Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Why we must stand by our right to say the wrong thing ... even if the PC police disagree

A professor who made an ill-advised quip about lingerie is refusing to apologise. Good for him, says Fionola Meredith

I am delighted to learn that the elderly professor who made a lame joke about knickers in a crowded lift, thus causing an international scandal, is refusing to apologise. Here's what happened: Professor Richard Ned Lebow, a political scientist from King's College London, was heading back to his hotel room after attending a conference of the International Studies Association (ISA) in San Francisco. The attendant in the lift asked him which floor he wanted, and Prof Ned Lebow responded "ladies' lingerie". Another academic at the same conference, Simona Sharoni, a professor of gender studies, heard him and filed a complaint against him for sexist behaviour.

Lebow emailed Sharoni privately to try to resolve the matter, but to no avail - he had said the wrong thing, a feminist had got offended and so he was now officially toast.

The ISA found Lebow guilty of using a phrase that was "inappropriate and offensive", informed him that he had violated its code of conduct, and censured him for emailing Sharoni. It demanded an unequivocal apology, with the threat of disciplinary action.

But Lebow, rather gloriously, is taking a stand.

"There is nothing to apologise for," he said. "If I did apologise it would show that crazy people like this one can intimidate associations - and it will have a chilling effect on everyone... This is also about an issue of humour and the idea that humour is now becoming off limits."

Sharoni, meanwhile, was full of pious self-righteousness. She claimed to have been "quite shaken" by the incident and pompously proclaimed that she "cannot and will not remain silent when misogyny is at play".

Shaken? Really? I'd be shaken if I nearly got run down by a car, or if somebody screamed obscenities in my face. Not because an old man made a rather poor joke in a lift.

As for misogyny, as Lebow himself pointed out, such complaints detract from real, genuinely damaging instances of harassment.

The overreaction to Lebow's quip reminded me of another socially inept septuagenarian who got in trouble for a pathetic attempt at humour. Prof Tim Hunt of University College London famously said that the problem with women in the science lab is that "you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry".

Unhelpful? Unfunny? Sure. But his remarks were not "shocking and bewildering", or "painful", "injurious" and "harmful" to women, as they were subsequently described. Hunt didn't deserve to be ditched by UCL, the European Research Council and the Royal Society for his supposed crimes.

Don't comfort yourself with the thought that this is all just overblown American-inspired campus nonsense. Intolerance, sexual puritanism and censorship are on the march everywhere these days.

Now two male RNLI volunteers at Whitby have been dismissed over a pair of Secret Santa novelty mugs with naked women on them. Apparently, their female boss discovered the mugs and after a disciplinary process the men were told their services were being dispensed with. Why? Because the mugs could have been seen by schoolchildren and thus posed a "safeguarding risk".

I agree that it's not great to have porn-inspired crockery in the RNLI cupboard, and there may have been more to this case than meets the eye. But it seems a terrible shame that young men who risk their lives, without pay, to save the lives of others should be hoofed out, essentially over a pair of dodgy mugs.

There's an awful, thin-lipped joylessness currently at large in society, an unattractive zeal to sniff out, expose and punish words or behaviour deemed to be "inappropriate" - and what a snivelling, preachy word that is.

It can often be translated as "something I don't like which is therefore morally wrong and must be banned".

Fuelling it all is a race for victimhood: the infantile, narcissistic quest to be more hurt, more oppressed and more in need of special attention and protection than anybody else.

Even the DUP are getting all moist and snowflakey now.

DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly said she was appalled by the recently-coined insult "gammon", often deployed by sneering Corbynistas against right-wing, red-faced, middle-aged men. "Stereotyping by colour or age is wrong no matter what race, age or community," she tweeted piously.

Ah, get real Emma, comparing someone to a cut of ham isn't very kind, but it's hardly hate speech.

We live in a world where we're constantly told "you can't say that". Soon we won't be able to say anything at all, for fear of howling retribution. That's why we need to stand by Prof Ned and his pants.

Going up?

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph