Nikita's Blog

The Bora Zivkovic Controversy and American Values

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

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 (www.jove.com,  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.

Analysis

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.

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:

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.

Conclusion

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)

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