Monday, May 14, 2018

Is an Old Joke Sexual Harassment?

Conor Friedersdorf takes a deep dive into the latest blowup over sexual harassment allegations in academia:
Last month, during a conference for scholars who study international affairs, Simona Sharoni, a professor of women's and gender studies at Merrimack College, asked a crowded hotel elevator what floor everyone needed. Richard Ned Lebow, a professor of political theory at King’s College London, replied, “Ladies’ lingerie” (or, as Sharoni remembers it, “Women’s lingerie.”) Several people laughed. Was that sexual harassment?

Academics have been debating the question among themselves since last month, when Sharoni filed a formal complaint about the incident, triggering an investigation by the International Studies Association. The ISA would later conclude that Lebow must apologize in writing by May 15.

So far, he has refused.
Friedersdorf focuses on the rules the ISA has in place about sexual harassment and process that is supposed to resolve disputes, both which he finds lacking. Here is the ISA's definition of harassment:
Unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women. It may be related to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, disability, religion, nationality, or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or isolated. The key is that the actions or comments are experienced as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.
This is very different from the U.S. legal definition. Since this was not a "quip pro quo" act but one that might be litigated under a "hostile work environment" claim, the law says that the victim has to complain and ask for the behavior to stop before the case can merit legal action. The request can be made either to the harasser, to a supervisor, or to someone in human resources who is empowered to receive such complaints, but a complaint has to be made. By contrast the ISA's standard focuses exclusively on the feelings of the victim; if you feel demeaned, then harassment has taken place. But:
Yet there is a committee that investigates and decides. That implies some added threshold of reasonableness. But what standard is used to determine what qualifies? A reasonable-person standard? The individual standards of committee members? The standards of the average person in a given identity group? The standards of the most sensitive person who registers a formal complaint?

The code of conduct leaves all that uncertain.
And here we get into the whole "kangaroo court," "witch hunt" sort of thing. I would be willing to bet than any US court would toss this out in a heartbeat, because the rules as written make it impossible for people to know if they are following them. One of the basic principles of the old Common Law is that the law must be known and, to the extent possible given the difficulty of the subject, clear. A law based on someone else's feelings is not going to fly. Thus the importance in the law of making a formal complaint and asking that the behavior stop. (Again, that is not true for quip pro quo cases or cases involving violence, but it certainly applies to off-color jokes.)

Lebow has threatened to sue the ISA if they go ahead with sanctioning him, and I think they would be in legal jeopardy if he did.

But to get back to the case: here we have two people of very similar backgrounds, both white academics, members of the same association, both of whom claim to be feminists and strongly opposed to sexual harassment, and they are now involved in an ugly public dispute about what constitutes proper behavior in public,
Has it now become the job of our professional organizations to criminalize humor?
For years, the term “political correctness” has been used as the blanket excuse by those who refuse to rethink and change their racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs and practices. From inappropriate jokes in public spaces to unwanted sexual advances and assault, men in positions of power are outraged when they are being held accountable.
Anyone who thinks there is some easy way to resolve these problems has his or her head in the sand.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

What crazed insanity is this? How utterly blind to context do you have to be to twist that particular absurd cultural reference into some form of sexual harassment?

This is like arguing that referencing the Dead Parrot sketch by Monty Python constitutes animal cruelty.

The humor of the joke exists entirely in the absurdity of the utterance, combined with the ubiquity of the reference. There's nothing offensive in the concept of a department store selling lingerie, or in an old-time elevator operator at said store listing off the departments present on a given floor in a sing-song voice, and the listed store departments being comical in the absurdity of their unexpectedness. "Fourth Floor: Housewares, Lederhosen, Electric Toothbrushes, Breakfast Cereals, Clown Shoes, Ladies' Lingerie, and Fine Wines!

Is the above version of the joke actually a form of racism, because it references traditional German clothing? Is it offensive or disrespectful to the Gluten Intolerant, because it references cereals which commonly contain the protein that disrupts their health and wellbeing? Is it harassment of the mentally ill, given that there are people who suffer from coulrophobia who might be disturbed by the mention of clowns? And what are we to make of the inclusion of alcoholic beverages? Surely that's a cruel and vicious mockery of alcoholics, right?