Saturday, April 23, 2011

IMHO: The case of Dr. Lazar Greenfield: Language is important, but so is good taste and context

The Detroit Free Press reports that  Dr. Lazar Greenfield has resigned as president elect of the American College of Surgeons under pressure from "outside organizations contacted by women" stemming from a Valentine's Day editorial he wrote for the Surgery News, the organization's newsletter.

Dr. Lazar, 78, is a prominent surgeon, now retired, and a professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Michigan. He is the inventor of the Greenfield Filter, a device that "prevents pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis." 
Dr. Lazar Greenfield (courtesy of John Flesher, Assoc. Press)

In a Valentine's Day editorial column Lazar says was "intended to amuse readers," Lazar suggested that "semen trumps chocolates as a Valentine's gift because of its mood enhancing benefits for women," said the Freep.

Greenfield was talking about recent research about the sexual "chemistry" between men and women and the role the specific presence of semen plays in it.

In part, the column reads:

"Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

"So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates."

Greenfield says he is unjustly being labeled as "part of an old-guard generation that repressed women in surgery."  He says this could not be further from the truth.

He defends himself on three counts:
  1. The verbiage has nothing to do with a public health implication or any kind of recommendation.
  2. His comments were based on information that appeared in "peer reviewed journals" and was "well corroborated by others."
  3. The group's former female president told him she didn't find the comments objectionable.
The column appeared in what Greenfield described as a "throwaway newspaper, not a scientific journal" that reaches a "supposedly mature readers interested in new discoveries."

The ACS has pulled Greenfield's column from its website, but here's a link to the full text, courtesy of

Also available is the transcript from the Freep's exclusive interview with Dr. Greenfield.

There is no doubt that language is the strongest tool in perpetuating or eliminating sexist stereotypes and negative perceptions about women.  That's why postmodern feminists emphasize the importance of deconstructing language with the goal of eliminating such stereotypes and references.

However, it is also important to consider context and good taste in the equation.

Perhaps Dr. Greenfield's commentary was an attempt at trying to be creative or cute.  He seemed to be trying to link the romance of Valentine's Day to the research of human chemistry.

It was an attempt at humor directed to a very specific audience in a niche publication.  Unfortunately, not everybody saw it that way.

There is also the factor of taste.  This is subjective.  But, I believe it is at the crux of this controversy.

The "outside organizations contacted by women" were not identified, but I'm sure there are those who will say that their response to Greenfield's writing was extreme.

And, given the context and taste factors, maybe it is. I do not believe it was necessary for Dr. Greenfield to resign from his position as ACS president elect.

Greenfield claims to be an advocate for women in medicine and told the Freep that "half of the surgeons at U of M are women now, in part because he hired them out of residency programs at the university."

Of course that statement is the good doctor's opinion.

If nothing else, this incident proves that not everybody is a clever writer, not all are sensitive to how language can be construed,  and not everybody -- even high professionals -- demonstrates good taste.

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