The Bora Zivkovic Controversy and American Values

image Recently, a controversy arose over Bora Zivkovic’s behavior.  Summary:

  • Bora engaged in personal adult interaction with some women, with whom he also interacts in a professional context.
  • These women felt uncomfortable and claimed that he has sexually harassed them.
  • The internet exploded.

Why I am Speaking Out

Because I feel very strongly that Bora is being wronged and that he is suffering damage as a result of what is fundamentally against the core values we should share as a society, and because I feel I cannot remain silent while such injustice is taking place.

Who Am I?

I am not a scientist.  My connection to the academic community comes from co-founding JoVE (,  PubMed: J.Viz.Exp.) in 2006.  While I met Bora a few times, we don’t really know each other. I am not involved with any of the organizations or people involved in the conflict. So I don’t really have much to gain or lose from taking (or not taking) a side except for exposure… and my sleep.  And I like my sleep.

The Shared American Values

I am from an immigrant family.  The ideas of freedom, respect, justice and the responsibility that we share for our world is something that I’ve recently stopped taking for granted (It’s All Our Fault).

We are all different.  We have different values.  In living in the US, we share an ideological foundation, which is that we all have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (Source).  That means two things: 1) everyone has a right to live as they see fit and 2) nobody has a right to hurt another person.  This much is solid.  Everything else is negotiable.

Conflict Resolution

Effectively, our shared values are about mutual respect and rapport.  Assuming X and Y respect each other, if Y is offended by X, then Y lets X know, and then X apologizes/clarifies or there is escalation.  Escalation can happen to the level of public discourse or the judicial system.  Most adults resolve differences on a personal basis.  Resolution through public discourse is what we are observing.  The judicial system is better than nothing, but let’s just say it’s a work in progress and doesn’t always function as intended (from Personal Experience).

Sexual Harassment in Professional Environments

A lot of women are rightly frustrated over sexism and harassment in professional environments.  When approached, some women are good at vocalizing their objections, some are not.  Point being: sexual harassment is a sensitive and important subject and one that rightly deserves attention.

That said, adult relations, conversations on adult matters, and consensual mixing of private and professional lives is common and is not automatically sexual harassment or exploitation of power differential.  To allow people to suffer as a consequence of disagreements over differences in values goes against the very foundation of our shared values.

My understanding of the Bora Story

Bora, an adult, engaged several women, also adults, in a manner that made them feel uncomfortable – he admits as much in at least one case (Bora’s post).  At least four people talk about Bora’s behavior: Monica  Byrne (alleges sexual harassment), Kathleen Raven (alleges sexual harassment), Hannah Waters (alleges sexual harassment), Christie Wilcox (pernicious discussion).  Christie was then herself accused of sexual harassment, which only goes to show that this is a mess.

At the end of the day, after reading the accounts and being shocked at how uncomfortable people felt (never pleasant to observe), discussing with some friends (many of whom are female) and then thinking and writing and rewriting quite a bit, my conclusion is that Bora didn’t do anything wrong and that those who have chosen to persecute him need to take a step back and reconsider their position.

In Monica’s case, there was a misunderstanding over rapport and nature of interaction.  Once Monica made her discomfort known, Bora apologized, so why she pursued further is unclear.  In Kathleen’s case, it looks like a case of a private relationship and interaction that is complex, but is not sexual harassment or exploitation.  Hannah’s account is effectively dissatisfaction with Bora’s mixing of private and professional life – no indication of lack of respect.  Christie’s account is about her being “uncomfortable” without taking any corrective measures.

Men engage in romantic advances all the time.  To feel uncomfortable and seek resolution is everyone’s right.  To interpret Bora’s behavior as sexual harassment is incorrect.  For Bora to suffer consequence as a result of misinterpretation of his actions and differences in values is wrong.


Bora’s worst offense seems to be that he didn’t pick up on social queues.  One individual who is familiar with Bora wrote:

I know Bora quite well, and have interacted with him over 10+ years. He is indeed a bit socially awkward and not the best at reading cues–he is the sort that stands chatting for 15 minutes as you try to move on to the next person, is over-enthusiastic in his gestures, and laughs at the wrong moments sometimes. He is also extremely smart, a great synthesizer of ideas, and one of my favorite people to talk science with. He has always been all these things. In the realm of online science journalism, he seemed to have found the perfect way to use his undoubted skills, and he did so in a way that helped other people far more than it helped him. It’s only recently that he’s even had a salary for his blog-related stuff, and the spin from his accusers that his massive powerfulness was sooo scary that they dare not speak up is an utter joke.

Source: Comment Thread

Having briefly met Bora, I can see this.

So let’s start from the gravest.

  • Did Bora engage in sexual harassment?
    In all cases, it seems that Bora was never disrespectful or malicious, so no.
  • Did he engage in inappropriate behavior in flirting with people with whom he could/did have a professional relationship?
    Office romance isn’t new and we are all humans with our own sense of what’s appropriate.  Bora has as much a right to his opinion on these matters as anyone else.  If his values differ from the women who felt uncomfortable, so long as everyone is respectful, this is a private matter and so is none of our collective business.
  • Did he engage in inappropriate behavior in taking advantage of a power differential?
    Again, this is an allegation that, thus far, seems completely meritless.  Engaging in adult behavior is not the same thing as exploiting power differential.

So I don’t see anything that would indicate that he was not, at all times, completely respectful of all people involved. Given lack of any reasonable evidence to the contrary, given our value system that is supposed to respect our differences, we must respect his choices as his and his only.  Amy Alkon summed it up really nicely (About The Bora Controversy: If There’s Anything That Makes Women Unequal To Men, It’s The Need To Be Treated Like Fragile Pieces Of China).

I should note: this shouldn’t preclude a discussion on how men and women behave in professional environments, but given the gravity of ongoing transgressions against Bora, that seems largely irrelevant.

Transgressions Against Bora

Before I talk about transgressions against Bora, I want to be very clear: what we observed is differences in values and perceptions between Bora and several women with whom he interacted.  These differences are real and, while Bora didn’t do anything wrong, the women in question also had every right to not accept Bora’s system of values and seek an apology for/adjustment to his behavior.

That said, there have been four major transgressions against Bora:

  • Violation of Privacy: the women who accused Bora of sexual harassment shared extremely private information that Bora shared with them.  This completely violated his privacy in a manner that I consider grossly unethical.  On this, I believe they should be called out and they should apologize to Bora.  I want to stress, none of these women had any moral right to disclose private information about Bora.  What they did was vicious and uncivilized.
  • Libel/Defamation: Monica Byrne effectively is engaging in creation of libel.  She blogged about Bora here (Monica’s Post) and then precluded discussion from taking place on her blog.  For example, I posted what I believe to be a reasonable response (My Comment on Seth Mnookin’s Post), which she did not allow to go through.  Another commenter shared his experience (Throwaway’s Comment).  Such censorship effectively resulted in creation of a page on the web, which gives a future unaware observer the impression that there is complete support for the claim of sexual harassment, which is false – I do not support her interpretation on this matter. Using censorship to create content that creates an impression of an allegation as true when it is only an allegation is defamation.  For this, Monica should be called out and should issue an apology to Bora and, if she chooses to maintain the same moderation policy (as is her right), she should state this clearly in the post.
  • Community and Intellectual Integrity: the community writers, like Seth Mnookin (PLOS Blogs) and Maryn McKenna (Wired Science Blogs), have wronged Bora in judging him without applying a sufficiently rigorous standard, engaging in proper fact-finding and analysis, or respecting our fundamental values.  They should reconsider their position, apologize to Bora, and either withdraw from the court of public opinion or perform solid and honest analysis to justify their position.
  • Scientific American et al: Bora effectively lost his job and other positions thereby sustaining significant damage.  To this end, I am calling out Scientific American and Science Online and everyone else who has allowed this controversy to affect their relationship with Bora.  Specifically, Scientific American issued the following Press Release and Science Online posted this Board statement, which perniciously acknowledge that they see what Bora did as sexual harassment.  This is wrong.  These entities should apologize to Bora and rethink their decisions.

At the end of the day, what I find most upsetting is not that people leveled accusations against Bora in a public forum, as is their fundamental right.  It is the response of the scientific community, general public, and of the companies involved.

Academia and Ethics

The big story here, in my opinion, is that academia is a vicious environment full of politics and hypocrisy that is ignoring fundamental American values.  Why are people afraid to speak their mind? (comment by Anonymous)  Why is Scientific American taking the “safe” way out?  Why are the attacks by these women on Bora so vicious, so uncivilized, and so tolerated despite all of us seemingly being “adults”?  To me this is all symptomatic of a bigger problem with the academic environment, although perhaps that isn’t news.

There are certainly problems of sexism, harassment, and other issues that deserve attention, discussion, action, etc.  But Bora has unjustly been made a sacrificial lamb. Bora, a man who has been a huge positive force in the scientific blogging community (as everyone seems to acknowledge) and who’s only transgression was that he engaged in adult behavior with other adults, who felt uncomfortable as a result.  Frankly, all this reminds me of Oleanna.


An adult doing adult things is not sexual harassment, until they intentionally do something in bad faith.  Until then, misunderstandings happen and are generally resolved by way of personal and respectful conversations.  Companies and the community are wrong in how they have treated Bora – wrong in a very fundamental way.

As for me: Bora, my opinion of you has not changed as a result of these events – so long as you are genuine and respectful to those around you (as you have always been to my knowledge), what you do in your private life is none of my business.

Moderation Policy: I intend to maintain a respectful tone on this thread.  Disrespectful comments will be moderated out.  However, if you feel that you’ve been moderated unfairly, feel free to blog about it and post a comment with a link to your blog.

Update 12/28/2013: I realized that I didn’t refer to Bora Zivkovic by his full name, thereby limiting discoverability of this post.  Corrected in title and first paragraph.

Update 3/7/2014: relevant reading: NextFullStop, Gurdur, Discussion on WhizBang: Elephant in the Room (especially this comment by a former therapist)


Filed under Politics

21 responses to “The Bora Zivkovic Controversy and American Values

  1. throwaway

    I agree that there has to be a balance between punishment and a crime.

    We can debate whether what Bora did was wrong (I think it was), however, I think the one week public shaming, especially the graphic email by Kathleen was so over the top that I think many people have a lot to be ashamed of.

    • Thanks for the comment. I do not see any crime that should result in punishment. There is difference in values/perception, where both sides have a right to be respected.

  2. s.k.graham

    So glad you wrote this. I’ve recently tuned into this latest drama, and agree with you completely. I don’t know any of the people involved, but even going by only the “victims” descriptions of events was guilty of at worst awkwardness and failure to pick up on nonverbal queues. There is no sign of any disrespect or “harassment”, and the fact that Bora so quickly apologized publicly after such a publicly humiliating betrayal demonstrates just how much he respects these women and wishes them no ill will.

    Yes, Bora was very likely attracted to each of these women. His way of indirectly expressing his interest and checking the boundaries of his relationship with each of them were perhaps awkward and unorthodox. But there is no indication of any threat, nor any implied suggestion of any expected reciprocation for whatever enhancement his influence gave to each of their careers. There is nothing predatory or abusive about his behavior in any of their descriptions.

    In the mildest case, the woman was left wondering if she was any good at science writing, or was all Bora’s help just due to him being attracted to her. Well, yes, if it seems he was a bit attracted to her, by all means wonder if that might have biased him favorably toward you. That is something all of us deal with all the time. When we become attracted to someone, we tend to trust them more and we tend to view everything they do in a favorable light. Should Zora accuse them of leading him on to further their careers? NO. Just as Zora may lack some social skills, so did they. They did not know how to politely set their boundaries and also maintain a friendly professional relationship with him, as many, many adult coworkers and colleagues do every day.

    Just because you become upset in response to another person’s behavior, does not mean that that person has done something wrong. And that is what each of these women do not seem to understand.

  3. Huh.

    Is this the story that Monica Byrne, who wasn’t and isn’t a science blogger or science writer, sent Bora a link to when she invited him to have coffee?
    The timing and lack of other stories by her in the Independent suggest it is.

  4. Deep Thought

    Nothing personal, but I must disagree. I corresponded with Bora for many years and broke off our interactions because of his attitude toward women as well as his general bigotry. If you go waaaaay back to his original blog (still on the internet archive) this was much more obvious.

  5. Dan

    Read this with some interest, as I always try to approach these issues from the back side first, before I read the evidence or writing that brought the issue to light. So I’m reading your piece alone, without having seen the accusations, and I find it wrong in many respects.
    1) Harassment doesn’t have to be “disrespectful or malicious.” A simple definition would be “involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.” A more complex definition would center around the creation of an unwelcoming or uncomfortable professional environment. These are EXTREMELY simple things that everybody working in the US should know in 2014 regardless of cultural background.
    2) I am not sure what adult or child status has to do with the issue. Certainly, adults can harass adults; the power differential we’re talking about is gender, not age.
    3) Violation of privacy is impossible when one person has shared communication with another person. You have no expectation of privacy when you’re sending mail to another recipient (I’d add that this is an especially crazy position to take when the recipients don’t want to receive the mail in the first place).
    4) You also have a fairly idiosyncratic understanding of libel. Turning comments off doesn’t have any impact on whether or not something is libel — the statement has to be false in fact, and the author has to know that’s the case. Are the accuser’s statements false in fact? If they’re not, it’s not libel no matter how uneven or unfair their rhetoric might be.

    In general, I don’t find this defense convincing. I suspect from reading it that after I look at his accusers’ accounts, and his admissions and apologies, that I’ll end up even more convinced that you’re not coming from an objective or thoughtful place when you involve yourself in this issue.

    • Re: Message
      Re: 1) I strongly disagree.
      Re: 2) The differential suggested was of professional nature.
      Re: 3) I strongly disagree.
      Re: 4) I strongly disagree.

      Re: Messanger
      Re: your claim of being an unbiased observer – given the substance of your post and that you chose to post anonymously, I do not believe you.

  6. Richard Jowsey

    Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger disorder (AD) or simply Asperger’s, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication.

    • Richard, I am assuming you to be the same Richard who posted this comment:

      I am going to quote what you wrote:

      “As a former therapist, I worked with a number of people, not all women, who’d suffered from *actual* sexual harassment (repeated bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or unwelcome/inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors) which had caused them significant emotional damage, stress and psychological trauma. Having carefully read the descriptions of Bora’s alleged misconduct, that certainly doesn’t appear to be the case here. Far from it.

      Bora suffers from Asberger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. This would explain his inability to read body-language, and a tendency to talk volubly and endlessly about whatever’s on his mind. Perhaps some people could have a little more compassion, and not be so quick to demonize and ostracize someone based on the resulting misunderstandings?”

      Thank you very much for chiming in.

  7. I removed a comment posted by a user “Isabel” due to it being disrespectful. As per policy stated, “Isabel” may post a response elsewhere and provide a link. However, as I stated previously, I will not accept behavior that I consider disrespectful on my blog. Doesn’t matter which side you are on.

  8. Isabel

    How specifically was it disrespectful??

  9. gross

    One of the challenges women face time and time and time again is that no one ‘believes’ they have experienced sexual harassment. However, it’s not your decision. Your ‘belief’ or not does not influence whether they were sexually harassed. Bora’s intentions (for good or bad) do not influence whether they were sexually harassed. They decide. It’s their experience. Subtleties, history, and context can all influence whether something that could seem quite innocuous when written down on paper or in another context might cause a strongly negative experience for someone in that moment. Unless you were there, in their brain, you cannot know what they experienced. Similarly, your text suggests this can all be wiped away as ‘consensual’ behavior; the mere fact that these women are speaking up indicates that the acts were not consensual.

    I’m glad for you that you have a blog where you get to air your views. However, just because you are able to do that does not make those views correct. And shouting them more loudly and dismissing the concerns raised by others more rudely does not make your views more correct.

    • If I am reading what you wrote correctly, you are suggesting that it is sufficient for an individual to believe that they were harassed for the event to be accepted as harassment with subsequent consequences. I strongly disagree.

      I feel very strongly that sexual harassment is wrong. But it is even more wrong if we, as a society, lose our ability to deal with situations when this issue is discussed destroying people’s lives in the process.

      • gross

        Yes. If someone believes they were harassed, they were harassed. It is logical for the extent of subsequent consequences to depend on the severity/pattern/etc. of that harassment, but it must be accepted as such.

        One major challenge in discussing the issue is that it seems we must go through this same question over and over – was it harassment or not? rather than trying to think about what are systematic and productive ways we can address the issue. That is probably why you are encountering such negative reactions to your blog – I would be delighted to discuss how we can move beyond these problems, but I have no interest in debating whether or not it’s harassment and indeed it is offensive to have to return to this question yet again.

      • s.k.graham

        @gross You have a very strange concept of justice. Certainly, a person gets to decide if whether they *feel* upset or offended, but that does not mean they get to assign blame.

        If you expect society as a whole to take action against “harassers” then society as a whole must define what is and is not “harassment”, and that definition must be objective. This blog and these comments are simply part of the larger discussion on how we define “harassment”, with the specific case of Bora in mind.

        The question is not whether these women *felt* harassed. Obviously (now) they did.

        The question here is whether Bora engaged in behavior for which he deserves to be instructed, scolded, condemned, shunned, publicly shamed, lose his job, civilly sued, and/or criminally prosecuted & punished.

        What’ll it be?

      • In Russia, after the Soviet revolution, people were jailed, tortured, or killed when their neighbors, often anonymously, claimed that they were anti-Soviet. To me, this is an example of the system you propose.

        If that is so, it seems that we have an irreconcilable difference in values. You believe that an accusation is sufficient to decide what had happened. I believe that it is not. I don’t think we will find a resolution.

        As for negative feedback – the feedback I received mostly falls into two categories: rude and dismissive OR people saying thank you.

  10. thanks for your strong and lucid voice of reason.
    boraz has been lynched, quartered and burned by an angry mob over allegations pitched by one side. the allegations themselves seem shaky and fraught with issues (egs selective publishing of private emails, omission of the journalistic piece that was sent to him prior to the meeting which dealt with sex in the Olympic village, etc). but what strikes me as being at the root of this gross injustice is that the three people who have claimed offence to Bora’s overtures neglect to take into account that Bora is European, and effusive, talkative, and touchy feely. If Americans are to insist upon being PC, they must respect that different cultures have different social boundaries. to me, Bora’s only fault in this whole mess seems to be that he grew up in near the Mediterranean Sea, and happens to be talkative and trusting.
    aside from the shock of seeing how callously a member of the community – the founder and champion, no less – has been ruined over un-vetted accusations, i am also saddened by the disservice this sort of witch-hunt does to the real issue of sexual exploitation.
    glad that you are in the right corner, mr B.

  11. Pingback: The “Cult Of Credulity” In The Wake Of Rape Or Sexual Harassment Accusations) | Bydio

  12. @gross I feel harassed by your comment. When shall we schedule the burning?

    Clearer now?

  13. I think now that feminism is jumping the shark, things look different. Men have a strong libido and women are shrinking violets (like our oh so harassed snowflakes prove). Get over it. No harassment happened.

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