This subject came up recently thanks to Richard Ned Lebow, a professor of international political theory at King’s College in London. The professor was in a crowded elevator with colleagues at an academic conference when someone asked what floor he needed to get off on. Lebow responded, “ladies lingerie.” The joke prompted Simona Sharoni, professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, to lodge a complaint over violating the group’s code of conduct regarding harassment.
Now, we could sit around and have a merry old circle jerk about free speech and snowflakes and microaggressions and the like, and if that’s how you want to spend your break then don’t put away the hand lotion on my account. However, I have a slightly more helpful stance today. I firmly believe that the complaint was valid and Lebow was in the wrong, but the thing is that practically it doesn’t really matter much who was right. Most of us are not looking to be the Rosa Parks of weak panty jokes and all the legal rigmarole that would entail. We just want to get on with our day.
So, here’s some advice if you find yourself in Lebow’s position and you want things to get back to normal as soon as possible.
1. Explaining a Joke Doesn’t Help. Ever
Some people saw the joke I just mentioned and either thought, “what’s the big deal?” or figured Lebow was from Britain and it was probably a reference to the sitcom Are You Being Served? I could respond that even if it was a pop culture nod, responding to a question about “getting off” with “ladies lingerie” has unmistakable sexual connotations. Whether you find that clever or crude or funny or vulgar is going to vary by person because of the subjective nature of comedy.
The point is that explaining it away by calling attention to its origin or intent doesn’t really change the fact that in this case it simply didn’t land as a joke with the audience it was presented to. Likewise, dissecting why it might be offensive or have harassment overtones the way saying “haberdashery” wouldn’t have is probably pointless to a hurt wag on the defensive. Explaining a joke never makes it funnier, and in a case where formal complaints are lodged it’s utterly pointless. That ship has sailed. Move on.
2. If the Problem Can Be Solved With an Apology, It’s Not a Real Problem
The headline from FOX News regarding this story is “Male professor faces sanction for elevator joke, calls it ‘chilling example of political correctness,’” which might lead you to think simply making the joke brought down the wrath of the dreaded PC Police that hide under Sean Hannity’s bed. That’s not accurate. Lebow faces sanctions because he responded to the complaint by calling it frivolous, mansplained feminism to a WOMEN STUDIES PROFESSOR, and refused to issue an “unequivocal apology.”
The whole thing would go away with a simple, “I’m sorry. I thought it was funny, but clearly others didn’t think so. I will be more careful in the future.” If the sum of all consequences from an action is being made to feel uncomfortable and put-upon for the time it takes to write an email, the world probably isn’t going to stop for you. Sorry isn’t fun, but we’re supposed to grow out of acting like it’s the end of the world around fifth grade.
3. Maybe You’re Right. So What?
It is every man’s God-given right to cornhole a wasps’ nest in the name of principle. That said, life is full of hills and there are only so many of them to die on. Lebow and FOX News and the rest of that particular Venn diagram might feel to the cellar of their souls that they are in the right and should be able to make whatever joke they want without any criticism.
That’s not going to happen without a fight, though, and the question is whether the fight is worth having. Maybe if a complaint has some sort of legal repercussions that will percolate up into the interpretation of the First Amendment at a high court level there’s some merit, but otherwise it’s really just the noble quest for one dude’s peace of mind about a wet quip and the righteous anger of people involved. Speaking of which…
4. Here Are Your Allies… They’re Terrible
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The prospect of being vindicated through the media is tantalizing. Having a nation or the world take up our cause to prove our righteousness can be a wonderful dream, sort of like that one I have where I start a religion based on Doctor Who so I can buy DVDs tax-free. Beware your allies though.
When it comes to free speech, if the ACLU isn’t knocking on your door then odds are you’re going to get the OTHER team. They’re primarily hardcore conservatives and alt-right reactionaries whose purpose is not any person’s actual case, but how it can best be used to paint offense as a virtue, at least when it’s pointed at women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc.
I don’t know who the FREE SPEECH 4 LIFE darlings are now that Milo Yiannopoulos’ empire is in ruins and Richard Spencer is too broke to buy bourbon, but I’m sure someone out there is keen to exploit these situations for sweet Patreon dollars and YouTube subscribers. These are the same people who delight in claiming things like feminism is cancer, the gender spectrum isn’t real, yadda yadda yadda because “free speech” is an easier sell than “I like being a hateful prat.” They come to folks like Lebow and use him as a bannerman. Do you really want to be in bed with them simply because the lady in the lift didn’t like your knickers crack?
“Political Correctness Run Amok” is a good headline, but the reality of the amok-ness is mundane to the point of tedium. It generally means that sometimes groups who formerly just seethed in silence at things dudes said without restraint now stand their ground and ask for a modicum of consideration going forward. My advice is, just give them that consideration. You’d be surprised how much more in life you get accomplished when you don’t spend it constantly insisting you’re right.