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Oct 16 2013

When It’s Someone You Know (Updated)

I don’t usually drink and write, but I’m doing it now. It isn’t because I needed to drink to write this. It’s because I need to write this now, before I can flinch, and I happen to have had some wine.

This morning, my friend Bora Zivkovic sent me a Twitter direct message that was merely a link to this post.

I am very ashamed of this incident which happened more than a year ago. Staff at Scientific American spoke to me and Ms. Byrne about our interaction at that time. I asked that my sincere apologies be conveyed to Ms. Byrne for the distress she suffered as a result of my inappropriate remarks and emails to her, and I also expressed my deep regret to the company about acting unprofessionally. The company offered her an apology as well. It was a difficult time for me personally and I made a mistake – I should not have shared my personal issues with her. It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since. I hope to be known for my continued professional and appropriate support of science writers rather than for this singular, regrettable event for which I am deeply sorry. My behavior before and after this incident reflects my true respect for women, and I deeply regret the distress I caused to my wife and Ms.Byrne. I appreciate the messages of support I have received and understand the views of those who have been critical but I intend to let Ms. Byrne’s post and this statement end the discussion from my side.

Monica Byrne’s post is here. There are allegations of additional harassment in the comments. (Update: See also this post from Hannah Waters about, in her words, “not-quite-harassment“. I don’t have much to say about it at the moment except that I’m glad she wrote it, and I’m glad that her community feels supportive enough to her for her to have written it.)

I thanked Bora for sending me the link directly, though due to the fact the Twitter isn’t sending me notifications, I only saw his message just before starting to write this post. By then, I’d found out through other channels. I’d talked to a friend who had more background, who had, in turn, talked to more women Bora has worked with and supported.

I could, from all that, talk about the speculations Byrne made that are off. But that wouldn’t make what happened right. I could talk about Bora’s behavior with me over the years that made Byrne’s story so shocking when I first read it. But that wouldn’t make what happened right. I could talk about all the work and thought that Bora has put into supporting women in science and science communication in the time I’ve known him, myself included. But that wouldn’t make what happened right.

I do want to talk about Bora’s confession and apology. They don’t make what happened right, but they’re important on their own. Those I appreciate, not just as a friend, but also as someone who writes about this issue. I’ve seen too many women’s tales of harassment be denied or minimized and watched that lead to minimization and denial of the entire issue of sexual harassment. I’ve seen them increase or bring out toxic sexism. Confessing and apologizing aren’t just the right thing to do. They also spare the online science communication community that additional harm.

I also want to talk about Byrne’s post. As much as I dislike learning what I did from it, I think it was the right thing to do, both originally, and when she added the name. The post also says some smart things about the effects of harassment; those should be read. I agree that what she experienced was sexual harassment, that Bora sexually harassed her, and I’m relieved and thrilled beyond measure that no one appears to have been harassing her further for saying so.

I don’t want to talk about the allegations of additional harassment in the comments on her post, just as I didn’t want to talk about AJ Johnson’s lawsuit against American Atheists. I hate talking about things I know nothing about. Sometimes, though, that’s an important thing to say. I don’t want to believe those allegations. I can come up with reasons why I could doubt them. I don’t want to believe anyone would make false allegations, though, either. And sadly, Bora has given me a reason to doubt him in the behavior he’s already confessed to. In the end, unless and until more information comes to light, I simply have to live with not knowing and figure out how proceed when either could be true.

With that said, I don’t really want to talk about this more, though there will probably be things I need to say here and there.* The wine is gone, and I have a headache from staying up until I was sober again.

*One of those things: I’m leaving comments open here, but leave the issue with SciAm and Danielle Lee from this weekend out of this. Bora was on vacation when the decision was made to take the post down, and none of the (many) SciAm bloggers I know have suggested that he had any part in creating that problem or the authority required to fix it.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    MrFancyPants

    When you’ve set a firm moral line on an issue and friends cross it, it’s never easy.

    I appreciate this story coming out, regardless. This kind of thing is all too common; the more stories come out, the easier it is for it to become common knowledge.

  2. 2
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Good people don’t do bad things, right?
    So, when somebody says that someone we deem “good people” has done something bad, the other person must be wrong, right?
    But bad things of varying degrees are not done by monsters. They don’t have horns, and just one eye, and claws that don’t fit into any shoes. They’re done by people and people are complicated. That somebody does a bad deed doesn’t make them a horrible and bad person for all time. It can mean that they are assholes, it can mean that they fucked up, it can mean that they didn’t even think about it.
    And if it’s someone you love and care about, your reaction shouldn’t be “that must be totally wrong”, but “oh fuck, how can we fix this and make sure it doesn’t happen again?”.
    Because that’s important, too.
    Support for the victim is important. And it might be double important coming from those close to the perpetrator. But getting the perpetrator to stop is important, too, because what’s the use of supporting victim after victim after victim. They can’t stop things from happening, only the agressor can.
    Don’t defelct blame from your loved ones, you’re not doing them a service. Help them see where they went wrong, help them grow.

  3. 3
    embertine

    Stephanie, I’m very sorry that you have found this out about your friend. There is always a kind of grieving process when something like this happens, I guess for the person that you thought they were.

    I hope that, if this is a pattern of behaviour for him as is looking increasingly likely, that he really seriously considers his actions and who he wants to be in the future.

    Sad that it is not even surprising that yet another man who we thought was supportive is pulling this crap behind the scenes.

  4. 4
    embertine

    Wow, that sounded way less sanctimonious in my head. Ugh, sorry.

  5. 5
    carlie

    Thank you for this post, Stephanie. I don’t know Bora personally, and only followed him in a marginal fashion, but for some reason this one hit me hard. I think because he has such a solid reputation not just as a science communicator, but as such a good person. I agree with everything you said in your post, (more from a distance, obviously, since I’m just a bystander), and I’m sorry for what you and his other friends are going through now.

  6. 6
    A Hermit

    I don’t know Zivkovic any better than I know Shermer so for me it’s much the same. I can’t know for certain what happened or how often he’s done this but I have to err on the side of supporting the alleged victims.

    At least your friend has had the decency to admit to the one incident instead of smearing his accuser. I’ll give him that much. But I want to hear what he has to say about these others.

  7. 7
    Greg Laden

    Adjusting how we judge when judging becomes awkward: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/10/16/bora-zivkovic-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/

  8. 8
    beccaweinberg

    I am vacillating between: A) wanting to be sympathetic to Bora for whatever stressed state of mind he was in when this happened. Since I see him as generally wanting to do the right thing on some of these issues (like representing women in science blogging), it’s very tempting to think this way. In other words, to the degree his behavior was a (conscious or otherwise) grab for dominance, it was the result of a situational powerlessness in life. B) wanting to treat this like any other example of harassment. In which case, I would be inclined to believe that enough people have said something that this is a trend, and that any perceived or actual stance of “I’m dealing with a rough time and want to connect to people” is, in reality, a very clever sociopathic habit to cover up a habitual power exploiter.

    I don’t know. Maybe both of those responses make sense.

  9. 9
    Stephanie Zvan

    Both responses make sense.

    Giliell, thank you for that. I wanted to, but in the end couldn’t figure out how to talk about the “monster” theory of sexual harassment without sounding as though I were excusing or minimizing this.

  10. 10
    Natasha

    I have to admit that I’m more than a bit disappointed by the posts I’ve read so far by people who are part of this community and consider Bora a friend. I’ve noticed a much more measured reaction to this particular accusation towards this particular man than most similar situations I’ve seen the community comment on in the near past. I’m struggling to see how this is not hypocrisy. I’m just sad because it seems that this is just the perfect example of how he gets a benefit because he’s a respected member of the community and he’s helped a lot of people. Plenty of men who are prominent members of their community and helped people advance in their careers have been facing similar situations lately and the backlash from THIS community has been quite decisive and direct. It shouldn’t be any different when it’s someone you know. If anything, I think it’s even more important when it’s someone you know.

  11. 11
    Stephanie Zvan

    To the extent that reactions are different, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have to argue with anyone. Bora confessed. Today he stepped down from the board of ScienceOnline. There’s this and this. We just haven’t had to argue to get Bora to do things he’s already doing.

  12. 12
    Stacy

    I’ve noticed a much more measured reaction to this particular accusation towards this particular man than most similar situations I’ve seen the community comment on in the near past. I’m struggling to see how this is not hypocrisy.

    Notice that Bora didn’t claim that his accuser is lying or on a “witch hunt” against him. People haven’t been banding together in order to call Monica Byrne a cunt or a Nazi. As far as I know, so far, comment threads and YouTube videos haven’t been devoted to explaining why this wasn’t really sexual harassment and women should just shut up about it already.

    Think back over these past two or so years. Think about the reaction to Rebecca Watson’s “Guys, don’t do that” (and before that, the reaction to her video about Female Genital Mutilation.) Think about the Slymepit. Think about the reaction to the suggestion that atheist and skeptic cons should have sexual harassment policies. Think about Shermer’s reaction to Ophelia Benson’s piece in Free Inquiry.

    The reaction to the revelation itself has been measured.

  13. 13
    penn

    I think the more measured reaction to Bora should actually be a lesson to future harassers on the real benefits of confessing and sincerely apologizing. It’s good for the harasser and very good for the community. Once someone admits they fucked up and admits it’s a big deal, and says it should never happen, what are people supposed to do, write post after post saying “Damn right you screwed up. You should be sorry.”? I think it also really shows that these aren’t witch hunts. Calling out harassers is about supporting victims, and helping to ensure that these things don’t happen in the future. Bora already took significant strides in that direction, and clearly takes this seriously, so there’s no need for continuing outrage and arguing.

  14. 14
    Natasha

    I agree that it was a good thing that Bora apologized and I commend him for not trying to defame or discredit his accuser. But in his apology, it’s looking very much like he lied when he said this incident was the only time this kind of thing has happened before and since then. Almost no one seems to be calling him out on that. And yes, he did resign from his position at Science Online but almost no one is suggesting that he should lose his position at SciAm, even though it looks like that position is the one that provides him with much of the power and prestige he enjoys. I understand he apologized and I don’t want to minimize that; it’s important and a positive thing. But I think that as a community, we are still letting him off easy because he is well-liked and I think that’s wrong. He knew what he was doing was wrong and he did it anyway and that’s why I think the apology is not enough. No matter how well-liked he is, there should be consequences for him, just as there have been consequences for the women he harassed.

  15. 15
    Stephanie Zvan

    I know it seems odd, but in the science-writing community, the ScienceOnline position has actually been of more concern. ScienceOnline has become almost the NASW of bloggers, video makers, citizen science projects, etc. That position has considerably more reach than the SciAm position, so it was the first priority. And I didn’t have to advocate for him stepping down from the board because I knew action was coming. SciAm told its bloggers about an hour ago, though, that Bora is taking a leave from that position. I support that. I think he needs to demonstrate to the community that he’s learned what the problem is here, not just say it, and I think that what happens after this period of leave should be determined by how well he does that. I didn’t have to advocate for that either, because SciAm told people how to get comments to them. This shouldn’t ever have had to be handled by the organizations involved, but it’s been handled well.

    As for the apology, I have some ideas about what happened there. I really don’t want to talk about them until I hear what Bora has to say, though. I’m biased as hell, here, and conflicted and trying to reconcile the Bora of my experiences with the Bora of other people’s. I don’t want to do his work of sorting this all out for him. I don’t want to accidentally give him an easy path to telling us his behavior is going to change that isn’t connected to the realities of this. But with the steps he’s already taken, I am willing to give him some time to do that and do it right.

  16. 16
    A Hermit

    I think what we’re seeing is what should happen in a case like this. CFI, are you paying attention?

  17. 17
    Natasha

    Stephanie,

    I appreciate your responses and I also want you to know that I understand how difficult this is for you and for everyone who knows and respects Bora. It’s never easy admitting that the people closest to us can be capable of truly bad things. It’s something I find difficult to reconcile also when it happens with my friends and family and I don’t blame you for struggling with it. I think that’s why it’s so important that we keep having these conversations so we can figure out a way to stop these things from happening. I hope this gets better for you, and for the rest of us.

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