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Invisibility, and community

Update: A group of us has drafted an open letter to the leadership of ScienceOnline, outlining what we think is best for the group. It may answer some of the open questions in this post, and those people have asked me.

Today's post was tough to write, so here's my cat Harriet when she was a tiny kitten.

Today’s post was tough to write, so here’s my cat Harriet when she was a tiny kitten.

[What follows is my opinion and mine only. I speak for nobody in the leadership or community of ScienceOnline, so what follows should be taken in that spirit.]

One of the hardest things about dealing with sexual harassment in an organization is its invisibility. If leaders harass members or support harassers over those who were harassed, or if the general culture of the organization shouts down those who speak out, then who can blame victims for keeping silent? The privacy of the victim is also important: if a harasser is reported and removed from the organization, it’s possible that people not directly involved in the incident may never know why.

Those of us who attended ScienceOnline 2014 last weekend saw this play out in every way. Three women came forward last fall, revealing that Bora Zivkovic, a former leader of the conference and community, had harassed them.[1] I hate that this even needs saying, but I believe their testimony and honor how difficult it is to tell stories this painful and private. Between public and private conversations, other members of the community identified other harassers, both sexual harassers and a few who generally harassed those who speak out.[2]

Men — including myself — are often unaware of harassment, either through missing the subtle signs or deliberate turning of a blind eye. I know, because I’ve been there, and it’s really painful to realize that you’re missing out on or even complicit to something that’s blatantly obvious to women who are sensitized by constant exposure to bad behavior.

Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real. Women sometimes share testimony and the identity of harassers with other women, to support each other, warn potential victims, or to provide solidarity in a hostile environment.[3] However, it’s never safe to assume that people see harassment when it happens (or worse, assume others think it’s real or important), which makes it all the more important to address the issue openly and honestly.

In the case of ScienceOnline, many participants in the conference were new, and of that group many didn’t know what was going on. And how should they? ScienceOnline, unlike most professional societies, doesn’t have a regular membership newsletter; for that matter, it doesn’t have any kind of formal membership. That lack of information made many feel very left out and excluded from the community, when others talked about it (or worse, hinted about it using coded language).

So, let me state it outright: I think it was a mistake that the leadership of ScienceOnline to not make a public statement in the general session on the first day. By summarizing the situation in some way, naming the invisible elephant in the room rather than just saying “something happened”, they could make sure everyone knows what is going on, and make clear what steps are being taken to make sure any current or future harassment is taken care of. Instead, nobody said anything except in the vaguest terms, the “boundaries” session moderator had her facts wrong when she summarized the case, and we felt forced to create a special session — which not everyone knew about or was able to attend — to speak openly about the problem. (I attended both of these sessions, but as always I can speak only for myself.)

I think we all want the same thing in the end: we want to spend our time talking about science communication, not  harassment. The difference lies in how we want to accomplish that, and whether we think the leadership of ScienceOnline is adequately helping the organization and wider community overcome its problems. I know some think we’ve done enough and should move on now. Many others (myself included) think we need to do better; see Jamie Vernon’s essay for one perspective.

I am also worried that the harassment responders were not given formal training by professionals; instead, they were given basic instructions and turned any reports over to the organization leadership. I don’t fault the responders themselves, who were dedicated volunteers operating in good faith. The solution is to draw on the experience of other organizations in dealing with harassment and damage control; ScienceOnline doesn’t need to reinvent anything. Taking concrete actions rather than symbolic ones seems to be necessary to maintain trust.[4]

We have a collective duty to make what is currently invisible as visible as possible. Right now, I feel that we’re stuck as an organization, and until we can address harassment openly and visibly, it’s hard to say our conferences are safe. And I don’t mean just safe in the literal physical sense, but also in the sense that we can talk about what happened. Ironically, by not opening it up early in a large group, we had to focus on it more individually in private — expending far more time and energy on it than if we had just dealt with it first.

ScienceOnline is an odd thing: it’s a professional organization (albeit one without membership or a formal institution), a set of conferences, and a social network of sorts. It caters both to those (like me) who work from home and have very little face-to-face contact with colleagues, and those who work out of offices or labs. It encompasses those who primarily want to make professional contacts, and those who just need to know that others like themselves exist. (I’m in both of those categories.)

There are downsides to the oddity as well. We lack a formal hierarchy, yet we have unelected leadership that plans nearly every detail about our flagship conference (including who attends), and certainly some people are Big Names with louder voices than others. That means some people may feel they can’t speak up, or if they do speak up their voices won’t be heard — and unfortunately that is sometimes true, despite good intentions. We have to acknowledge the inequality in the community, especially if we want to eliminate it; pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t help stop harassment.

Nevertheless, I’m hopeful. I believe in us, as a community if not as an organization. Based on observations (as an outsider) of the problems in the skeptics community, and the issues of sexism in the gaming and comics communities, we seem to be doing better at acknowledging what’s wrong and working to fix it. In some ways we’re still learning who we want to be, and figuring out if that’s even possible. Maybe it isn’t, but if we fail, let it not be from keeping our problems invisible.

Notes

  1. Friends and longtime readers of this blog know that Bora helped me personally when I was getting started in science writing, something he did for many others. That’s a major reason for feelings of hurt and betrayal (not to mention denial) among many of us in the community. It’s another reason why harassment is so difficult: the harasser may be capable of great good toward some even while hurting others. Yet, the good deeds don’t offset the damage — and the damage goes far beyond the individuals Bora targeted, since it involves a betrayal of trust across the entire community.
  2. One of the latter in particular has posed as a voice of reason, while bullying and swearing at women he perceives as vulnerable. Harassment is not just sexual harassment.
  3. I have been honored by several women who have taken me into their confidence about their own experiences. That means in a small way I’ve been able part of communications most men aren’t privy to. I mention this not to brag but because I’m not sure many men are even aware these conversations happen.
  4. There’s more to say on this topic, but the stories aren’t mine to tell. One hard thing is to acknowledge that, despite my personal interest in the situation, it’s not really about me.
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9 Responses to “Invisibility, and community”


  1. 1 Linda Walling March 6, 2014 at 16:48

    I’m not a member of the community, but I do want to thank you for writing about this difficult topic. It is definitely not limited to this organization or profession. I appreciate your insightful comments.

  2. 2 Ann Wells March 6, 2014 at 17:30

    I’m not a member of the community either, but this kind of thing should be discussed more openly; it should not just be hinted at, and not just saying that “something happened”. I can well understand how hard this was to write. I’m finding it hard to write my comment, because 1) I don’t want to come off as a “man-hater” as if all males are harassers, or 2) as being afraid to be in a group of mostly men, or 3) as just not believing that harassment could happen because the males involved are scientists.

  3. 3 nikitab March 6, 2014 at 20:13

    1) I agree with you on the importance of sexual harassment (or any harassment for that matter).

    2) I strongly disagree regarding Bora. I am not a member of the scientific blogging community. And after the Bora fiasco, I would not want to be.

    My take is here:

    http://nikitab.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/the-bora-controversy-and-american-values

    Another good discussion:

    scientopia.org/blogs/whizbang/2014/02/28/the-elephant-in-the-room-at-scio14/

    To me it is shocking how many “friends” turned on Bora in his time of need out of, what seems to be, fear of political repercussions. A balanced view is one thing. A mob lynching is something entirely different.

    • 4 Matthew R. Francis March 6, 2014 at 21:25

      Two points:
      1) I am not going to get into an argument with you, so this is my one and only reply.
      2) Bora admitted wrongdoing, resigned, and is (by his own admission) in therapy. This isn’t about him anymore, but about ScienceOnline: what we do next and what we want to be as a community. There has been no “lynching”, and I would beg you to please reconsider your vocabulary. Lynching is the murder of of the weak by the powerful in an attempt to instill fear in a community the powerful wish to control. In harassment cases, the harasser has a measure of power over the person they are harassing. Identifying a harasser (at personal cost and exposure to people who question their motives and truthfulness) is not equivalent to lynching.

  4. 6 Richard A Jowsey March 7, 2014 at 20:36

    As a former therapist, I researched sexual abuse, harassment and rape, and worked with victims of these horrendous experiences. I also worked with a victim of “false accusation of sexual misconduct”, who, tragically, despaired and committed suicide. The gorilla in the room at SciO was there because you are all quite confused about what, exactly, is meant by “sexual harassment”, and nobody (it seems) has any degree of legal, HR or psychological expertise in the subject. It’s the blind leading the blind, and anyone trying to inject any sanity into the conversation invites vituperative attacks. Science Online is doomed. It will implode. That saddens me.

    • 7 Matthew R. Francis March 8, 2014 at 18:54

      Dear sir, I don’t know who you are, or what purpose you have for commenting here. However, you are off-topic and if you were/are a professional therapist, violating your trust. Kindly direct your comments to another forum.

  5. 8 Amy Charles March 9, 2014 at 00:36

    Matthew — first of all, it was nice to meet you, and thanks for running your session. Second — I’m concerned about these (2) people, and wonder if these are the same ones Janet was alluding to in the lobby. I’d like to know what this is about.

    I’ll say a few other things while I’m here. While I think I’ve made plain my views on sexual harassment, and I thought #ripplesofdoubt and its effects were pretty brilliant, every hair stands up when I hear people starting to talk about “we” (as though there’s an agreed-upon “we”, and designated spokespeople), and demanding apologies, and rejiggering a deliberately loose and open organization so that members can be listed and named and gates can be installed. It disturbs me not so much because I think it’ll damage sci comm — I think the point made in the lobby about the creative explosion post-Pepsigate was an excellent one — but because of its distinct unfriendliness. It’s groundwork for tribunals, and I can’t recall having met a friendly tribunal. It’s also an invitation to further political unhappiness, because the first thing that happens, when you set up an organization that’s nominally democratic, is that people start jockeying for power. Whether or not it’s worth having.

    I’m also very much disturbed by the antagonistic stance towards the board — which, for the last several months, has effectively been Karyn. Who, as far as I can see, has more or less worked herself to death to keep the community from imploding altogether and keep the show on the road after a bomb went off right next to her. In retrospect I think she deserved a standing fucking ovation at the close of the conference — and if things didn’t go just as might have been symphonically desired, then jesus, people. A rather friendlier, more patient, and more supportive approach might be a helpful thing, with an eye to the long view.

    In the end, SciO is a branded conference, not a government. It’s a spot in which to meet and play. The community exists without the organization, but — as I mentioned in the lobby — the events of the last few months have left some people, who knows how many, afraid to disagree openly with the very people who put together #sciosafe for fear of being mobbed online and having their reputations and employment attacked. And I don’t see how this is either helpful or in any kind of keeping with the distinctly playful sensibility that was (till recently) at the heart of the science-online community.

    I am very glad that the response to the Bora revelations was so generally openminded, and that we didn’t echo what had just gone on in the skeptic community. It really was astonishing to watch. (And exhausting to participate in.) But in so many contexts lately, I see political advances being made at the expense of friendship and genuine assent, and it strikes me overall as a mistake.

    I want to see these conversations about harassment continue. I want to hear, and participate in airing, a *diversity of views* about what constitutes a friendly environment for women. But I want to see this go on in an environment that doesn’t punish people for showing up curious, putting a foot wrong, disagreeing, having views that change. Or for wandering in and out of the conversation. I’m greatly encouraged by the number of men who showed up to listen to #ripplesofdoubt and really, for the first time, got a glimpse of the daily realities we live with, because nothing changes if this goes on endlessly as a “women’s issue” safely ignored by men. I’m also fairly well convinced that if friendship and patience do not underlie these conversations — if they’re about attacks, cleansing, demands, gate-installations, rulebook-writing for the purpose of future bannings — then we may as well not have them.

    I am, I suppose, a professional science writer. It’s how I’ve made my living and supported my child for about the last decade. For me, though, my involvement online has never been about career; it’s been an extension of the community life that started for me with BBSes and USENET, long ago. All the fecundity of these loose and anarchic worlds has depended, I think, on friendships: people who showed up interested in making a connection, and making something new, usually for no money at all. I don’t think you can have this, though, if people are scared that if they say the wrong thing, they’ll get hashtagged to death.

    It’s late, I’m outta gas, I’ve got more work to do. But it seems to me that a healthy way forward involves some trust that the people who show up in sci comm are, in general, fairminded and willing to listen and think — largely because so many have shown themselves to be so. I think it also involves a retention of perspective: most of us will be around, online, and related in one way or another long after all these organizations are historical notes.

    • 9 Matthew R. Francis March 9, 2014 at 09:28

      Please understand I speak only for myself. “We” may not be the right way to put it (though I know at least some people agree with me), but I don’t represent any opinions other than my own. In that vein, I don’t support shouting anyone down who dissents, and have never done so to my knowledge. (I don’t count shutting down trolls whose primary perspective is that Women Are Lying About Harassment A Priori, which is not a position supported by facts. They have their own fora where they can go; they don’t need ScienceOnline or my blog comments.)

      On the other hand, I’m concerned that many of the compromise positions offered basically involve saying nothing, or trusting people to do the right thing to create safe spaces without asking for accountability. Most of us are not harassers; most of us aren’t harassed; most of us aren’t going to be the ones making spaces hostile for others. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to address the problems openly and honestly so we can get back to our business of talking science communication.

      That’s why I signed this open letter to the leadership, outlining what positive steps we think should happen: http://scientopia.org/blogs/ethicsandscience/2014/03/08/scienceonline-sciosafe-and-ways-forward-together/.

      I personally thanked Karyn for doing yeoman’s work organizing the conference, as did many other people. The critiques here aren’t out of lack of gratitude for her hard work. I have a great deal of sympathy for the difficult position she’s in.


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