It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the community of science bloggers, with the abrupt downfall of Bora Zivkovic, a very well liked (I consider him a friend) and influential leader. If you haven’t been following it, here’s a summary and timeline of recent events. The simple version of the whole story is that one of the major pioneers of science blogging and one of the people most instrumental in forging a community online has been found to have abused his privileges to sexually harass women members.
I’ve been processing how I feel about it all. As I say, Bora is a long-term friend; I remember when he joined us at Scienceblogs, and I also remember meeting him for the first time — he was a genuinely enthusiastic proponent of bringing people together and building a new platform for science communication. So this is a real tragedy that he has managed to undermine his own talents.
At the same time, though, here’s what I feel now: discouragement and despair and cynicism. We’ve been through this before in the skeptic/atheist communities. It was beginning to be my expectation that any grand attempt at building new organizations and improving communication was eventually going to collapse into the sewer of patriarchal sexual politics — that this pattern of sexual inequity was hardwired into the culture as a whole, and anything rising up out of it was going to be infected with the taint and eventually succumb to it. Same ol’, same ol’, I thought — the hard slog is never going to end.
But I was surprised: the science community’s response has been strong and appropriate. There’s no excusing his behavior, and rising up and demanding better is exactly what needed to be done, painful as it was. And they did it. There’s hope? Really? The struggle might actually lead to progress?
There has been a lot of writing on this topic in the last few weeks, but I thought Scicurious captured it particularly well.
Bora is not the man I thought he was. And the science communication community was not the place I thought it was.
The whole week has been full of downs. But toward the end. I started to see #ripples of hope. Not just the hashtag (though that alone is brilliant), but from other bloggers, saying, we can, in the future, be better. We want to be better. We WILL be better. People taking decisive action.
And I have been incredibly impressed with many of my colleagues. Yes, people fought, and jumped to conclusions, and etc. But there have been no death threats or rape threats, and compared to some communities I’ve seen…well I’m impressed. I always thought I wrote with and worked with some amazingly good people. Now, I KNOW it.
I contrast that with the atheist community. We also have some amazingly good people — as I travel around, I run into them all the time, at all levels of organization, and all doing good work — but we also have a substantial number of amazingly awful people…and as it turns out, it doesn’t take many sexist jerks clawing at the structure of your organization to distract and disrupt and impede progress. We have enough atheist asshats to provide shelter and support to exploiters — and too many of us are willing to overlook the content of our leaders’ characters, as long as they are willing to say the right words about the sacred atheist cause.
I’ve been astounded at how many people demand that we plaster over an atheist’s human flaws simply because, well, he’s The Man. We’ve been building up a body of revered saints, rather than recognizing that every one of us is human and needs to be held accountable. Face reality: if Bora had chosen to be a leader of the atheist community, rather than the online science community, right now there would be a huge battle going on, with loud voices shouting that “He only talked to these women; aren’t they strong enough to resist?” And the women who spoke out would be flooded with death threats and rape threats, and would be endlessly lampooned on our little hate nests scattered about the internet. Youtube would be full of videos expressing outrage that a Good Man should have been chastised by the Shrill Harpies of Feminism.
We’ve all seen it. Every atheist woman who dares to challenge the privileged status quo and ask for a little respect gets the treatment: just ask Rebecca Watson, or Jen McCreight, or Ophelia Benson. So I feel mixed: there is the despair at the failure of atheism to motivate real change, and hope that the science online community will set a model for everyone to follow.
But I also fear that atheism’s problems are rooted too deeply. This community is full of people who are already convinced that they are better than everyone else. But to be a good person, you have to always want to be better than yourself right now.