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Two Jews got into a lift and …

...sparked a row about political correctness. David Robson finds out who pressed the wrong buttons

    An old-style lift attendant, from the film Grand Budapest Hotel
    An old-style lift attendant, from the film Grand Budapest Hotel

    If you’re looking for a friendly phrase to calm Simona Sharoni in a moment of stress, try to avoid “don’t get your knickers in a twist.” However kindly intended, it might not go down well. Sharoni, a professor of women’s and gender studies at a US college, is a fervent campaigner against sexism her position appears to be not so much #metoo as #metooangry or, some might say, #metotallybonkers. She describes herself as “a survivor of sexual harassment in the academy [academic life]” so you can just imagine what a dreadful ordeal it must have been for her when Professor Richard Ned Lebow did what he did. Excuse my French but this is a story of how lingerie became a cause célèbre.

    This is the terrible, brutal thing Professor Lebow did: at 10.20am on April 5 the eminent 76-year-old American scholar from the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London stepped into a crowded elevator in a Hilton Hotel in San Francisco where the International Studies Association (ISA) conference was taking place. Professor Sharoni, 56, also at the conference, was near the lift buttons and asked which floor people wanted. “Ladies’ lingerie,” called out Professor Lebow in jest.

    There was the odd chuckle but I think we can agree that really you’d have to go back well into the last millennium to find it funny, and even then it wasn’t very funny. It certainly wouldn’t make it onto the Old Jews Telling Jokes website though, as things turned out, it may crop up on Old Jews Oy Vey!

    Professor Sharoni, far from being amused, described herself as “quite shaken by the incident”. She said the woman standing next to her turned to her and said, “I wonder if we should have told him that it is no longer acceptable to make these jokes!” By then the moment had passed, Professor Lebow had left the lift. You might have thought Sharoni would find an opportunity later to buttonhole him and have a quiet corrective word in his ear about this silly little comment. No big deal. But that isn’t the way of things. In these days of #metooangry everything’s a big deal.

    Sharoni decided it was her duty on behalf of womankind and civilisation to report this outrage to the ISA disciplinary authorities. Lebow then wrote to her directly saying he had not intended to make her feel uncomfortable and was strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion and humiliation of women. To him these were important issues but, he added he thought her complaint to the authorities about his lingerie remark was “frivolous.”

    Was “frivolous” really the word? It may have been piffling, wrongheaded or bonkers, a ludicrous diversion from what really matters. But frivolous? If “frivolous” even slightly suggests lightness or fun, Simona Sharoni and frivolous are not known to each other. She is also quoted as saying that Lebow’s comment implied that she was being characterised as a lift operator rather than an academic. This is troubling. It shows her total lack of respect for lift operators and is anyway weird as she says she was the one pushing the buttons and asking “which floor?”.

    Despite the fact that the ISA rules encourage people at odds with one another to sort things out before going to the authorities, Lebow’s communication with Sharoni was disapproved of and he was instructed to issue an “unequivocal apology”. This he (quite rightly) refused to do because this was a “horrifying and chilling example of political correctness that encourages others to censor their remarks for fear of retribution.” He now awaits punishmentpossible suspension or eviction from the ISA.

    Sharoni is clearly a very serious woman watch her YouTube videos but now she is being seriously ridiculous about a bad joke. In fact the whole business is a bad joke. She shouldn’t be wasting her time on this. Professor Lebow shouldn’t be wasting his time on it but now he must. I shouldn’t even be wasting your time on it, except that it’s a small example of a sort of lunacy that is getting wilder and wilder and stronger and stronger and running out of control.

    This is probably neither the first nor the last time Professor Sharoni will be “quite shaken” by some innocent remark that she identifies as a sort of harassment bringing back memories of previous trauma, and I doubt if it’s the first or last time that Professor Lebow comes up with some slightly off-key remark that was meant to be funny but wasn’t. At the age of 76, you neither start doing new things nor stop doing old ones.

    You might like to think twice before getting into a lift with either of them.

     

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