Editorial: Offensive Behavior Must Be Confronted

Thursday, May 17, 2018

We believe Dartmouth College professor emeritus Ned Lebow when he says he meant no offense in what he has described as an attempt at humor in a crowded elevator at a San Francisco hotel during an academic conference last month. And we believe Merrimack College professor Simona Sharoni, a conference attendee who was one of the people in that elevator, when she says she was troubled by the attempt — troubled enough, in fact, to file a complaint against Lebow with the International Studies Association, which hosted the conference.

What saddens us is that, in an elevator apparently full of academics, no one took advantage of what seems to have been a supremely teachable moment.

In case you missed it in the Valley News (or in The Washington Post, which first reported it, or in The Chronicle of Higher Education, or The Atlantic, or the Daily Mail or any one of a zillion websites and blogs) the story goes something like this: Lebow, 76, and then Sharoni, 56, joined several people — one other woman and the rest men — in the hotel elevator shortly after 10 a.m. on April 5. When a person standing near the buttons at the front of the elevator (Sharoni says it was her) asked the riders to call out their floor requests, Lebow responded by saying “ladies’ lingerie.” (Sharoni recalls hearing “women’s lingerie.”) Several of the male passengers chuckled at the quip, a well-worn comic trope from the days when department stores had elevator operators. Sharoni, nonplussed, said nothing. When the door next opened, Lebow and the male passengers left the elevator.

According to Sharoni, she and the other woman in the elevator, whom she did not know, were both offended by the remark — in part because of the sexual connotation of a reference to women’s undergarments, in part because the comment was made by a stranger in a confined space, and in part because, in Sharoni’s telling, her status as a professional academic was being publicly demeaned by Lebow’s treatment of her as a lowly elevator operator. A few hours later, Sharoni filed a complaint with the association.

Sharoni said both she and the other woman regretted not saying something right away. We do, as well. We also are disappointed that none of the other male passengers stepped forward. While it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to have the perfect rejoinder always at the ready, something as simple as, “Excuse me, professor. I’m sure this wasn’t your intention, but your comment made me very uncomfortable,” may have prompted an apology then and there that could have resolved the situation. More important, it may have had the additional salutary effect of alerting Lebow that, in the era of #MeToo, he needs to update his tone-deaf act.

When he was notified of the complaint by the International Studies Association, Lebow — who received the group’s distinguished scholar award in 2014 — succeeded in making things worse. He sent an email to Sharoni in which he not only failed to apologize for his remark but characterized her complaint as “frivolous.” The association was having none of it. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the association told Lebow that what he said in the elevator had been deemed “offensive and inappropriate” and in violation of the association’s code of conduct. Further, his email calling Sharoni’s complaint “frivolous” was even worse than the elevator remark. He was told to write an “unequivocal apology” to Sharoni and submit a copy of that apology to the association’s executive committee.

Lebow, who has a home in Etna, refused. “If I say, ‘I’m sorry,’ I legitimate her claim to being offended,” he told Valley News staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling. “I refuse to do that because it only encourages people to be speech police, to act this way.” He also sent an email to colleagues, The Chronicle reported, in which he called the situation “a horrifying and chilling example of political correctness.”

The story began to spread, with sadly predictable consequences: Sharoni has now received hundreds of emails and online comments that have attacked her appearance, used sexually aggressive language and included at least one threat of violence.

Most of those comments, of course, are nothing but the toothless yappings of cowardly people hiding behind the anonymity of the internet — and who really should be contributing more to society — but we recognize that they can be scary. Nevertheless, we hope the courage shown by the women who in recent months have come forward to expose the sexual misdeeds of powerful men will inspire others to confront offensive behavior when they see it, even if that behavior is nothing more than a stupid joke. It’s important to recognize that stupid jokes, whether sexist or racist or homophobic, are not as egregious as the misconduct that has dominated the headlines of late — but they are part of the same continuum of discrimination that has helped deprive women and others of the opportunities they deserve. Laws and codes of conduct can help, but the only way to truly change society — to make it more fair and more just for everyone — is to make offensive behavior socially unacceptable.

At this point it should be clear to everyone that the casual sexism, racism and cruelty that characterized so much of what passed for humor half a century ago is an artifact of an unenlightened time. If you want to present it in its historical context, sure, but don’t trot it out for grins and giggles in mixed company in a crowded elevator.

You’ll soon learn you’ve pushed the wrong buttons.