Censorship, harassment at SciAm (Part 2)

It’s been a month since I started writing about the fallout at Scientific American.

By way of recap:

When Danielle Lee’s post went back up over the weekend, both SciAm’s editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina and blogs editor Bora Zivkovic continued to claim that they had taken it down for legal reasons.

In a statement, DiChristina acknowledged the shameful institutional silencing of minority, woman, and black voices in science, while never admitting that SciAm had fallen prey to it.

By and large, the community applauded SciAm and Bora for putting it back up. It was certainly the correct thing to do. But the continued rationale, the supposed illegality of the post, remains somewhat suspect.

What was missing was a repudiation of the DiChristina’s original tweet that “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” Neither was there affirmation that Scientific American would continue to be an outlet for the kinds of content that expand, explore, and challenge how science is integrated. In my mind, I still cannot square that tweet with the “legal” reasons that SciAm laid out.

But perhaps actions speak louder than words, and if in a year, or some other reasonable length of time, SciAm continues to do what it’s been doing, perhaps all will be forgiven.

But another reason, surely, why SciAm has escaped the scrutiny of its editorial mission is that a bigger scandal erupted, one that shook the community to its core.

During the third week of October, three woman—first, Monica Byrne, followed by Hannah Waters and Kathleen Raven—came forward to reveal that Bora Zivkovic had sexually harassed them. As a result, Zivkovic resigning from ScienceOnline, the science communication organization and conference that he co-founded, and his duties at SciAm.

And it led to even more stories, even more voices coming forward to share how harassment—and the failure of institutions and friends alike to repudiate and stop it—had hurt them. The hashtag #ripplesofdoubt, started by Karen James, became a stream of tears. The realization spread that Zivkovic had hurt not only those he directly harassed, but many other writers who were left wondering, variously, whether they had been passed over for a blog gig because they weren’t attractive enough, and whether they had gotten theirs only because they were.

#standingwithdnlee was, in some respects, a feel-good movement—the outrage was directed at a clearly defined target that everyone agreed deserved it. #ripplesofdoubt was wrenching and heartbreaking. It went beyond a professional foul to personal interactions. It was friends realizing how their friends had been hurt, and how their actions might have hurt others. I had friends who both bravely came forward with their doubts, and who were themselves accused of harassment. I was completely unsettled. Its consequences extended far beyond the SciAm network and reverberated through the science communication community.

In the real world, sex and access remain part of social and professional currency. That is the hard fact, but sensitive and rational people can strive to set policy to render it as valueless as possible. Zivkovic cruelly demonstrated how one person’s abuse of power can trigger a market crash of sorts, laying bare the illusory nature of the apparent strength of the exchange. It left so many wondering what exactly their success or failure had been built on. It left some deciding this particular market wasn’t worth it at all.

To talk about how it affects, say, the future of SciAm feels like scraping around on the fringes of a much bigger issue, and I feel awkward doing it. But perhaps that illustrates one point: As large as SciAm and its blogging network is, the community is and always will be bigger.

During #standingwithdnlee, the SciAm network itself notably and admirably remained the epicenter of criticism against their own editors. In contrast, in the aftermath of Zivkovic’s downfall, the community shifted from voicing outrage to listening to each other. The most essential interactions took place outside of SciAm’s network. Twitter was one, of course, by virtue of its long-established role as the watering hole for the #scicomm community.

Medium emerged as another. That Friday, Khalil Cassimally, who co-edited the SA Incubator blog with Zivkovic, posted his biweekly“Khalil’s picks” feature of the best of the week’s writing by young science writers. But he didn’t post it to SciAm’s network—instead, he posted it to Medium. (All of the featured picks were powerful responses to the fallout on blogs not associated with the SciAm network.)

And The Power of Harassment, a Medium collection curated by @LadyBits, became a powerful center of painful stories.

And yes, ok. The future of SciAm and the blog network itself? Well, I don’t have a good answer for that. When I left academia for science writing, the lack of a clearly defined path to a career was intimidating. It seemed like the closest thing to such a path ran through Zivkovic and SciAm. When I started thinking about this post, I wondered if that would still be true. One oft-repeated strain is that the community will suffer because of the loss of Zivkovic’s advocacy for young science writers, that part of the tragedy is that Zivkovic’s inappropriate behavior negated his own skill at community building.

I think there’s certainly truth to that. But it also seems clear that the two were inextricably linked. Yes, he built a community at SciAm and elsewhere. But it was apparently built upon an warped structure shaped by his own desires and weaknesses, the full callousness of which was for too long apparent to only a few—until that week in October.

Yes, that was a shitty, shitty week.

What made it bearable was the badass, flat-out courage of so many people. So I’m going to end this post by linking to one example: a post titled Look by Boston-based science writer Erin Podolak:

I don’t want to tell anyone what they should do, but I will tell you one very simple thing that you can do – look at it. If you do nothing else, I’m asking you not to turn away.

I, along with many others, am promising not to. You can hold me to it; we all should hold each other to it.


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