Martin Robbins has a brilliantly lucid guest post, hosted by Janet Stemwedel (aka DocFreeRide), at Adventures in Science and Ethics about what was wrong with the way Bora Zivkovic returned to the internet.
First, the optimistic version of the story, then, what’s wrong with it:
Bora Zivkovic was an outstandingly talented science blogging expert. A fundamentally good man, he made some terrible mistakes that affected three women he worked with, although ultimately nobody was really harmed. Those mistakes cost him his friends, reputation and career. Now, he’s paid the price, and hopefully we can forgive him and welcome him back into the community he’s done so much for.
It’s a pleasing, comfortable narrative that many of us would love to subscribe to. It’s also toxic and wrong, and an acknowledgment of this from Bora (and his supporters) would be a welcome step on the road to genuine redemption.
The first problem is that by any objective, clear-headed assessment, Bora was incompetent. He didn’t lose his positions at ScienceOnline and Scientific American as a punishment for doing bad things, or to somehow ‘pay’ a ‘price’ – as if these jobs were his to give away – he lost them because it became apparent that he wasn’t fit to do them, and in fact never had been.
Why? Because the parts he failed at are not peripheral but central.
…this isn’t a set of scales were balancing. We’re not weighing good against bad here, because the things that Bora fucked up are not optional. ‘Not sexually harassing women’ is not a ‘bonus extra’ in the job description. He harassed professional contacts for sex, brought his employers into very public disrepute, seriously damaged the reputation of a major conference, and undermined relations in the communities in which he worked. Bora was one of the community’s key gatekeepers, and months later men and women are left wondering if the course of their career was altered for better or worse by one man’s sex drive.
That’s not trivial or minor, you see.
The second problem is the nature of sexual harassment, and how that fits in with the stories of Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters and Kathleen Raven – three names entirely absent from Anton Zuiker’s grueling 5,000 word ode to rare vegetables, incidentally.
A key thing to understand about harassment is that it’s usually part of a long-term pattern of recidivist behaviour, often by people who are not obviously ‘villains’, who rely heavily on psychological manipulation and the abuse of power structures within their communities or institutions.
The evidence we have here, in the form of testimony and e-mails, shows a clear pattern of deliberate behaviour repeated on many occasions over at least two years. The women were identified, targeted, isolated, manipulated, and their boundaries repeatedly tested, often in professional contexts, over a sustained period of time. The methodologies of these incidents are so uncannily alike that even the same pick-up lines are used.
That’s something to take seriously. It’s not something to shrug off after six weeks.
That brings me to Bora’s return to world on online science on January 1st, accompanied by his friend and ScienceOnline co-founder Anton Zuiker’s epic meditation on friendship and something called ‘Piper Methysticum roots’. Zuiker begins his post with what he believes is a sparkling and colourful anecdote about some sort of vegetable brewing, but that isn’t his most serious mistake. Indeed, it probably isn’t even in the top five.
“It’s good that Bora offered his apology, and I believe he did so contritely and humbly,” he writes, failing to link to this apology because at the time of writing it simply did not exist. He mentions the need to be “sensitive to the women who spoke out,” yet in 5,500 words that include two substantial diatribes on the apparently substantial difficulties he experiences procuring root vegetables, he fails to mention any of them (though links were later added).
Zuiker’s worst mistake though was publishing this self-absorbed, history-rewriting, pseudo-intellectual clusterfuck when he sits on the board of one of the organizations still trying to deal with the fallout from Bora’s actions, ScienceOnline. They were forced to issue a statement on Friday in response to Zuiker’s post: “given the close personal and professional history between Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker – and their connection with ScienceOnline – we’ve asked Anton to refrain from any public communication about Bora and that all official communications from ScienceOnline come from the entire board or its Executive Director, Karyn Traphagen.” Nonetheless, this casts a shadow over the upcoming conference.
Martin ends with a response to Bora’s questions about what he should do next. Martin advises forgetting all about trying to get anything back, and instead starting over. Eventually that may result in getting anything back, but that shouldn’t be the goal.
Janet Stemwedel adds an important piece of information in a comment.
I[t] would be a mistake to think that Bora hurt exactly three people here. Or that he has apologized to all the people he harmed.
I say this as someone he harmed, someone he has not apologized to as yet.
That right there is one reason he should be starting over instead of trying to get anything back. He hasn’t even done the basics yet.