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

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - By and

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

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