We’ve all heard the question before, stepping into a four foot by five foot box, otherwise known as a lift or elevator, which transports people and things to different levels. Far too often, lifts are jam-packed full of people, eager to arrive at their next destination in a quick and easy manner that a lift usually allows. And we do not give it a second thought. Allowing someone else to press the button that takes us to a floor of choice is a common convention of politeness, one which does not have to be taught or clarified.
However, for International Political Theory Professor Richard Ned Lebow, entering a crowded lift at the International Studies Association’s annual convention in San Franciso had an entirely different outcome, one which has caused trans-Atlantic controversy.
Upon being asked the floor of his choice, Professor Lebow recounts replying with the phrase, “Ladies’ lingerie”.
This is where the trouble began.
The comment, he stated, was a joke, albeit self-admittedly a ‘lame’ one, taken from the popular 1970s British sitcom, Are You Being Served?, one which sought to break the tension all too common within an enclosed, oft-awkward space.
One witness to the incident, Simona Sharoni, felt prompted to report the incident to the ISA. Sharoni, professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, found the comment to be just another symptom of the wider trend of misogyny in academia. The ISA, who had awarded Lebow with their prestigious Distinguished Scholar Award in 2014, concluded that the King’s professor had violated the code of conduct, and thus should release a formal apology by the 15th May, a stipulation Lebow has refused to adhere to.
Instead, the King’s professor noted in an e-mail to Sharoni that he had no intention of being insulting towards women. ‘Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion or humiliation of women,’ he noted, while stating that ‘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.’ Lebow also called the complaint ‘frivolous.’
In a counter statement, Sharoni criticised Lebow for blaming the political correctness of today’s society for what she sees as a sexist issue. ‘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,’ she observed. She went on to note to The Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘I cannot and will not remain silent when misogyny is at play.’
Certain elements of the incident are disputed. While Lebow insists that a man was pressing the buttons, Sharoni maintains she was the individual asking for floors. Whether the exact phrase was “ladies’ lingerie” or “women’s lingerie” is also unclear, and thus the boundaries between joke and offence appear to be blurred. In an era of increasing awareness for female liberation and the snowball effect of the #MeToo movement, the skirmish indicates strong battle lines are being drawn between what is considered acceptable, and what is not.
Lebow has since written opinion pieces in both The Spectator and The Daily Mail since hitting international headlines, relaying his thoughts on the event and its aftermath. In one piece, he appears to make reference to the ongoing ‘safe space’ debate currently occurring in Britain’s universities: ‘The disturbing truth,’ he said ‘is that we now live in a world where censorship is making steady inroads…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.”
The College has neither supported nor condemned Lebow’s actions, instead stating “We are not aware of any comments made by staff or students on this matter currently. We take all complaints seriously and should any be received would investigate fully.”
Lebow, meanwhile, maintains his innocence, referencing his work as a ‘freedom rider’ – one of the volunteers who took “bus rides in the Deep South to protest against racial segregation” as evidence of his character.
“This is my 53rd year of teaching,” he states, “I have always supported women, mentored and co-authored with women, and worked hard to get deserving women tenure and promotion.”
co-authored: Siri Hedreen and Rebekah Evans