Jenny McCartney

Jenny McCartney is a Journalist and commentator.


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When the public debates about sexual harassment at work first broke out, post-Weinstein, there were men who occasionally fretted – in person, print or on Twitter – that in this brave new climate no one would be able to make a joke any more. They said they were confused about what they could and couldn’t say.

In response, a chorus of women would tell them not to be so ridiculous, and that the rules were straightforward: keep your roving hands to yourself at work and don’t make creepy or suggestive remarks or “jokes” about the bodies or sex lives of women in the office. Get it? Not difficult.

British universities are not in quite the same league as the US when it comes to the policing of professorial argument by students – yet
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For the most part, that’s probably still true. But when I read a case like that of Richard Ned Lebow, a 76-year-old professor of international political theory at King’s College, London, it makes me think that the fretters had a point. Prof Lebow recently found himself in a crowded lift at an International Studies Association (ISA) conference in San Francisco, and when asked by a fellow-academic pressing the buttons which floors were wanted, he ventured a small joke: “Ladies’ lingerie.”

Prof Lebow grew up in New York, and in the ‘40s and ‘50s in the US – as in the UK – department stores had lift operators who would call out the goods to be found on each floor: a request for the “ladies’ lingerie” department, therefore, became a standard witticism in any lift.

The ladies’ lingerie department has long had a special place in the British and Irish comic imagination
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He would probably still have got away with it in London: the ladies’ lingerie department has long had a special place in the British and Irish comic imagination. Our long-running TV series Are You Being Served? – a rolling feast of comic innuendo – wrung a lot of amusement from the very notion of underwear.

In one of the funniest episodes of Father Ted, created by the late Irish comic genius Dermot Morgan, a bunch of priests get trapped in the ladies’ lingerie section and can’t find a way out: the scene is played as a pastiche of a war film.

Unfortunately, Simona Sharoni, a 57-year-old US professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College, was also in the lift with Professor Lebow along with another, unnamed woman. They did not appreciate the joke.

Once Prof Sharoni got out of the lift, she filed a formal complaint about the incident to the ISA, which was thereby obliged to investigate. What is particularly interesting is the language she used in her letter to the ISA: “I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we froze and didn’t confront him” and “As a survivor of sexual harassment in the Academy, I am quite shaken by this incident.” The vocabulary of women “freezing” is one that is much more commonly used in reference to traumatic instances of sexual assault or rape, rather than hearing a jokey comment in a packed lift. So too is being “shaken.”

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After Prof Lebow became aware of the complaint, he sent an email to Prof Sharoni in which he tried to explain the historical context of his joke, before assuring her that “like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion or humiliation of women”. He went on to say, however, that “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”.

Prof Sharoni did not respond, and the ISA did not take Prof Lebow’s part at all. It found his comment in the lift to be “offensive and inappropriate and thus a violation of the ISA’s code of conduct.” Even worse, his email to Prof Sharoni calling the complaint “frivolous” was “viewed by both committees as a more serious violation than the elevator incident itself”. Prof Lebow, aware that gossip surrounded the situation, made its details public; Prof Sharoni was uncomfortable with this, and said that she had since received hate mail – something that, wherever one stands in the argument, is unacceptable.

A feverish atmosphere now permeates certain US campuses on matters of gender or race
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It is possible that Prof Lebow, lately teaching in London, was aware but not on permanent alert to the feverish atmosphere that now permeates certain US campuses on matters of gender or race. In recent years, liberal professors such as Nicholas Christakis at Yale or Bret Weinstein at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington – both of whom had long records of opposing racism – have found themselves at the centre of heavily publicised college fire-storms. Their “crime” – which at times had students screaming hysterical abuse in their faces – was to take an intellectual line which went against the current orthodoxy of a very vocal minority of students in discussions on how to balance demonstrations of anti-racism with freedom of thought and expression.

British universities are not quite in the same league when it comes to the policing of professorial argument by students – yet. But the rise of “no-platforming” by student activists – including that of long-time campaigners on women’s and gay rights such as Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel or Peter Tatchell – shows that here too, the desire exists simply to shut down debate which would once have been regarded as the most desirable aspect of a university.

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A common thread in many such academic clashes is the enthusiastic substitution of fierce emotion over argument among those who feel themselves to have been sinned against, a modern adaptation of Descartes that runs: “I am upset, therefore I am.” And Prof Lebow has subsequently warned that the cultural hysteria is creeping to the UK: “‘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.”

At the heart of this are questions of scale and intent, both of which are now routinely rendered indistinct in professional rows about sexism. Some feminists have sought to highlight “microaggressions”, popularising the idea that there is a spectrum of sexist behaviour which has a thoughtless remark at one end and violence or sexual assault at the other. Yet they have also been resistant to the idea that some kinds of male “offences” are much less serious than others, since they reserve the right to locate the seriousness of any incident almost wholly in the perception of the complainant.

Hyper-vigilance to offence doesn’t help women – it damages our cause.
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By such criteria, if you feel sufficiently outraged or upset about something, it is therefore unquestionably a legitimate source of outrage. Objective categories of seriousness – such as necessarily exist throughout our criminal justice system – are deliberately blurred: all behaviour one dislikes can be covered by the umbrella words “inappropriate” and “misconduct”.

That is, perhaps, why Prof Lebow’s “lame” joke, as he himself called it, apparently caused Prof Sharoni to “freeze,” feel “shaken” and later feel that Lebow had been “victim-blaming” by refusing to admit culpability. Since Prof Sharoni says she felt this way, we must take it on trust that she did. And yet, speaking from outside her own set of intense responses, it is difficult to see what she was ever actually a “victim” of.

The trouble is that this hyper-vigilance to offence, including exaggerated responses backed up by a nervous authority, does nothing practical to help women in the wider world: in fact, it damages our cause. When even a mild joke can be so heavily policed and censored, it not unreasonably makes decent men nervous, and likely to retreat both from the company of female colleagues and from formal and informal discussions that might help women succeed professionally.

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At the heart of this modern syndrome lies the cultural prosecutors’ firm belief in ideological purity – the conviction that the world can be radically improved if only every tiny deviation from the path of an accepted script is “called out” and punished. Such believers are full of pungent certainty, and officialdom is frequently somewhat cowed by it. When students posted protest messages around Theresa May’s portrait in Oxford’s school of geography recently, for example, the authorities could have either removed the messages or kept them there and used them to spark a controlled debate. Instead, they temporarily removed the portrait.

Jokes – with their innate subversion and nonchalance – are especially challenging to the ideologue’s world-view
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There can be, of course, hard-edged workplace “jokes” – often repeatedly directed at the same target – that are intended to demean and are indicative of bullying (an employment lawyer I know once told me that his heart sinks when he hears the words: “It was just banter.”) Prof Lebow’s was far from that kind of joke, and it is also true that jokes – with their innate subversion and nonchalance – are especially challenging to the ideologue’s world-view.

In his novel The Joke, the Czech writer Milan Kundera describes how a young student and enthusiastic Communist party supporter fell foul of the authorities when he scribbled a joke ending in the words “Long Live Trotsky!” on a postcard: thereafter he is expelled from the party, his college and spends the next few years working in the mines.

Our authorities in academia and other workplaces can’t send anyone to the mines for “inappropriate” comments, but they can cast an unfair blight over a formerly respected career. Yet it is profoundly important to have some objective criteria for the taking of offence. Offence-blurring does women no favours: distinctions and proportion matter. Women often need strong language to describe situations of domestic violence and serious work-place harassment. We also need the goodwill of supportive men. We should have the good sense not to squander either on a joke.