October 21, 2013 | 16
The last one week has been traumatic for the world of science blogging, journalism and writing. It has certainly been very painful for me, as I am sure it has been for many others, to watch someone who we all regarded as the glue that holds the science communication community together, someone who was the lifeblood of online science, crumble in the face of allegations of harassment. It is a fall from grace that was so rapid and unexpected that it has left many of us dazed and searching for answers. Personally I am still trying to wrap my head around it, especially since I was away on vacation and only heard about the events in the form of intermittent, unpleasant emails. It was like watching a nightmare unfold in bits and pieces. Like many others I spent sleepless nights wondering how a man who we all so admired and adored could possibly display this kind of behavior. It is the very definition of a cautionary tale for our times.
Let me say this at the very beginning. What Bora did was inappropriate, period. In no way do I support any of his actions. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. Scientific American’s response to it was entirely appropriate and measured. I deeply sympathize with the plight of the three women who had to face his actions. The exchanges he had with them were especially unacceptable to a community which has always prided itself on its diversity and vigorous individualism. The episodes documented in painful detail by the victims showcased a side of Bora that left us all in disbelief and shock.
The events leading up to this post have been denounced by many people in the harshest terms and there’s little more that I can add except to say that I wholeheartedly agree with them. But I also firmly believe that we should not kill the message along with the messenger. Mark Antony’s admonition to not keep the evil in men’s hearts alive while permanently burying the good that they have done is especially relevant here. The beauty – or unfair irony, if you will – of ideas is that they persevere even after their creators have disappeared or have been tarnished by history’s judgement. Men live, die and fade away but their work lives on, if for no other reason than because it has already become a part of the fabric of human affairs.
Bora’s body of work has been immense by any standards and it will continue to stand on its own merits for a long time, thoroughly infused into the world of online science writing and communication. This is a fact, not opinion. Indeed, it might well be impossible to write a history of the online emergence of science without making frequent references to Bora Zivkovic. Almost every important topic of discussion and debate in the field has his fingerprints over it. His posts on commenting and on the science ecosystem in general are ponderous book-length ruminations that will long remain signposts for a variety of issues of continuing interest to the online science community. He worked tirelessly and day and night; organizing, encouraging, writing, traveling, reading, consolidating and connecting people with each other. He promoted countless new bloggers and introduced their writing to the world. He has done more for this community than anyone else I know, and I weep for the loss of his contributions and guidance as much as I weep for the deep distress that his behavior caused. Personally I do hope that it will be possible for him to keep on contributing ideas to our community in some capacity. It is a strange, incomprehensible but very real juxtaposition of history that even while someone’s reputation takes a fall that leaves most of us reeling, his legacy continues to silently shape and guide the everyday business of a field. We can applaud the substance of Bora’s foundational contributions to the rise of science blogging even as we continue to denounce his actions. This episode is a reminder that human beings are flawed and that the same person can reach both the heights of achievement and the depths of failure. Part of the reason why so many of us feel devastated is that we put Bora on a pedestal. We expected so much from him that we are now chagrined to find that he is flawed after all.
I have known Bora for several years now, have met him at many conferences including the wonderful Science Online conference that he co-founded and have had innumerable exchanges over email with him about almost every topic related to blogging, commenting and science in general. I know others have had an even longer and closer association with him. Just like he did for them, he has stood up for me during difficult times with the tenacity of a pit bull. He has done this repeatedly and generously without me even asking for it. As traumatic as his behavior must have been to the three women who were brave enough to speak up, I believe that there are also dozens of women to whom he has been nothing more or less than a friend, supporter and confidant. Whatever the judgement of history upon him, personally I will always be grateful for all he has done for me and the science blogging community.
While the cases of sexual harassment are deeply disturbing and unacceptable, one thing we should note is that in none of the three cases did Bora’s behavior descend into overt sexual or physical harassment. This distinction does not make the behavior any better, but I think it’s important to point it out since there are many other perpetrators who have gone down the latter road and are still hiding behind an innocent cloak of anonymity while their victims suffer in silence. I see in Bora’s behavior the failings of someone battling his inner demons, someone whose private troubles clearly spilled over into his public life, someone who could not help but glimpse into dark corners against his best judgement. This does not excuse his actions and ultimately the reasons for harassment don’t really matter but it makes a powerful case for seeking help in the face of personal issues. In fact if there was a failing on our part as a community, it was in not recognizing Bora’s problems and providing him with that help. We have not done what he did, but we would be naive to think of ourselves as perpetually immune to such demons and dark corners, and that is perhaps the most valuable lesson each of us can take away from this tragedy, the lesson that we need to be eternally vigilant. Ultimately everybody has to make what they want of this behavior. They can decide whether to sever all contact with Bora for the rest of their lives or to treat him as a deeply flawed individual whose professional contributions they praise even as they spare no effort in denouncing his transgressions. Personally I find myself in the latter camp. For me human beings will always be the sum of many imperfect parts.
Finally, there’s the question that has been at the back of our minds. What will this do to SA blogs? Bora played such an outsized role in keeping this community together that at least a few of us are now confused and groping for answers. Who will now hold it all together?
The answer is very simple. It’s us. We must be the guardians, protectors and facilitators of this online ecosystem. We have always watched each other’s backs but we will now do so with a vengeance. We must go out of our way to promote new bloggers, introduce them to old friends and make sure they feel at home, at Science Online and everywhere else. We must carry on the tradition of keeping anti-science proselytizers at bay in comments sections. Let us collectively fill Bora’s shoes with our expertise, concerns and sense of camaraderie and ensure that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. More than anything else, let us ensure that Scientific American remains a forum for freedom of expression, a stomping ground for the varieties of scientific experience.
Finally, let’s make sure this does not happen again. We must be even more vigilant than what we were and, with fresh memories from this painful incident scarred into our minds, be ever more sensitive and respectful in our interactions with each other. In despair there is hope, not just blind, idealistic hope but hope wrought from the hard lessons of shock and tempered by an acute understanding of human frailty. It is this hope that will propel us forward.