingerie’ joke was overheard by Simona Sharoni (right), a professor of women’s and gender studies, who later reported him
At any rate, you’d expect that a 76-year-old professor at the prestigious King’s College London, a stalwart of the association and a recipient four years earlier of its distinguished scholar award could be permitted a lame joke.
Apparently not. Nobody spoke up in the elevator, but four hours later a woman I didn’t know, a professor of women’s and gender studies at a small college in New England, lodged a formal complaint.
Professor Simona Sharoni told the ISA’s executive director that, ‘as a survivor of sexual harassment in the academy’, she was ‘quite shaken by this incident’.
When I was informed, I was incredulous. And when I read the language of the complaint, my concern deepened.
The voice that asked ‘people at the back’ for floor requests was a man’s. But Sharoni had claimed she made the announcement, and my response had been aimed directly at her.
The complaint stated that I’d said ‘Women’s lingerie’, and I did it with a smirk on my face. If she can’t remember the wording of my joke — I said ‘Ladies’ lingerie’ not ‘Women’s’ — she can’t have been very offended. And as I was at the back of this packed lift and she says she was at the front, how could she have seen my face?
‘All his buddies laughed,’ she added. ‘I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we froze and didn’t confront him.’
Professor Lebow joked that he wanted to be let out of the lift at the ladies’ lingerie department – a joke that would be considered tame on Are You Being Served? (pictured, a still from the show)
None of my ‘buddies’ were there. But she’s right about one thing: nobody complained at the time.
I was concerned to think she might feel upset, however. How my comment could be thought to have sexist or sexual overtones, I could not see — but if this woman was genuinely dismayed, I wanted to reassure her.
I wrote a polite and conciliatory email, assuring her ‘I certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable’.
I said I worried that frivolous complaints about trivial or non-existent offences could undermine efforts to challenge real sexual abuse. ‘Like you,’ I said, ‘I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion or humiliation of women.’
Sharoni complained about my email, too. Here’s where the whole business goes beyond farce: the ISA’s disciplinary committee declared that my joke in the lift was ‘offensive and inappropriate’, and called my reaching out to her ‘an even more serious violation’. I was told to make an ‘unequivocal apology’.
I will not, because what is really being demanded is not an apology, but a confession of guilt and recognition that anyone who feels offended by anything has the right to demand redress.
In fact, the ISA has a protocol for this sort of thing and I was following it by emailing Sharoni. Its code of conduct emphasises informal resolution of disputes, without immediately involving the ethics committee. But Sharoni went straight to the ISA’s executive director, Mark Boyer.
I am in a privileged position. I can stand up against this pressure, because of my personal and professional reputation. I’m immune to whatever punishment the association levels against me; the more they try to browbeat me, the more they will make people question their judgment.
The ISA has two sanctions: they can prevent me from attending annual meetings and they can expel me. I am not anxious to see either of these outcomes, but I certainly will not give in to threats. That would be bowing to censorship and accepting the rule of fear.
The disturbing truth is that we now live in a world where censorship is making steady inroads in many areas. In university life, students demand to be shielded in ‘safe spaces’ from comments that might offend them. Jokes like the one I made in the lift are no longer allowed in case they upset someone. Speakers who want to argue their often controversial points of view are denied platforms for fear that someone might find their opinions distasteful.
Professor Tim Hunt (above), a Nobel prize-winning biochemist, was forced to resign as a professor at University College London over one ill-advised joke
A well-publicised case in point is Nigel Biggar, professor of theology at Christ Church, Oxford, who argued society should take a more balanced view of the British Empire rather than remembering it only with shame. For expressing his view, he has been trolled and hectored on the internet.
Meanwhile, lecturers on the Left who have shown support for a boycott of Israel are similarly ostracised.
I don’t support either position but I still defend their right to express it — even if it causes offence.
There is nothing wrong with taking offence. It is how you react to being offended that is crucial.
Too many in society today — and often those in positions of influence — demand censorship. And this is an infringement on free speech.
I know many in my profession are more vulnerable to threats and bullying than I am — at 76 I am near the end of my career. But students and young dons will feel an even greater need to censor their thoughts in a world where people who take offence can muzzle others.
And it is not only young people at risk. You might remember the case of Professor Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who made an ill-judged joke to a conference in 2015 about his problems when working with ‘girls’ in the lab — either he fell in love with them, they fell in love with him, or he made them cry.
I certainly wouldn’t endorse this clunky attempt at humour, but the way the academic world turned on him was frightening.
He was forced to resign as a professor at University College London — a Nobel winner’s reputation in tatters over one ill-advised joke.
I’ve spent my life speaking out for people who are bullied and oppressed. In the Sixties when I was at university, I worked in Illinois to end segregation.
I was a ‘freedom rider’ — one of the volunteers, black and white, who took bus rides in the Deep South to protest against racial segregation still imposed there by law. I helped to register African-Americans to vote, and worked to change laws so children of all races could be educated together.
During a teaching career spanning more than 50 years, I have mentored many women and co-authored papers with female colleagues. For decades, I have been fighting to break down sexist barriers.
Now, though, I am involved in a new fight — one we must win. For if we allow such people as Professor Sharoni to dictate what can and cannot be said, and to intimidate us with their cries of ‘sexist!’ and ‘misogynist!’, we will lose our cherished freedom of speech.
We will be forced to muzzle ourselves and self-censorship will reign.
Richard Ned Lebow is Professor of International Political Theory at King’s College London and a Fellow of the British Academy.