Apologise for a joke? Knickers to that... this craziness has to stop
Academic in firing line for ‘ladies lingerie’ quip in lift blasts back at ‘chilling’ attack on free speech
EVERYONE has experienced the mild discomfiture induced by a crowded lift. But finding himself pinned to the back of an elevator at an international relations conference in the US last month, distinguished British-based academic Richard Ned Lebow couldn’t resist lightening the claustrophobic atmosphere with a two-word quip.
It led to him being accused of sexism, prompted high-minded debate on both sides of the Atlantic and now threatens to blight his exemplary 53-year career. He also believes the case has chilling implications for freedom of speech.
Yet as the professor of international political theory at King’s College, London, tells The Mail on Sunday today, he thought nothing of it at the time.
‘What floors would you like, people at the back?’ came the enquiry in the San Francisco Hilton hotel lift. ‘Ladies’ lingerie,’ Prof Lebow shot back cheerfully.
It raised some laughs but as the lift disgorged its occupants floor by floor, one of his fellow sardines was left unamused: Simona Sharoni, a professor of women’s and gender studies.
Had she confronted him and made her displeasure known, perhaps the episode might have ended there and then. But Prof Sharoni, 57, was apparently too ‘shaken’. Instead she complained of ‘harassment’ to the International Studies Association, (ISA), organisers of the conference. The ISA agreed Prof Lebow had violated its code and later ruled that he compounded his crime by dismissing his accuser’s complaint as ‘frivolous’. He has been given until Tuesday to apologise. Prof Lebow is standing resolutely firm.
He calls the affair ‘mind-boggling’ and says: ‘My biggest concern is for younger colleagues, who are not as established in their profession as I am, who may find that if they say something that offends it could be the end of their careers.’
His case, he says, violates freedom of speech. He likens it to ‘bookburning’ by the Nazis in the 1930s.
Of the ISA, which named him ‘distinguished scholar of the year’ in 2014, Prof Lebow says: ‘They have two sanctions: they could stop me attending future annual meetings for as long as they like or they could expel me.
‘From my perspective there is no way I am apologising because I haven’t done anything wrong.
‘If I did apologise it would show that crazy people like this one can intimidate associations – and it will have a chilling effect on everyone. This is also about an issue of humour and the idea that humour is now becoming off limits.’ Those who know Prof Lebow, who is American, agree he is an enlightened, reasonable man, in step with modern thinking. His wife Carol has taught gender and the law for many years and says she knows ‘quite a lot about real cases of sexual harassment and how difficult they are to take to result’.
Married for 42 years, they have three children, who are academics, and two grandchildren.
As a young teacher, long before the first bra was burned in anger, Prof Lebow championed women’s rights in his own modest way.
Indeed, softly spoken and courteous, he has impeccable liberal credentials and is far from the sort of person given to making jokes redolent of the 1970s TV department store sitcom Are You Being Served?, as some reports have implied.
During the 1960s, he was a ‘freedom rider’ – a civil rights activist who rode on buses, testing bus stations were complying with the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial segregation in the Deep South.
He has written 35 books, taught strategy at the US national and naval war colleges and served as scholar-in-residence in the CIA during the Carter administration.
Until now not once has either a colleague or student complained about him. So at a time when he should be reflecting with satisfaction on his much-garlanded career, he now finds himself fighting to preserve his reputation. As he prepares his appeal, his home has begun to resemble a war bunker.
Yesterday The Mail on Sunday found Prof Lebow and his wife manning computers, fielding incessant phone calls and answering supportive emails flooding his inbox.
The extraordinary case comes against a backdrop of sexual paranoia on American campuses.
Accusations of every other kind of bias have grown in number too. At the same time the definition of what constitutes harassment appears to have broadened.
Prof Lebow has spent much of his career in the UK and says he has witnessed ‘an unhealthy trend to suppress free speech’ here too.
The 76-year-old adds: ‘This is another example of where, alas, the UK imports the worst of America as opposed to the best. There is a chill in universities.’
He refers to the anti-intellectual tenor of demands to ban conservative speakers from universities. ‘Universities should teach tolerance and be places for anybody to express almost any opinion provided it is done in a respectful way and within the law,’ he says.
The #MeToo climate probably had a bearing on his own case, he says. ‘One of the downsides of any positive movement is that it attracts people like this [Prof Sharoni] who want to exploit it for their own
Jonathan Petre Barbara McMahon
ends, which is what she is doing. Also in the shadow of #MeToo, I suspect some bodies don’t want to give any impression they’re not responsive to complaints of harassment by women, no matter how silly. So had this happened before #MeToo, the result might be wildly different, but that’s just my guess.’
He asked Mark Boyer, executive director of the ISA, on what grounds the organisation could ‘police speech in a lift’.
‘I was told that the fine print of the conference registration form I signed gave them the right to do that,’ he says.
Of the ‘ladies’ lingerie’ phrase, he explains that in his youth it had become a stock catchphrase because lifts had operators who would call out the floors in department stores. He points out it has been used in various comedies and one of the Harry Potter films.
Prof Sharoni, who has described herself as a ‘survivor’ of sexual harassment, once compared the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to rape. She rejects criticism that she is politically correct by saying it is a ‘blanket excuse’ used by misogynists.
Meanwhile, her adversary remains determined. ‘I’m not giving in,’ says Prof Lebow. ‘I think I have a responsibility for more vulnerable members of my profession to stand firm. I have a responsibility to publicise my grievance and to try to create a debate that might make this kind of behaviour less common.’
Had this happened before #MeToo, the result might be wildly different
STANDING FIRM: Richard Ned Lebow and his wife Carol RISQUÉ: Mollie Sugden and the cast of TV sitcom Are You Being Served?
‘SHAKEN’: Professor Simona Sharoni