Archive for: October, 2013

#ripplesofdoubt and harassment's collateral damage.

For context, in the event that you want or need it, read my last post, and Hannah's, and Kathleen's, and Erin's. (If you want a dash of irony with your context, read this post I wrote after Bora solicited my support for Kathleen and Erin in the wake of some casual sexism in a professional context.)

Then read Karen's #ripplesofdoubt Storify.

This post is about some of my ripples of doubt.

I am not trolling for reassurance -- I recognize that these doubts are not entirely rational. But I'm presenting a peek at what's going on inside my head right now so that you can get a sense of why sexual harassment (among other instances of treating women in the community as not fully human, not full members of the community) is harmful even to those who are not the direct targets of that harassment.

This is also going to be more stream-of-consciousness than most of my posts. Things inside my head get kind of tangled.

* * * * *

Eight years ago, people who were not my students were just starting to find this blog. A big part of this was because Bora Zivkovic (who had loads of readers, was on lots of blogrolls, and had lots of blogospheric visibility) started regularly linking to my posts.

(Would anyone have found my blog if Bora hadn't promoted it? Did he promote it because it was actually good, or for some other reason?)

And then, I got invited to "sell out" and join ScienceBlogs at its initial launch. Which was exciting, because I was on a network with some very engaging (and very high-traffic) bloggers. I didn't kid myself that this meant I was better than the excellent bloggers I was reading who were blogging elsewhere, but it felt a little like an independent confirmation that my blog crossed some quality threshold. It felt good.

(But the process by which those blogs were selected for the initial Sb launch was opaque to me, and I got the sense later that some of that was shaped by blogospheric tastemakers like Bora -- maybe even by explicit advice from Bora. His judgment is feeling pretty suspect to me, so can I trust his judgment that my blog was quality?)

About a year later, Bora and Anton were planning the first North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, the ancestor of ScienceOnline. Bora invited me to be a keynote speaker. I had never been invited to be a keynote speaker anywhere before. I felt so validated and excited that I jumped up and down on my bed for about five minutes before emailing back to accept the invitation.

(Why was I invited to give a keynote? What real expertise did I have to share on science blogging and its larger significance? Bora and I had never met in real life at that point. I was still in my 30s, and my profile picture was more "flattering" than "accurate". Why did Bora invite me to give a keynote?)

At ScienceBlogs, somehow I developed a reputation as a "voice of reason" kind of sensible person, able to find middle ground where there was some, able to at least grok the impulse driving opposing sides of blogwars.

(In retrospect, I wonder what role Bora played in constructing that narrative. Did people listen to me because he flagged me as reasonable? Was there some ulterior motive for positioning me this way?)

I'm resisting a strong urge to scour my curriculum vitae for workshops and panels I have been on that Bora has also been on, or that I have good reason to believe I was invited to be part of on the basis of Bora's recommendation. Off the top of my head, I'm counting at least four.

(Was it Bora's professional reputation and influence that got me these invitations, rather than anything I had done on my own to demonstrate my own expertise? How on earth could I tell?)

My invitation to blog at Scientific American was definitely due to Bora. There were lots of murmurs at launch (and there continue to be today -- I've seen them on social media, posted literally today) that the way the blogs were selected was inappropriate-to-deeply-flawed.

(That's my blog they're judging as not belonging at Scientific American. It's not good enough to be there, but Bora chose it anyway. What was his game here?)

Bora never hit on me. Bora never veered into inappropriate topics of conversation with me. When we talked about blog network issues, Bora treated me very professionally. When we interacted as friends, he treated me cordially and never disrespected my boundaries.

(But that's not how he treated other women. How did I escape the inappropriate interactions that are coming to light now?)

I took Bora for a real friend -- not just a real friend, but one who grokked systemic gender bias, how important it was to listen to women's accounts of their own experiences, how people's boundaries should be respected. He didn't always get it right away, but he seemed committed to learning.

(While meanwhile, he was ignoring other women clearly asserting their boundaries, telling him to stop.)

He acted like he valued my friendship.

(Maybe he just valued my loyalty and that reputation I had as a reasonable voice in the blogosphere ...)

(Maybe he was using me as cover, a loyal friend who would deny, on the basis of her N=1 personal experience, that he could ever harass a woman or disrespect her boundaries.)

When specifics from what he claimed was his one-and-only instance of harassment came out, he asked me to get particular other people in the community on his side, to reach out to them and get them to put down the pitchforks.

(Appealing to me as reasonable. Appealing to me as loyal. Appealing to me as a friend, who should know, from her own experience, that he couldn't have done this more than once, one tragic moment of misunderstanding.)

(Just as he had groomed me to be. As if maybe that was the point all along.)

(Maybe I wasn't actually a valued friend -- not really, not valued for myself so much as my usefulness in a crisis.)

(And maybe my work never was that good.)

(And how can I trust my own judgment, about my own work, my own friends, my own community, if I could have been so wrong for so long about Bora?)

Edited to add:

There are also profound ripples of doubt in my head about why I didn't see the harassment that was happening, what I did to make myself unapproachable to people in the community who who targeted -- who I would have liked to help in some way if I could have. Those are far more painful to me right now, and words fail me when I try to spell them out. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you folks. You didn't deserve to be harassed.

39 responses so far

This is not a post I want to write.

I think sexual harassment is bad. I think other kinds of harassment, especially those that work by way of power imbalances, are bad. That's a position I stand by, and I hope I still would even if I had not been sexually harassed myself, and even if I didn't count among my friends an alarming number of people who had been sexually harassed.

We'll never know about the truth of that counterfactual claim, though, given that I have been sexually harassed (in more than one professional field), and that the number of people I know who have themselves been sexually harassed seems only to increase.

I know what it is like not to be able to share details of my own experience for fear of the professional repercussions it could have for me. When the person who harasses you has enough power that he could literally destroy any chance of a career for you in your chosen field -- when it's clear that your professional community values that person a lot and that it hasn't even gotten a chance to know you, let alone to value you -- choosing to go public looks an awful lot like choosing to burn your own career.

So mostly, you don't.

Maybe, eventually, once you find people within the community you feel like you can trust, people who've given indications that they value you, you share some of the details. Probably you wait for some sort of sign that these are people who, at least in principle, agree that harassment is bad. And probably, as you're naming your experience, you avoid naming the perpetrator, just in case there's a longstanding professional relationship that you didn't know about.

Because even people who are against harassment in principle can be damned loyal to their friends.

But often by the time you're ready to share some details with someone, you've so internalized the apologia that comes out when people do tell that you aren't even sure if you can call what happened to you "harassment". You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you -- if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can't just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.

Some days, when you start to notice how much harassment there is, how many of your peers (and mentors) have been harassed, and how little that seems to faze your community, you maybe even start to wonder if harassment is just the price of admission to the community, if shaking it off is the kind of skill people in the community need to cultivate to survive.

The landscape we bump up against every day discourages us from making a fuss.

It encourages us to use the most equivocal language available to describe our experience, if we talk about it at all.

It reminds us that we're weak if we can't shake it off, that we will be blamed for not finding some way to prevent what happened to us even though someone else did it to us.

It underlines that push come to shove, people are going to side with someone with more social capital, even if that person did something that the people siding with him are against in theory -- and that people are going to trust their own gut feeling that the person who harmed you is a good guy over the most careful and accurate recitation of the facts, even over what they see with their own eyes.

Not speaking up is the most rational move in most circumstances. Jennifer L. Berdahl, a Professor of Organizational Behavior, notes that

It's individually adaptive to go along with or try and act like members of the majority group when one is outnumbered. There are even rewards for criticizing others for not doing the same. But this individually adaptive behavior perpetuates the status quo.

So, if people aren't brave enough, or fed up enough, or whatever, to risk the individual harm that comes with speaking up, we are likely to be stuck with how things are right now. And some days, how things are right now is indescribably shitty.

The proximate cause for my writing this post is that writer and playwright Monica Byrne described her own experience of being harassed and named an influential member of the online science community, Bora Zivkovic, as her harasser. In a statement on his personal blog, Bora confirms the facts of Ms. Byrne's account, describes the measures put in place at Scientific American to address the professional harms to Ms. Byrne, and offers an apology.

I have known Bora for years. I have respected his professional judgment. I have deep affection for him and for his wife. I count him as a friend. He has never harassed me.

But that doesn't mean that I am going to offer apologia for his bad behavior. It doesn't mean I'm going to preemptively disbelieve Ms. Byrne's account, not just of what happened but also of how it affected her.

People make mistakes, even people who are our friends. People who do great things for a community can also do great harm to individual members of that community -- and, by extension, to the very webs of trust within that community that they worked hard to build.

I'm not going to stop being Bora's friend, but I'm not going to try to minimize or excuse his behavior, either.

I'm going to keep caring for him, but part of that will involve me continuing to hold him to a high standard -- because I know he can be that good, and I'm prepared to do what I can to help him do that.

I'm not going to cut Bora off as irredeemable, but I'm not going to center his redemption over mitigating the harms caused by his bad behavior. I'm not going to prioritize telling the world about his redemption, since I understand redemption as a quiet, personal, daily effort to live the standard one endorses.

I'm not going to argue that anyone else should forgive Bora or trust Bora. That's a personal matter, and I'm not equipped to make that call for anyone else but myself.

I am going to argue that, within our communities, we should look very hard at the power gradients that enable bad behavior that doesn't seem like bad behavior to the people committing it. We should interrogate the factors that make it dangerous for targets of bad behavior to speak up. We should recognize our tendency to focus on intent and ignore actual effects. We should notice when we get sucked into the familiar narrative of apologia and cut that out.

We should hold each other to high standards and then get serious about helping each other reach those standards. We should keep tinkering with our culture to making being better to each other (and to ourselves) easier, not harder.

Being good can be hard, which is one of the reasons we need friends.

I stand with others who have been harassed. And I hope, as a loving and honest friend with high expectations, I can help bring about a world with fewer harassers in it.

30 responses so far