Monday, May 7, 2018

Elevator trouble in academia

First reported in The Washington Post. Now also in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

The trouble stems from a quip made in an elevator during the conference of the International Studies Association: when a passenger (male in one account, female in another) asked which buttons to press, another passenger, a male academic, requested “Ladies’ Lingerie” or “Women’s Lingerie” (it’s not clear which). A female academic riding in the elevator made a formal complaint to the ISA. An e-mailed non-apology from the offender to the offended has created further trouble. And news of this incident has led to vicious comments and threats posted to the offended party’s webpage.

The joke is old and silly, recalling the days when elevator operators announced department-store departments floor by floor. In 2018, the joke is unmistakably inappropriate. “Haberdashery” or “Linens, please” might be a better joke, if one must make a joke in an elevator full of strangers. And — if one must make a joke that assumes knowledge of a long-past elevator custom, a custom that some of those strangers may not know about.

This sentence from the offended party’s complaint stands out: “It took me a while to figure out that this man thought it was funny to make a reference to men shopping for lingerie while attending an academic conference.” But he wasn’t making a reference to shopping for lingerie while attending an academic conference; he was doing so while riding in an elevator. The academic who filed the complaint was raised abroad and came to the United States in 1989 — which makes me wonder whether she knew about department-store elevator announcements. If she did, a request for “Ladies’ Lingerie” (or “Women’s Lingerie”) would still be unmistakably inappropriate. If she didn’t, a request for “Ladies’ Lingerie” (or “Women’s Lingerie”) would seem bizarre, frightening, unfathomable.

A possible response, spoken in the moment: “Don’t be a sexist jerk.” Or stronger words to that effect. But I don’t think this quip — or even a refusal to apologize for it — should become the stuff of an ISA inquiry. Not every social misfire or misjudgment should lead to sanctions.

[If the offended party didn’t know about the convention of floor requests, she does now. The offender’s e-mailed non-apology says that in the 1950s, asking for the hardware or lingerie department was “a standard gag line” for elevator passengers. Yes, in the 1950s. Not now.]

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