Wednesday, May 9, 2018

ISA Sexual Harassment in the News

Ah, the ISA never gets in the news in a good way.  Last time, it was my blowing up an ISA proposal on blogging.  This time, it is their reaction to a complaint about sexual harassment at a conference.  I have been reluctant to comment because: a) I am in Korea doing fieldwork and spent most of my typing in poor ergonomic conditions on transcribing notes; b) this is very much a tempest in a teapot kind of thing, getting far more attention than other, more severe problems in the discipline; and c) as a white guy, I am probably not the best to judge whether this joke/complaint/reaction/counter-reaction is problematic or not. 

Having said that, of course, I have thoughts, and as someone who has commented much on sexual harassment in the discipline, folks have asked what I think about this episode.  So, here I semi-spew about this incident.

First, tone matters a great deal, so we don't know how snide or not Lebow's tone was.  But making a joke to the guys at the expense of the women, which is how the story sounds, is not good and not appropriate.
Second, Lebow has a reputation in the discipline which makes it hard to judge things--he is seen as a difficult person, so I am not surprised that he is, in my view, overreacting.  He should have taken his lumps: "I am sorry.  I made a bad joke, and I offended you" and moved on.  Instead, he pushed back and wanted to publicize it all.  Congrats to him on blowing this up. 
Third, hierarchy matters--Lebow is a big name in the field so with great power comes great responsibility.  Contra to Roseanne Barr, punching up with jokes is more acceptable than punching down.  Indeed, that is one way to challenge the powerful. I remember quite clearly that I made a joke about a junior woman's appearance (her height) at a conference, the person called me on it, I felt abashed and ashamed, I apologized, and I don't think I repeated that behavior since.  Would I have behaved differently had it gone directly to an ISA procedure?  I don't know, but I probably would not have been looking for media outlets to air my side. 
Fourth, I feel for the ISA folks, as they faced no good choices in this, and now they look like humor scolds.
Fifth, contra to this piece, yes, one can make jokes that involve sex at conferences but you do it with your friends and not complete strangers.  Context matters and audiences matter.  So, saying you can't joke at conferences and can't joke about sex is simply wrong.  But the content and context of the joke matters. Sure, "ladies lingerie" does not have much content to it, but in a small box full of strangers, it is a bad context. 
Sixth,  I can't really judge Simona Sharoni as I don't know her and have not been in her shoes.  But I have seen enough sexism in academia to understand that senior women are fed up with a lifetime of accumulated grievances and react when they see more of it.  Would this be a hill I would die on?  No, but again, white guy who has faced not much sexism or other identity-based difficulties over my career. 

Most importantly, I worry that this incident will be used to trivialize complaints about sexism and sexual harassment.  I saw this every year when I was at Texas Tech, as the yearly sexual harassment training session turned into a competition among the senior men in the department to undermine the presenter.  As that department was thoroughly toxic at the time due to the sexual harassment by one of my colleagues, this trivialization of the issue was incredibly problematic.  Sexual harassment is real, and sexism matters a great deal (see all of the work on citations, on leaky pipelines, and all the rest), so focusing on whether "women's lingerie" as a joke distracts us from the more serious issues facing women in political science and international relations.  For some, this is an opportunity to do exactly that--distract us from the serious issues.  For others, they see this as part of a larger pattern.  And I stand with the latter, as I have seen the former do too much damage. 

19 comments:

Martin Heisler said...

This is a very thoughtful and constructive post. Surprising my contrarian self, I agree with every point as well as its tone. Thanks.

Wim Laven said...

Your remarks are reasonable but to an extremely abbreviated version of the story.

You may not know all of the story, I'm not sure which link says what, so in case you missed it. The greater offense was actually the letter that he wrote her, and not just the "joke."

As this has progressed, he sure has blown things up, and embarrassingly so.

Anyway, I'm also a white guy, but (like you) when someone calls me on something I do find the best response is to apologize and not send an email that tell the person they trivialize real trauma, which is what leads me to respond.

You got out of your way to say that there are bigger problems a couple of times. Why?

Steve Saideman said...

Yes, the story is more complex. I write short posts, not long ones, so I was not going to examine every part of this. I focused on some key elements. It is up to others to focus on what they want to consider.

I don't go out of my way to say there are bigger problems--it is directly in my way--that I worry about this incident being used to trivialize the more systematic and more destructive stuff out there: bias in hiring and promotion, in citation. Sexual harassment at universities of students and universities covering up. You can argue that Lebow is a symptom or a cause of these other things....

BigFurHat said...

This is the joke, correct me if I'm wrong.

You're on a crowded elevator and when someone asks what floor you want you say, "Ladies Lingerie," like you suddenly forgot where you were and confused the elevator for a department store elevator.

And a guy is being forced to apologize for this?
Are you kidding?

And now it's being intellectualized like there is worthy nuance here to paw over in order to see if a career can be ruined?

The careers that need to be ruined is the original complainant and the stupid board that has agreed with her.

Furthermore, if you want to go down that road you suggested a man telling a joke where a woman is somehow involved is "punching down."

You need reeducation from the very people you are coddling.
Go get your punishment.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post.

I think what's being lost in a lot of the conversations surrounding this issue is that Lebow violated the confidentiality of the process that Sharoni followed after the incident. It doesn't matter if any of us think the lingerie comment is funny or not, a form of harassment or not. What matters is that two individuals felt wronged by it and followed the proper channels to address it. Instead of simply apologizing, Lebow contacted Sharoni directly to insult her, and then went to the media. Now she's receiving tons of harassing and threatening messages.

Despite what Lebow says in interviews about supporting women, his actions in this manner demonstrate this to not always be true.

Anonymous said...

(re: the above anonymous comment. I'm posting anonymously because I'm a junior scholar and I know see what happens to women if they speak out about even the most minor of things)

Laura Love said...

Thanks for speaking up, I think what you've said is particularly important because the foundation for the big things that are wrong (and that we must fight against) is millions of microagressions fused together to undermine women and non-binary folks; it's the microaggressions that teach us to internalize and not "overreact" (read: have any kind of response to sexism). If we don't call out the day-to-day sexism then we have no foundation to support us when we fight the big things. The joke was a stupid microaggression. His response to being told to apologize is a big thing. He took something that could have been as easy as I'm sorry & I won't do it again and turned it in to a full on public battle, which is childish and uncalled for.
It's important that men speak up about "women's issues" because they dont actually belong to us, they belong to men. Ok I'm getting rambly, my point is: thank you for being a decent human.

jonathanm said...

"Ladies Lingerie" is nothing more than a reference to establish a parallel between the elevator in use and the common experience of being in a department store elevator. The French pronunciation gives it all a bit of joking sophistication.
It's not a dirty joke and it's not derogatory against anyone. Don't understand how people with strong credentials can be so thick on his.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your comment Your point stands on its own merits.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same as if one of the ladies present had calked out 'Menswear', rather than a gentleman making the pervy suggestiin of 'lingerie'?

jonathanm said...

One more thing.
The people who are complaining that he contacted her are acting as if that was some sort of human rights violation.
Actually, that's how adults resolve their differences.
This woman and all her sympathizers have lost touch with reality. I'm seriously concerned about the credibility of their writing and teaching.

Anonymous said...

I understand that people are going to be on the fence on occasion regarding what is and what isn't sexually appropriate, but are you having a laugh? Ladies lingerie is a genuine department in a department store. There are stores named similarly. We see TV advertisements and other forms of marketing material containing such phrases.

If I were in a lift and a woman politely asked me what I were doing today, and if I were genuinely going to buy my girlfriend lingerie, should I hold my tongue for it being sexually inappropriate? Or if somebody asks for directions and the place they're looking for happens to be across from a lingerie store, I have to filter myself?

Sure, the examples above are sincere. But that's besides the point. The end result is the same. Lingerie being mentioned in a lift in front of a woman.

As a "white guy" myself (on which, what relevance, qualification or rather lack of, does that have with regard to judging this? When did the opinion of white men stop mattering in incidents like this? How is such thinking going to be helpful?), and a victim of sexual assault , I can only say you both need to get over yourselves.

You mention Lebow jumping on the media wagon, it wouldn't suprise me if Sharoni was thinking the same all along. Almost too fitting given her career and background.

I'm off out to buy some lingerie for my girlfriend anyway, apologies to any women I've offended. Lord give me strength.

Anonymous said...

The comment "ladies lingerie" was an innocent reference to a UK sitcom set in a department store. Unfortunately for him it went over the heads of those in the lift and has escalated into yet another case of a feminist academic baying for blood and out to ruin the career of a distinguished professional, seemingly for their 5 minutes of fame and adulation from other feminazis.

Anonymous said...

God you academics are a pompous bunch

There are a lot worse things in this world than a man mentions the word lingerie in a lift. If that truly offends someone they need to seek counselling immediately

Its worrying that you think it worthy of your brainpower

By the way comments on him contactinger might have a point if she did not have her email on display on her website, a contact page and a twitter account. You dont have those if you wish to be incommunicado

Chensium said...

How is mentioning lingerie at "the expense of women"?

The joke, while stupid, is fully neutral. Is the mall directory offensive? Is lingerie inferior to other forms of underwear? Would ladies activewear be less offensive?

Completely ridiculous! Simona is obviously reaching for limelight to boost her career. But ISA is the bigger idiot for taking her complaints at face value.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how I'm going to break it to my elderly mother that her somewhat regular joke of "next floor, ladies lingerie" is now considered a sexist offensive verbal attack and that she cannot say it anymore.

What a storm in a teacup. It's a joke. If she didn't like it, fair enough - but it doesn't mean the professor should apologize for saying one of the oldest jokes around.

Christina Brainard said...

Please stop! I used to be a PROUD liberal and felt like I was fighting for the underdog, the oppressed, the voiceless. Now... I am a reluctant conservative, why because the Left has gone Insane!!!

Anonymous said...

The real problem here was that Sharoni did not work it out in person as a first step which the ISA codes note. There are significant problems with the ISA code where an action can be brought based on feelings and perceptions alone. Also you are not mentioning the ISA is forcing an apology. So take Kafka, add some Orwell, and you have the ISA code of conduct, which Sharoni proudly takes credit for working on. She also has stated she wanted to take a stand for all women, so it is political. She also planned to harass and abuse her power by having activism devoted to the specific case at the next conference, making it a hostile environment for Lebow. Sharoni should have showed some spine and handled this on her own, but then she would not be able to organize around it and further her career because of it. I am staying anonymous because I do not want to be attacked, but all of the above is backed up by primary source written evidence I have collected on the case as I explored it for my own work.

Anonymous said...

> as a white guy, I am probably not the best to judge whether this joke/complaint/reaction/counter-reaction is problematic or not.

I cannot believe someone would write this and actually mean it. Anyone with at least a little bit of sanity left in their mind must see how insane PC culture is.