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Last month, during a conference for scholars who study international affairs, Simona Sharoni, a professor of women's and gender studies at Merrimack College, asked a crowded hotel elevator what floor everyone needed. Richard Ned Lebow, a professor of political theory at King’s College London, replied, “Ladies’ lingerie” (or, as Sharoni remembers it, “Women’s lingerie.”) Several people laughed. Was that sexual harassment?

Academics have been debating the question among themselves since last month, when Sharoni filed a formal complaint about the incident, triggering an investigation by the International Studies Association. The ISA would later conclude that Lebow must apologize in writing by May 15.

So far, he has refused.

The story went public last week in a Washington Post column. “It was a lame, outmoded joke,” Ruth Marcus wrote, “the sort of thing you say in a crowded elevator to alleviate the discomfort of being jammed among strangers, an artifact of the days of fancy department stores with operators announcing the floor stops.”

She felt “the days of women feeling compelled to stay silent in the face of sexist remarks or conduct are thankfully on the way out,” urging readers, “hear something, say something, by all means,” but argued that intent matters too, that “not every stray statement by a 76-year-old man warrants a resort to disciplinary procedures,” and that Sharoni’s complaint was “frivolous” and “counterproductive.”

“For goodness sake,” she wrote, “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.”

A very different judgment is included in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s coverage of the controversy. Craig N. Murphy of Wellesley College, a former president of the International Studies Association, declared, “Personally, I can understand why someone hearing the elevator remark would take offense. Sure, it’s an old joke, one my father used to repeat in the 1960s, maybe even into the early 1970s, which was when he started to learn about what he called ‘male chauvinism.’ I still tell some of my dad’s stupid jokes, and I hope I’d be gracious if someone pointed out that, as a result, I’d mindlessly said something offensive. I hope that, in time, Ned will see it that way.”

If not, the matter doesn’t appear as if it will go away.

The ISA’s deadline for a written apology looms ahead. It is unclear what will happen if Lebow persists in refusing to issue it. In turn, he has asked the ISA to reverse itself and apologize to him or risk possible legal action. And his objections have now been repeated in newspapers around the country, thanks to a write-up by the Associated Press. “This is a kangaroo court and is damaging to my career because there are people out there who somehow believe I'm a misogynist,” he told the news organization. “I'm not a Harvey Weinstein or one of these people who are repeat offenders. There's never been anything like this with me, quite to the contrary, I have mentored and supported women throughout my career.”

He believes there are stakes beyond whether he was treated fairly or not, arguing that the ISA’s actions will make others “even more likely to censor themselves.”

And Sharoni, for her part, feels that she has been personally mistreated and that there are larger stakes that compel her to speak up for her position.

“Honestly, I am so exhausted of confronting sexism in the academy and paying a high price that I am reluctant to attract more media attention,” she wrote me by email. “Still, I am aware that this not about me as an individual.” In her telling, Lebow “lashed out and engaged in victim-blaming and character assassination instead of apologizing,” and the ISA isn’t doing anything about it. She wants to see press coverage of the ostensible effect on marginalized groups “who witness yet another example of what happens when someone speaks up, even if one simply follows policy and is in the right, even if someone is a tenured full professor who spent a lifetime researching gender-based violence.”

After corresponding with both parties, I have no doubt that they both earnestly believe that they were wronged and that they are now standing up for a greater good. You’ll no doubt form your own opinions about which party is in the right, and I don’t imagine that I’ll change it, so I won’t even bother telling you mine.

What I do want to persuade you is that nothing is to be gained by vilifying either—that no matter who is right or wrong in this case, society will never be rid of people who tell the wrong joke at the wrong time, nor people who frivolously object to pitch-perfect jokes. Blaming outliers who are wrong for whatever mischief ensues is an evasion. They do not get to dictate how the rest of us react.

So sure, render a quick verdict about the lingerie joke.

But know the most consequential problems illuminated by the dispute between Lebow and Sharoni have little to do with them personally.

Their dispute is more fruitfully seen as a public stress-test for the subculture of academia, where lots of formal disagreements about sexual misconduct loom in the future. This is a relatively easy case in many respects: everyone agrees on the facts. The parties reside at different institutions, so needn’t work together. And a dispute over a single joke is much less fraught than one concerning an allegation of sexual assault or a pattern of abuse that stymies a career.

Yet both parties in this dispute and many onlookers strongly object to how it has unfolded. Everyone is right to be dissatisfied, regardless of who is correct. Digging into this relatively easy case, I quickly saw how intellectually unprepared a prominent corner of academia was to adjudicate even a simple complaint about a joke.


The unenviable job of representing the International Studies Association in this matter belonged to its executive director, Mark A. Boyer, a professor at the University of Connecticut.

He received this complaint from Sharoni:

Dear Mark,

This morning around 10:20 AM I stepped into a crowded elevator at the Hilton. Because I was standing near the buttons, I offered to press the floors for people in the elevator––mostly ISA attendees and all white middle-aged men, except for myself and another woman. One of the men, Ned Richard Lebow, did not share a floor number. Instead he 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.

I view this as a violation of ISA's Code of Conduct and would like to file an official complaint. As a survivor of sexual harassment in the academy, I am quite shaken by this incident. If you need to reach me, please call [redacted].

Thanks

Simona

Lebow was quickly notified that he was under investigation. The email he received included the text of the complaint, noted that it would be forwarded to the Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities, linked to the ISA code of conduct, and concluded, “ISA, its officers, and committee members treat this process as confidential. You are asked to do the same.”

Lebow was surprised by the complaint. He replied to Boyer by offering context that he felt sure would clear the matter right up:

Dear Mark,

I feel sorry for the woman who has nothing to think about but a relatively inoffensive offhand remark in a lift at ISA. In the US, you may not know, and perhaps nor does she, that in the old days, when they had elevator operators, people in department stores would name the items they were shopping for if they did not know the floors.

“Women’s lingerie” subsequently became a stock line.

Cordially,

Ned

In a followup email, Lebow added, “I fully concur that ISA should investigate and, if necessary, take appropriate action, if there are serious transgressions of ethical practices or violations of our responsibility to treat equally people regardless of their social or gender categorization.” At the same time, he wrote, “the organization has a responsibility to dismiss frivolous complaints like this one. I am not pleased that you have seen fit to recommend that the Committee investigate this complaint. It encourages more frivolous complaints and detracts attention from serious ones that deserve real attention.”

(The decision to investigate wasn’t actually Boyer’s call—as a matter of protocol, all formal complaints made to the ISA trigger an official investigation.)

The ISA’s code of conduct says under “Addressing Grievances” that an individual who thinks he or she is a victim of a violation “should, if practicable, seek to resolve the matter informally with the person against whom the allegation is made ... If this is unsuccessful or inappropriate to the situation, then the Complainant may seek redress through the procedures outlined under 2 and 3.”

Lebow wasn’t the complainant, but he decided to email Sharoni in hopes of an informal solution. He was civil but not entirely conciliatory:

Dear Simona (if I may),

I was very surprised to learn about the complaint you lodged against me with ISA. I certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable. I am struggling to understand why you were offended, and perhaps you can enlighten me in this regard. It may be that you interpreted my remark out of context. In my youth––the 1940s and 1950s––lifts were not automatic and had operators. In department stores they would ask customers for their floors but also call out what could be purchased on each floor. It became a standard gag line to say “ladies lingerie” if someone else asked you for your floor in another lift.

Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion, or humiliation of women. 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. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.

Cordially,

Ned

Sharoni didn’t reply.

Instead, she forwarded the email to the ISA––and the ISA emailed Lebow, “At the request of Prof. Sharoni, I am asking that you have no further contact with her.”

Meanwhile, that committee decided the matter. The ISA’s code of conduct declared the organization’s duty “to ensure that members and participants are not bullied and/or harassed.” And it defined what constitutes harassment as follows:

Unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women. It may be related to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, disability, religion, nationality, or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or isolated. The key is that the actions or comments are experienced as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.

Lebow awaited the decision.

Ultimately, he was sent a formal letter declaring that his comment in the elevator was “offensive and inappropriate and thus a violation of ISA’s Code of Conduct.”

The letter added:

...you need to understand that ISA procedures work to ensure that:

• ISA members and participants who feel that they have been victims of bullying and/or harassment as defined in this code of conduct are entitled to pursue their case in a safe and non-threatening environment.

• ISA is committed to ensuring that complaints brought under this procedure shall not lead to the victimization or harassment of any individual.

With those items in mind, the fact that you chose to reach out to Prof. Sharoni, and termed her complaint “frivolous,” was actually viewed by both committees as a more serious violation than the elevator incident itself.

“The remedy,” the ISA declared, is “to require that you formally apologize to Prof. Sharoni” in writing. Actually, the ISA would read the apology first and forward it along to Sharoni if it was sufficient. “Please note that a sufficient apology should address your actions,” the organization specified, “rather than the perceptions of Prof. Sharoni.” It added, “these matters are considered confidential by ISA.”

Lebow retorted that the result “encourages frivolous complaints and distracts attention from serious issues of discrimination and misogyny.” He went on: “It is even more shocking to me that a genuine effort to reach out to this woman to try understand her point of view was viewed as ‘a more serious offense.’ I have no intention of apologizing to the alleged victim. Please circulate my response to both committees as I will circulate theirs to the ISA membership.”

Later, I asked Sharoni to tell me her side of things.

“I filed the complaint because a comment about ‘ladies lingerie’ is inappropriate in any public space, especially at an academic conference!” she wrote. “In fact, most workplace sexual harassment policies include jokes with sexual innuendo as examples of behavior that will not be tolerated.” She added, in part:

I followed protocol in filing my concerns with the ISA, which the association upheld, and hoped it would end with a simple recognition by Professor Lebow that what he said was inappropriate in context. He is a renowned and respected scholar and I have no intention of harming his hard-earned reputation – which is why I did not choose the media route.

However, basic civility is a burden society imposes on all of us, or ought to. In refusing to apologize and instead opting to launch a public smear campaign directed at me, Professor Lebow and his supporters undermine ISA's ongoing efforts to create an inclusive climate at its conferences. Most alarming, is the message to others, especially graduate students and junior faculty, who may consider reporting violations of the Code of Conduct, that filing a complaint, may result in personal and professional retaliation.

For years, the term “political correctness” has been used as the blanket excuse by those who refuse to rethink and change their racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs and practices. From inappropriate jokes in public spaces to unwanted sexual advances and assault, men in positions of power are outraged when they are being held accountable, even if the sanction is as minor as a request for an apology.

Even with all these details, your reaction may still turn in large part on whether you agree with Lebow or Sharoni about the original joke. But I think that all of the parties to the dispute were set up for frustration by glaring flaws in how this corner of academia handles these disputes.

Here are five flaws that jumped out at me:

1.

The definition of harassment that ISA uses could hardly be less helpful to someone trying to figure out whether a given action would run afoul of the rules.

Here it is again:

Unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women. It may be related to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, disability, religion, nationality, or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or isolated. The key is that the actions or comments are experienced as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.

That is an extraordinarily broad definition—if any isolated comment that anyone experiences as “demeaning and unacceptable” is harassment, whether or not the comment is targeted at them or not, then there would seem to be no need for a formal committee to sit in judgment of cases: Any complainant can reliably affirm that he or she experienced something as unwanted and demeaning.

Yet there is a committee that investigates and decides. That implies some added threshold of reasonableness. But what standard is used to determine what qualifies? A reasonable-person standard? The individual standards of committee members? The standards of the average person in a given identity group? The standards of the most sensitive person who registers a formal  complaint?

The code of conduct leaves all that uncertain.

To underscore the flaw in the ISA’s definition of harassment, notice that Lebow genuinely “experienced as demeaning and unacceptable” the charges against him, and feels in his own right that the process constitutes his “victimization.” I presume a counterclaim of harassment by him would fail—and it should!

But again, by what standard would it fail?

Now recall the ISA finding that called Lebow’s words “offensive and inappropriate.” But no standard for determining what is or isn’t “appropriate” is ever offered. Literally every complaint will, by definition, concern what was “offensive.” And something can be offensive and inappropriate without being “demeaning.”

Why were new standards introduced in the decision? And why didn’t the decision’s authors feel compelled to explain why they found the joke “inappropriate”?

Having to articulate their reasoning would at least ground it, suggest a rigorous effort was made by the decision-makers, and helpfully clarify community standards. With vague standards adhered to loosely, any decision was much likelier to be perceived by those on the losing side as capricious, biased, or unreasonable.

To her credit, Sharoni articulated a much clearer standard for what she sees as unacceptable: “jokes with sexual innuendo.” I am not sure whether “lady’s lingerie” indisputably qualifies, but if no jokes with sexual innuendo in a public space was a fixed rule, I can imagine how a committee might reach a decision.

They could reason, “the phrase ‘women’s lingerie’ is reasonably likely to bring sexual matters to the minds of at least some of the people in a crowded elevator.” That precedent might get a future attendee in trouble for a pussy hat, while a joke about Pussy Riot, the Russian dissident group, would be okay, because it is directly germane to the discipline no matter what it conjures for anyone.

Alternatively, they could take Lebow’s side by quoting Gene Weingarten: “I have constructed a sophisticated explanation for why ‘underpants’ is the funniest concept in all of humor. It involves the folly and the frailty of human pretension, the fact that we clothe our private parts to deny that we are, in the end, just animals, which is a realization that delivers an existential feeling of discomfort, which we tame through inversion, with laughter. Not all of us can feel it; only those blessed with a fundamental appreciation of the absurd, which is the basis of all humor and unites us in our humanity. Underpants are a litmus test for a sense of humor, which attests to our essential goodness.”

Just so long as they commit to some coherent line of reasoning.

2.

The ISA is vague in setting forth what exactly must happen before a formal complaint is filed. Remember, it says that those who perceive themselves as the victim of a code violation “should, if practicable, seek to resolve the matter informally with the person against whom the allegation is made,” filing a formal complaint only if “this is unsuccessful or inappropriate to the situation.”

It is easy to see why Lebow believes his accuser failed to follow those guidelines. She didn’t ask him what the joke meant before filing a complaint about it.

Surely an email was practicable?

On the other hand, it is as easy to see how Sharoni could conclude that she “followed protocol in filing my concerns.” After all, the protocol says informal resolution should be sought only if “practicable” and “appropriate to the situation” without specifying standards for reaching either of those judgments. Maybe one-to-one outreach struck her as clearly not “appropriate to the situation.” Since many of these cases will concern people who have already differed greatly in judgment calls about what they find “appropriate,” the vagueness seems highly likely to fuel additional disputes in which both parties feel that they are following the rules while the other side is thwarting them.

3.

The ISA’s letter reminded Lebow that it seeks to guarantee “a safe and non-threatening environment” to those with complaints, and to ensure that “this procedure shall not lead to the victimization or harassment of any individual.” With that in mind, it continued, “the fact that you chose to reach out to Prof. Sharoni, and termed her complaint ‘frivolous,’ was actually viewed by both committees as a more serious violation than the elevator incident itself.”

But Lebow’s email to Sharoni did not threaten her. And it’s hard to see how the letter could properly be considered “harassment.”

Both the ISA and Sharoni seem to believe that it people defending themselves against complaints should refrain from calling them frivolous. However, that standard begs the question—surely a frivolous complaint is at least possible, and any fair system must leave room for a respondent who believes a complaint to be frivolous to make the case for that proposition. A fair system won’t preclude either party from voicing earnestly held claims.

4.

Consider the remedy that the ISA suggests: a “sufficient” apology, which it defines as one that, among other things, addresses Lebow’s actions, “rather than the perceptions of Prof. Sharoni.” In other words, it would presumably be insufficient to say, “I am sorry that my joke in the elevator offended you,” a sentiment that he might conceivably hold. Rather, it would seem to require something like, “I am sorry that I harassed you in the elevator at the conference,” or “I am sorry that my joke was inappropriate and demeaning.” Put another way, the remedy seems to require Lebow to make a statement that he does not believe, and that the ISA surely knows he doesn’t believe.

Surely,  as a matter of principle, no association of truth-seeking scholars should compel a member to make a statement he or she believes to be factually  false?

A scrupulous person would find a $5,000 fine less onerous.

The root of the problem, I think, is a definition of harassment that encompasses even that which someone just experiences as demeaning, coupled with a standard for apologies that treats addressing their experience as wrong.

That imposes a double standard.

5.

Sharoni thought that the ISA procedure would offer her the ability to lodge and adjudicate her complaint in private. And the ISA used language with Lebow that implied he was obligated to refrain from appealing to third parties even if he believed that he was being egregiously mistreated. That caused him to ask, “By what legal or procedural right can ISA impose a gag order on me in this matter?” Boyer replied, “In a purely legal context, we cannot. Simply, ISA will treat the process and its contents confidentially. But quite naturally, we cannot prevent you from treating it otherwise.”

Lebow felt that people in the field were already gossiping about his case, and that he wanted both to defend himself and use the matter “to stimulate a productive public discussion,” reasoning that “what is at stake here, is the integrity of a professional organization, but also the wider issue of the need to balance one right against another. There should be open debates about relative claims.”

He felt observing a gag order would be unfair and stymie that project.

Sharoni emailed, “I hope you recognize this is very troubling for me — not merely the incident with Professor Lebow but his subsequent project to publicize what I believed was a confidential process.” She also wrote, “I am glad I convinced the young scholar who stood next to me in the elevator to not join the complaint when we found out that ISA would not keep her name confidential.” She included four samples of hate mail she received from strangers.

It seems to me that the ISA’s language choices oversold the degree of privacy that it could realistically offer members who file a complaint, misleading Sharoni.


Each of the shortcomings that I flagged would require different reforms to address, but perhaps fall short of fully capturing the bigger problems that loom over disputes like this.

Foremost among them is the purpose of a professional community’s code of conduct: It ought to be language that clarifies shared, non-negotiable community standards. The ISA’s code of conduct is much more effective at evading the necessity of having to weigh, debate, or commit to any particular standards.   

Should all jokes with any sexual innuendo be banned from ISA conferences? Sharoni thinks they already are. If a vote were taken, what would the results be? Do a majority of ISA members agree? What about a majority of women who belong to the ISA?

But at present you have a complainant who earnestly thinks such jokes are obviously verboten, a respondent who thinks that his joke was obviously acceptable, and standards that not only offer no help in adjudicating the matter, but that give no hint as to what the organization’s membership would want.

Little wonder that the case is roiling the community.

Among the several academics with whom I spoke who strongly disagreed with ISA’s decision, Rose McDermott, a highly respected international relations scholar at Brown University, was willing to go on the record with her concerns.

She wrote:

I find the behavior of ISA concerning for several reasons. I don't think it is the place of academic organizations to try to police speech in public places, such as elevators.

How would that proposition fare in a vote of ISA members?

She continued:

In this particular case, Professor Lebow's comment was an iconic joke, even instantiated in Harry Potter novels. Has it now become the job of our professional organizations to criminalize humor? Even when specific comments may be considered distasteful by some,  I believe free speech constitutes the bedrock of academic  and democratic freedom.

Democratic society must rest on norms of tolerance, free speech and due process to function fairly and effectively; without such norms, we risk devolving into left-wing authoritarianism or right-wing fascism.

If the vast majority of her colleagues share her sense of this case—that the ISA should not police humor at their conferences, that tolerance and free speech ought to be bedrock values—then their scholarly association should not be demanding that Lebow apologize. Alternatively, if the majority want to police humor so closely that a lone joke targeted at no one in particular is sometimes enough to warrant sanction, the association’s code should reflect that clearly, and dissenters should be on alert that they have some persuading to do.

I am not suggesting that every case be put to a full vote of international-relations professors, but the current governing language is so vague and empty that it is hard to know what members might want even with simple, undisputed facts.

Now, perhaps the ISA’s members are busy people who are far more invested in their home institutions than a professional association, and rationally calculated that papering over differences is better than spending any time fighting for clear, sane rules, especially since that time might not even produce the sought after result.

McDermott concluded her dissent:

I found it particularly odd that Professor Lebow was sanctioned for following ISA's code of conduct in trying to resolve the conflict directly. If we can't even talk to each other without any potential conflict requiring mediation by outside authorities, we cede much of the agency we strive to achieve under democratic forms of governance.  

Some prefer bureaucratic machinery to talking to one another. And the ISA seems to excel in this case at helping its membership to evade clarity on what they  want.

Or perhaps the impulse was to write a code that errs on the side of accommodating complaints from the most sensitive whatever they turn out to be?

But under that approach, codes of conduct effectively cease to function as any sort of real community standards, guaranteeing that members, who will bristle at the real but unacknowledged tradeoffs they impose, regard them as illegitimate. Complainants then experience that dissatisfaction as a backlash against what they reasonably see as grievances that adhered to the letter of the rules.

Everyone winds up feeling ill-served.

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