This is a piece I had hoped not to post – at least so soon – and still feel uneasy about, as it refers to events that will probably cause hurt to some people. But as I have been called out on Twitter and discussion around the events is gaining some momentum, a little clarification is probably in order.
This weekend, the science communication community (and beyond) on Twitter erupted over the temporary removal of a blog post on Scientific American by Danielle Lee that described a highly distasteful email exchange. Scientific American caught a lot of flack for this, and things got personal with SA’s editor Mariette DiChristina and – to a lesser extent – with SA’s Blog Editor Bora Zivkovic. At least that’s what I thought until I saw this post from Monica Byrne.
Monica wrote about a distressing encounter with a science editor and blogger in October 2012. She made the decision to blog about the experience without naming names – in part to let people know what experiences like this are like. However, in reading about the the incident involving Danielle Lee in Jezebel, she decided this weekend to name the person in the account – Bora Zivkovic.
I must confess, reading this brought me out in a cold sweat. I do not question Monica’s experience, or the trauma she suffered as a result. But naming and shaming in a way that is likely to damage lives and reputations in ever increasing circles without the moderating influence of due process and what some might consider appropriate channels worries me.
I teach and lecture on science communication and social media, and know Bora professionally but not personally. And so this piece had a connection with my professional community and activities. As a result, I felt it placed in a position of having to make a decision:
- Do I ignore it and walk way?
- Do I endorse Monica’s “outing” of an individual?
- Do I publicly question her judgement? or
- Do I see if some degree of process can be agreed on privately?
#3 was clearly inappropriate. #1 would have been the easiest, but something of an abdication of responsibility I felt. #2 made me really uneasy as it implies a value judgement on my part with little thought of consequences and evidence. Which left #4.
With the full realization that I may be sticking my neck out, I emailed Monica on the morning of October 14:
I must confess that this is an unsolicited appeal from a total stranger about your writing, which puts me immediately into the category of interfering busybody, or worse. However, I have been watching the situation surrounding Danielle Lee’s Scientific American blog post unfold this weekend with some dismay, and after reading your update to your Oct 9 post (http://monicacatherine.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/this-happened/) this morning, I felt that the risk of looking a fool was less than that of trying to help avert a potentially serious mess regarding Bora Zivkovic and his personal and professional life.
Let me say first that I have am fully supportive of your original post – and am saddened that you had the experience, as well as recognizing the importance of making information like this available. However, I have serious concerns about naming Bora specifically on the grounds of the tremendous speculation that has spread through the internet over the weekend regarding Danielle Lee’s removed post.
Naming Bora has a reasonable likelihood of destroying his marriage, his friendships and his professional standing in this case. You may feel that this is justified. But I can’t help wondering where the bar lies for wielding a private exchange (which admittedly led to serious distress) to causing serious and widespread damage.
I have corresponded with Bora on occasion, but nave never met him in person. I have no reason to doubt your account of your meeting with him. I do know that he has been a major factor in the rise of informal science writing and web-based science communication in the US and beyond. And that he is highly respected within his community. Whether these are adequate justifications for not calling him out by name I leave with you. But I would advocate for consideration and compassion at this stage.
Yours with just a little chagrin for being such an interfering busybody
I did not do this lightly. I was aware that my email could be construed as undermining the significance of Monica’s experience – which I did not want to do. I was concerned that it might be considered as an inappropriate use of a perceived power-differential – fo this reason I didn’t include my usual email signature. I was highly sensitive to my lack of right to request a specific course of action. Yet I felt a responsibility to respond in some way. And so I advocated for consideration and compassion.
Monica didn’t respond via email, but she did via Twitter:
…asking me to delete the naming of Bora Zivkovic (@BoraZ) as my sexual harasser in this post: http://monicacatherine.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/this-happened/ …… (link)
(you can read the full Twitter stream here)
I hadn’t particularly wanted to post this email as I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to to anyone in the public domain. And let’s be honest, there’s something a little embarrassing about laundering your personal emails in public. But given the discussions around it, I thought it was only fair that people could see what was originally written.
Was it a smart or a foolish email? I don’t know. I do know that sometimes staying silent or following the crowd aren’t great choices in hindsight. And I do know that it’s very easy to cause a great deal of harm through poorly considered actions that may not be meant to cause the harm they do. I also have what is probably a naive belief that there are ways of addressing important issues that are effective at reaching resolution without significant collateral damage.
But to finish this piece off by bringing the subject back to something more aligned with science communication – which is part of what this blog is about. The incident has got me thinking afresh about the responsibility that comes with being part of an online community without walls. And specifically, I’m left with the following questions:
- When is it OK to name and shame online – on any issue?
- When is it appropriate to support someone else’s outrage because it appears to fit your worldview? And
- For science communicators, when is it OK to draw strong conclusions in the face of scant evidence?
These are genuine questions – I have my thoughts, but of course, they may well not be valid. But then, that’s what the comments box is for.
Update Oct 15 11:18 AM: This has just been posted by Bora Zivkovic on the incident: http://blog.coturnix.org/2013/10/15/this-happenned/
Update 2:45 PM EST Oct 19 2013: Over the past few days a number of additional details of Bora sexually harassing women have been published, including disturbing accounts from Kathleen Raven and Hannah Waters. On October 18th, Bora resigned from Scientific American. And the science communication community nurtured and mentored by Bora continues to try and make sense of the unfolding situation and what can be learned. It is becoming increasingly clear that there were largely unvoiced suspicions about Bora’s behavior within the online science community around him – suspicions I was utterly unaware of. If I had the smallest fraction of the information I now have on Monday, I would never have emailed Monica.
Update 8:00 PM EST Oct 16 2013: Since posting this on Tuesday morning, things have moved on fast. Bora Zivkovic has fully acknowledged his actions as described by Monica Byrne and has resigned from ScienceOnline Board of Directors; Scientific American editor Mariette DiChristine has issued a statement on Bora’s position with the publication; additional victims have come forward; and my actions and person have been thoroughly condemned on Twitter, on blogs and in comments on posts.
I hope I have been open about my motivations and actions – misguided and inappropriate as many feel they are. But I realize that intentions don’t really count if the following actions cause harm.
Given this, and the reactions to this post, I would like to be very clear on the following:
- I apologize fully to Monica Byrne for the distress my email caused – this was not intended.
- I apologize to anyone who has taken offense or been distressed by my actions – again, this was not my intent.
- I thoroughly abhor uses of privilege that lead to or support sexual harassment.
- I also thoroughly abhor the use of any privilege that leads to or supports any form of injury or harm to persons.
- I condemn absolutely the “brushing under the rug” of incidents that lead to harm – including the incident described by Monica. But I also believe there are multiple routes to achieving appropriate ends.
Point #3 may seem incongruous in the light of the post below. But I still struggle to get my head round how to act when it seems to conflict with point #4. And I continue to grapple with how to reconcile pain, hurt and compassion with loyalty, justice and – just occasionally – moral courage. And I am still learning. Because of this, as a friend advocated earlier today, I am still “truly listening.”
Update March 5 2014 – final reflections on this business.