“Although ultimately nobody was really harmed”

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.





  1. ChasCPeterson says

    The weirdest thing to me was all the ‘everyone must read this brilliant and moving post by my friend Anton Zuiker’ without mentioning that it was all about him (except for the parts that were all about Zuiker himself).
    As I commented here before, Z & Z seem a matched set of Internet Narcissists.

  2. Al Dente says

    Bora’s initial January 1st statement completely glossed over why he left SciAm and SciO. He gave the impression he went on an extended vacation or wanted to spend more time on his personal blog or something innocuous like that. He apparently hoped everyone would ignore that he was forced to resign because he was a sexual harasser. His addendum showed he realized that peoples’ memories were not as poor as he thought so he did some groveling. I did notice that Bora was rather gushy about Anton Zuiker’s post. Hidden in Zuiker’s 5000 word ode to root vegetables and Bora was some victim blaming and flat-out rape apologetics which Bora did nothing to deny. It’s quite obvious why SciO wants to vet any further Zuiker peans to Bora.

    Patti made a comment to Martin’s post:

    NOBODY with a pattern of manipulative, sneaky, predatory behavior “changes for real” in a few months. I’ve seen enough of this kind of behavior from men who put themselves in positions of power that I don’t think people like this can “change for real” at all. Yes, and the addendum with the plea to be told what it is that people need to hear so he can say it – just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This is not a person who is participating in therapy in good faith.

  3. johnthedrunkard says

    “The methodologies of these incidents are so uncannily alike that even the same pick-up lines are used.”

    It seems that this holds true across different offenders as well. ‘Ordinary men’ cannot continue to live in a bubble where exposure of predators like Zivkovic triggers their own defensiveness. As a man, I am NOT of the same species as this thing.

  4. A Hermit says

    I read that this morning; was already composing an angry retort in my head y the end of that first paragraph…then realized he was describing perfectly the wrong way to think about harassment; the minimizing dismissive attitude all too commonly seen around these incidents.

    One of the best things on the subject I’ve read in the last few years.

  5. ludicrous says

    JD @ 3 above,

    Sad to say I AM of the same species. As a youth and young man I held a position of power, that of a potential mate. I knew, but at the same time did not know how important it was (this was 50-60 years ago) for the young women I dated to find a suitable mate soon. I knew but yet,did not know that they would feel it necessary to allow me more physical intimacy than they wanted only because I might be a good prospect, I might turn out to be a good man. I excused myself to myself that I made no promises, nothing explicit. There it is, there is no taking it back. I try now a days to interrupt sexist words and actions where ever I see it and generally support feminism.

  6. says

    Apologies are air vibrations and indicative of intentions only. No one should be under any obligation to accept one as anything more than a placeholder for specific, measurable future changes in behavior.

    What matters is can the person demonstrate that they know precisely what they did to hurt others, and most importantly can they say what change will look like to everyone on the outside? Can they give people the script for their future selves? If that script is absent from reality following apologies then their words are meaningless. There is no other way to do this.

  7. says

    A Hermit – so was I! Not angry but disagreeing – and even copied one sentence & made a note of what I disagreed with for later – and then bump, oh whew, that’s the happyclappy version.

  8. hjhornbeck says

    Back in the day*, I was amazed at how well the science blogging community took the news of serial sexual assault. Discussion happened, problems were acknowledged, and everything seemed to be approximately ideal.

    Reading over the comments in Robbins’ post, though, I can see that was a false start. Because Bora did little more than offer a minimal apology and withdraw, he let the victims and their sympathizers take centre stage, something that rarely happens. Now that he’s back, and trying hard to sweep it all under the rug, there’s two narratives in play and some material for his supporters to work from. Passions are flaring up, boundaries are being erected, and it looks like the community is being dragged back towards a clusterfuck.

    Dammit. Looks like this culture shift will take longer than I thought.

    * For biblical definitions of “day.”

  9. quixote says

    (I know this is tangential, but I wish this sort of behavior stopped being associated with “sex drive.” That makes it sound like something based on normality.

    It has nothing to do with sex drive. Women have sex drive but how often do you hear about the few female gatekeepers, whether straight or gay, demanding sexual favors? Gay men have sex drive, but you don’t hear much about this kind of garbage from them either.

    Sexual harassment (and its big brother, rape) are socially permitted power trips. That’s all. Their emotional cousins are bullies and torturers, not people who are very interested in sex.

    The sooner that understanding becomes general, the sooner the crap might stop.)

  10. freemage says

    One thing that has consistently leaped out at me during this whole farce has been the fact that Bora has generally been far better than his supporters. Not perfect–a long, long way from it. But he has admitted the conduct (with no victim-blaming that I’ve seen linked to), acknowledged that it was wrong (with a lack of the usual weasel-words), issued the apology, and in the most recent incident, stated upfront that he is getting therapy.

    And yet STILL the people who like and admire him keep trying to pretend it’s a witch-hunt over nothing. When both the perpetrator AND the victim are in agreement about something being harmful, how the everloving FUCK do these idiots seek to claim that no harm was done?

  11. says

    To freemage’s point in post 10, there’s a part of me that wants admitting one’s wrong-doings without qualification and without victim blaming to have a lesser consequence than, say, suing the person for slander (libel? I always confuse the two) or calling other people’s behavior a “witch hunt”.

    Not that I’d argue for a get out of jail free card. You don’t get to hang your head in shame and then pick up the pieces where you left off a few months before, but I think there’s something to be said for allowing a prospect for at least starting from the bottom again. It’s the idea that criminals can serve their time and then reintegrate into society or that addicts can clean up, and I guess I have some hope that if being caught isn’t an end to one’s career, there will be less need for the perpetrator to attack the victim.

    At the same time, having had a terrible experience trying to report sexual harassment at a workplace* I’m in favor of not putting his victims in a position where they might have to interact with him in a professional capacity. He may have responded appropriately to being caught but that doesn’t clear him of his wrong-doings. I know I wouldn’t be comfortable continuing to work with someone who harassed me, so I think it effectively punishes the victim, no matter how demoted the harasser’s position is.

    In the end, I come down in favor of the victims, at least in the current environment that so favors those with the power. Privilege has stacked the deck and if there’s a point where we can shift that balance just a smidge closer to center, it’s worth doing.

    * The guy cornered me alone in an office in a nearly empty building, asked me out. I declined, he started caressing my face and hair and basically offered me money to have sex with him. I called the boss that night and told him what happened at that I wasn’t coming back. He told me he couldn’t fire the guy because he was too important to the company but that I should come back and he would have the guy apologize to me. I refused. A few months later, the company called me again asking if I would come back. They said they had to fire the guy for repeatedly sexually harassing employees. I declined again, a luxury I had at the time because I could get other work. Not sure that would apply so much now.

  12. freemage says

    Marnie: Oh, I agree, there’s a limit to forgiveness, and likewise, a limit to the effectiveness of a good ‘first step’, which is all I’m giving Bora credit for right now. Even if he is largely forgiven, he can never be placed in a position where he has this sort of authority, especially within this sort of context. He could be a follower–a writer and working scientist, both–without granting him any position of authority, and it would be fine, so long as he maintained strictly scrupulous conduct. But that would be about it.


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