Earlier this year, there was an academic conference in San Francisco.
After the conference, everyone squeezed into a lift.
The woman nearest the buttons asked what floor everyone wanted.
A man said “Third floor: ladies’ lingerie” (an old Morecombe & Wise line).
A few hours later, the man who made that remark received a letter from the conference sponsors – the International Studies Association (ISA).
The ISA said a formal complaint had been lodged by the woman in the lift.
She was Simona Sharoni, professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College.
She accused him of sexual harassment for using that language.
The man was also a professor, Richard Ned Lebow of Kings College, London.
He wrote to Simona Sharoni explaining that it was a joke, he meant no offence.
But the ISA notified him that writing to her was worse than his original ‘offence’, he must apologise immediately and not contact her again.
He refused to apologise saying “This is damaging to my career because there are now people who believe I am somehow a misogynist”.
Simona Sharoni accused him of “victim-blaming and character assassination”.
Lebow replied to her “Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion, or humiliation of women. It seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal.”
Now everyone is choosing sides: his career is on the line over a Morecombe & Wise line.
Let me give you another perspective on exactly the same set of words used around the same time.
A friend of mine, Graham Rose, was dying in hospital.
He had been one of London’s best art directors, copywriters, and commercials-directors.
He was also just about the funniest man in advertising.
Towards the end, Gordon Smith and I went to visit him in hospital, he was in a lot of pain.
Afterwards, his wife, Pauline, told me a story, she’s one of the best TV producers in London.
She said Graham had wanted his bed lowered.
The young nursing-assistant pulled the wrong lever and, instead of lowering it gently, it dropped with a crash.
Graham was in great pain, but he grinned and said “Third floor: ladies’ lingerie”.
The young nurse was so relieved that he could turn it into a joke.
Pauline said “I was just glad Graham kept his sense of humour right up until the end”.
Do you see the two completely different ways to interpret exactly the same set of words?
In one scene they are charming and friendly, a welcome bit of light relief.
In the other scene they are threatening and sexist.
The exact same four words.
And it’s all down to how we choose to interpret the world.
Recently the University of London invited five comedians to do a charity gig for free.
It required them to sign a “safe space” contract.
Agreeing a zero-tolerance policy towards: “Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-religion or anti-atheism”.
They had to agree that their act wouldn’t include any jokes that could be interpreted in any of those ways.
And that’s where we’re at now.
The world has become like a bad brief – never mind if what you did was any good or not, did you rigidly follow the brand guidelines?
Because all that’s important is the rules laid down by people who know better.
Ordinary people cannot be trusted to have an opinion, they need an educated elite to decide how the world should be interpreted.
Personally, I go with Dawn French’s guide to what’s appropriate “If it’s bad taste it’s not funny, and if it’s funny it’s not bad taste.”