Charlie Buttrey

May 10, 2018

According to an article in yesterday’s Valley News (the online link for which I cannot find, so you’ll just have to trust me here), last month 76-year-old Dartmouth professor emeritus Ned Lebow was on a crowded elevator while attending a professional conference in San Francisco. Someone at the front of the elevator asked what floors everyone wanted, so that the appropriate button could be pushed. Lebow replied “ladies lingerie.” A few people chuckled.

Not Simona Sharoni.

Sharoni, 56, a professor of gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, interpreted the comment as harassment. And she filed a complaint with the International Studies Association (ISA), which was hosting the conference.

Incredibly, not only did the group agree with her, finding that Lebow’s comment violated the organization’s code of conduct against “unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of people or individuals,” it ordered him to submit an “unequivocal apology” to the executive committee for review.

According to its website, the ISA “is one of the oldest interdisciplinary associations dedicated to understanding international, transnational and global affairs,” “has long served as a central hub for the exchange of ideas and for networking and programmatic initiatives among those involved in the study, teaching and practice of International Studies,” and “promotes rigorous discussion, research and writing on a broad range of topics within International Studies.”

I am, as I have stated repeatedly in this blog, as close to a First Amendment absolutist as they come. This particular episode does not, of course, involve the First Amendment in any way, since there is no governmental action being taken against Lebow. But academic institutions, perhaps above all others, should be cherishing the notion of freedom of speech. And I find the ISA’s position unbecoming of an academic institution that plugs its commitment to the exchange of ideas and rigorous discussion, yet reacts in a hypersensitive way over the most mundane of comments.

If you are offended by this two-word, one-off, spontaneous, relatively pointless attempt at humor in an elevator, it may be time to reconsider the measures by which you are calibrating personal offense.


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