Tuesday, November 19th 2013

Punching Down, Doubling Down: Joe Hanson, PBS, and This Idea of Community

The actions of a few have exposed some major problems in the actions and thinking of many.

The way the science communication community responds to crises, and the desire of some to prevent “scolding” or not “attack allies” has revictimized members of our community. This actually implicates the whole community as stifling progress and hurting our most underrepresented and targeted members. While I do think the science communication community is a false construct in many ways, as Dr. Isis has rightly pointed out, I’m going to push on this construct a little bit today.

I insist on the shared responsibility of all of us who live and work in science communication to do better than, for lack of a better term, the total shit show of the last month. Every one of us is implicated as people who could have made things better and handled the aftereffects better. And I want to resist the idea that we can’t learn from this and turn the false belief in a utopian community many of us carried in our heads into something more real.

Let’s recap what has blown up this community – just, you know, the RECENT events. Danielle Lee gets called a whore. She is denied the ability to control her own experience and express frustration with this, and is secondarily revictimized by her employer and mine, Scientific American. I still haven’t heard back from Scientific American what protocols will be put in place to prevent silencing in the future.

The Blogfather Bora Zivkovic, at the time our boss and leader of the Science Online community, turns out to be a serial sexual harasser. As the first harassment story was breaking, some of us who were Zivkovic’s friends contacted him privately asking for an explanation. Some quotes from his emails, because at this point honoring the privacy of email is hindering us moving forward:

“I never did that to anyone before and after. I was in a very bad moment in my life, I was crying out for help, but she was the wrong person at the wrong time.”

“Lawyer also said that in cases of harassment, usually when one person speaks out, many others some out of the woodrwork [sic]. None did in my case (as there aren’t any), but if this blows up I hope many women come out saying they didn’t feel harassed by me etc…..”

The same day he was sending us these emails that promised he had never harassed anyone else beyond Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters’s story broke (the third, by Kathleen Raven, would be the following day). Zivkovic was sending out emails of apology, and requests for us to silence or console specific people (by this point I had refused to help him). I can’t help but think there is still more to come on the issue of harassment in our community.

I have spoken privately with many of Zivkovic’s friends who are devastated by how easily they were duped by Bora’s promises and excuses. Scicurious has allowed me to use her name as one of the people targeted by Zivkovic to help his public image; Ed Yong and Janet Stemwedel are others who have shared this publicly. I know I was especially shattered, because it made me hesitate in figuring out how to best support the women Zivkovic targeted.

I think the 12 hours or so I spent working this through and realizing my error might be the most shameful 12 hours of my life. I am so very, very sorry.

So many of us had thought we constructed the science communication community as a meritocratic, healthy space, one, as I’ve often said, that is intolerant of tolerance. But women and men of color and white women are not only still on the periphery, their own experiences are invalidated and silenced when they demand a seat at the table. In fact, I think it’s important to note that women of color have been among the strongest voices, from the beginning, regarding our complete blindness to the sexism and racism coming from within.

* * *

Punching Down

Last week, a photo from a Carl Sagan tribute was tweeted as such: “These men are defining the future of #scicomm. Proud to know them.” A few folks pointed out, rather kindly at first, that it was a shame that the emphasis was on what four white men were defining. Protestations that women make contributions too, and aren’t they totes great, revealed that the other main picture tweeted from this event, the one of white women, referred to them not as “defining the future” of anything, but as “lovely” (this tweet was deleted, and it’s important to point out that this is because the person who wrote it realized his error and did not want to contribute to the problem).

Later that same week, Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart and one of the men pictured as “defining the future of #scicomm” posted a Thanksgiving science video. In it, Marie Curie, the only female scientist represented, is first admired, then blatantly sexually harassed by Albert Einstein, while Hanson observes and even encourages him. Einstein eventually takes off his clothes, and also “falls” on Curie. Both of these are instances of sexual assault. What was upsetting to me was that what Hanson referred to as “flirty” behavior was a harassment and assault story mirrored not only by some of the stories told by women who were targeted by Zivkovic, but stories told by research participants in our ongoing #safe13 project.

When several people called out this video for its triggering representation of sexual assault, Hanson did apologize. Some of that apology felt sincere – I think he probably did feel very bad for hurting anyone’s feelings. What stung, though, was that he didn’t seem to get why people found the assault triggering or harmful to women scientists.

“One of the many points I was thinking about when I made this piece was that woman [sic] are under-represented and don’t receive the respect they deserve in science today, well after Marie Curie’s time. I say this directly in the video and had intended the outrageous behavior of the Einstein doll to speak to this idea, as well. It doesn’t seem to have come through the way I had hoped and I apologize for that.”

Shorter: I’m sorry you misunderstood what I was trying to do there.

What I still don’t understand is how Hanson, or anyone else at PBS Digital Studios, could have misunderstood. How calling an assault a flirtation and making a joke of Curie would make any woman feel welcome in science. In comedy, if you want to take on a sensitive topic, you punch up, not down. Hanson not only punched down, he denigrated the memories of two amazing scientists, colleagues who knew and admired each other greatly.

It stings a little when random trolls make sexual assault jokes about me. I am left a little more frightened, a little more vigilant, but the sting fades until the next trolling. A lasting wound is created when people within this community commit thoughtless, hateful, or triggering acts. There is a sense of grief and loss that comes with the reminder that science communication is hostile to women, it privileges the voices of men over women, and even enlists women to troll other women. I had gotten good at pretending otherwise. But I no longer get to pretend this is my posse. I am reminded, again, that I am only on the periphery. And perhaps I’m expected to act happy to be included, to make the men feel they’ve done their part.

* * *

Doubling Down

The story with PBS is not over. As Emily Willingham reports, there is now a disclaimer on the video that says that “some people were offended” by the video. Some people. Dr. Isis encouraged many to contact the PBS ombudsperson and reference her post to get this video taken down. Instead, they doubled down.

Though the ombudsperson says that the comments he has received have been “sharply critical,” the official PBS response claimed the comments have “ranged from critical to laudatory.” Let’s be honest here: on the internet, you can find people who write laudatory statements about Hitler. The presence or absence of laudatory (or critical) statements on the internet should not be your criteria for whether this video is good. Instead, PBS, perhaps you should consider the substance of the comments.

But they clearly didn’t. Here is the key part of their response:

“With this video, Joe has opened up an important, though difficult, debate. We believe we are meeting our public service mission by providing an open forum where this and other conversations about complex subjects can take place.”

Joe has not opened up this debate. He has shut the door on women and their reactions. He and PBS have denied all of us a chance to change the outcome, to minimize the risk of triggering a rape survivor. When PBS considers a video exhorting rape culture as one that somehow fosters debate in a healthy way, what they are really doing is making women feel like they have nowhere to go.

* * *

Community responses

When harassment, assault, triggering behavior, sexism or racism occur, the response should not be to handle it privately. I thought we all learned that with Zivkovic’s actions – doing so limited the voices of the people who needed to speak out and have their feelings and experiences legitimized. Perpetrators can always make space to tell their story and to apologize, it’s not something we have to explicitly enable. We don’t have to protect their feelings, because men’s wrongdoing always eventually gets forgotten or forgiven (think of the many alleged and convicted famous abusers of women that have continued to have successful careers).

We also shouldn’t handle it by saying that triggering or harmful behavior is somehow a good thing, that it creates an “open forum.” Exposing people to a rape joke at the expense of two-Nobel-Prize-winner Marie Curie CLOSES the conversation because it trots out all the tired old arguments about humor, and those bitches who don’t get it.

I want us to start to think about what a community response to these and future actions should look like. PBS is not a safe space, the sci comm community is not a safe space. Fine. We don’t need a safe space to get the people who actually care and want to be allies to change the tenor of these conversations and act.

Bullying, sexual harassment and assault literature all have ideas to contribute here, where the main components of a community response are: 1) Connections across relevant organizations, 2) Community-embedded support, and 3) Training.

1. Connections across relevant organizations

NASW, Science Online and its offshoots, and any other organizations that create professional gathering spaces for science communication need to create (if they don’t already have one) and enforce (create an obvious line of reporting and repercussions) sexual harassment policies.

2. Community-embedded support

Calling out bad behavior publicly should be encouraged. People behave less poorly when there are more people watching and willing to intervene. Rather than see this as the community being oversensitive, think of this as a recalibrating towards equality. Resist the urge to worry about folks who might get inadvertently called out. I’ve done it and had it done to me, and it always gets cleared up quickly if there really was no wrongdoing.

Enlist your community’s support. We already have the #trollerderby hashtag, so make good use of it. Do not hesitate to count on your friends. Do not experience sexism or racism alone.

3. Prevention or resistance training.

Reach out to feminist organizations that provide information on rape resistance and intervention programs to enable more conversations and trainings among science communicators. Early prevention programs (and still many of those used on college campuses) end up blaming the victim and trying to figure out how a person could have prevented their rape. But more recently, these programs are framed around resistance and intervention – involving the community in intervening, rather than feeling like a powerless, silent witness. When we apply these methods to general issues of sensitivity and climate in science communication (and also to harassment and assault), we need to think about how to create opportunities for resistance and intervention, rather than prevention. In time resistance and intervention do lead to prevention.

* * *

Conclusion: Thinking about ally work

Being an ally means a lot more than calling yourself one and thinking you are a nice person. I think there are lots of ways to celebrate and appreciate ally work as folks gain confidence in their role, and ways to create space for honest mistakes, so long as they are willingly and earnestly corrected. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the forgiveness and patience of many people as I’ve fumbled through my own attempts at being an ally.

Resist the urge to silence those around you. Sit with the growing unease you feel as the women around you get angrier and angrier. Let yourself feel that little bit of fear that makes you wonder if you are a good enough ally. I sit with these feelings every day as a white person, and the day the discomfort goes away is the day I forget my privilege.

May we always be uncomfortable.


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