Life as an Extreme Sport

Revoking Power Redux

Last night was interesting. There was embarrassing praise and flattery, a few trolls, a debate over my use of the word “must” instead “should,” and quiet, thoughtful support and disagreement from several people, including Kathleen Raven.

It’s tempting to address the language concerns first, because they’re easier. But that needs to be put aside for the more immediate: this morning, Kathleen published “Two Stories” on Medium. These created a bookend to her own experience of harassment, and while she didn’t name her first harasser, she did name the second: Bora Zivkovic.

Raven did something different than Byrne or Waters, though. Byrne and Waters shared their experiences, their perceptions, snippets of remembered conversation.

And narratives are powerful. They tell stories and share experiences. But some people will dismiss them because narratives are told from a specific point of view: that of the person telling it. Even if it’s not an outright dismissal, conversations like the one that did float around Twitter and in blogs will happen: was it really that bad? Maybe, maybe, it’s just about needing to learn or given a chance or…

In many ways, it’s the flip side of a good horror movie. A good horror movie leaves a lot off-screen, and lets the viewer fill in the blanks, because the viewer will always put in something much scarier than film could show. In this case, some people were guilty of the reverse: minimizing what could have possibly been said or done by Zivkovic, because he is a friend, mentor, colleague, beloved. And this is not to say that there is anything wrong with that; people have been faced with the idea that someone they respect did things that they don’t respect. At the very minimum, that is confronting and—as many people noted—it takes time to work through.

Raven did something that doesn’t allow people to at all shy away from what it is Zivkovic did, that doesn’t allow people to look away, that doesn’t allow people hope.

Raven shared email.

And now it’s out there. Everyone can see, and there’s no way to hide behind hope or denial, or the gentle prayer that it might not be as bad as it sounds.

It is as bad as it sounds.

And that’s where we are now, with a lot of people reeling from more revelations and trying to wrap their heads and hearts around Zivkovic’s blatant abuse of power and harassment, and to figure out what is next. Which brings us back to my post from last night; several people who liked/supported what I wrote asked me if, in light of Raven’s revelations, what I proposed needed a revision.

No, and yes, and this is where I need to be honest.

In the ensuing Twitter conversations about my post on revoking power in the face of harassment, I noticed that one thing was left out of the conversation: that my prescriptions, the things that must be done, were for a one-year minimum.

That wasn’t an accident.

Receiving praise for being balanced and fair in light of what I was tweeting to the ripplesofdoubt hashtag was a very uncomfortable experience for me, because I wasn’t being fair or balanced.

I was being calculating.

I’ve been in a similar position to this before, and I strongly suspected that it was simply a matter of time until someone else came forward. Until either enough stories or enough details piled up that people wouldn’t be able to do anything other than what I initially stated and supported on Twitter: Zivkovic needs to be removed from his positions of power. Permanently.

But it’s been my experience that people react against ultimatums in the face of what is felt to be less-than-conclusive proof of “genuinely bad behaviour.” That while people were still debating “just how bad was it,” and what sort of impact said behaviour had on Zivkovic’s position as Scientific American blogs editor, the notion of a swift and universal ban/firing was going to be labeled over-reactive and inappropriately permanent.

And so I suggested a moderate course of action that I knew would seem prudent and calm, that most people would be able to support. I did this because I believed that by the time the one-year moratorium was up, enough information would have come out that the decisions to remove Zivkovic from positions of power would become permanent. Because I assumed that by then, the violations of trust would be great enough that, even if individuals made peace and were able to continue friendships with him, no one would contemplate placing him back into the power nexuses that he so abused.

But I want to be clear: I also made the suggestions I did for the sake of precedence. I believe that people, communities, need to have clear actions to follow when someone transgresses, especially when it comes to harassment (of any kind). And has been repeatedly stated in conversations on Twitter, blogs, and even by people we might consider experts, harassment is a form of discrimination and abuse that, at root, is about the abuse of power and authority.

Therefore, power and authority must be removed when a harasser is identified.

The idea of placing a minimum timeframe on that removal of power is something of a safety net: it gives people whose transgressions were genuinely minor a chance to regain trust (a redemption arc, if you will). At the same time, though, that net can easily become a noose, giving those whose transgressions were more severe the rope necessary to be hung.

To me, the decision is clear and the knots around the noose tight. But I am only one voice among many, and I only speak for myself.

Edited to add: At near close-of-business Friday, Scientific American posted that Zivkovic offered his resignation and they accepted it.


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