Sunday, February 19, 2017

Baselines and Basic Questions

"...some people will say, But he didn’t attack you. You weren’t raped, you weren’t assaulted, and this was not a professional setting. And you’re right; I was lucky that this man did not become aggressive in his pursuit, and other women in the field experience much worse." (Nicole Cabrera)

"For those in [astronomy] who have never experienced harassment: You are so lucky! Remember that you have that privilege, because many of us don't." (Christina Richey [video 406.1 at 04:16] Chair of the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy of the American Astronomical Society.)

Is luck really the deciding factor? In a study that I've written about before, Marina Rosenthal, Alec Smidt and Jennifer Freyd found that the sexual harassment of graduate students is rather mild. The mean score for faculty harassment of female students was 1.44 on a scale of 0 to 72. To put that in perspective, consider that if everyone had said they sometimes experienced being “repeatedly told sexual stories or jokes that [they found] offensive”, and no other negative behaviors were experienced, then the corresponding mean score would have been 2.

The study also allows us to compare the experience of graduate students today to that of military personnel in the 1990s. Here, the comparable scores were 10.45 for women and 2.39 for men. It may not be a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but at first pass it would seem that women in academia today are less harassed than men in the military in the 1990s.

This raises an interesting and important question. The mean harassment score for male graduate students was 0.59. This suggests that a policy goal for harassment in academia can't hope for a zero value. To see this, consider the study's results on perceived safety. Female graduate students have a significantly lower perception of their own safety than their male counterparts: 3.36 vs. 4.32 on a scale of 0 to 5. Since we can't expect an environment to offer 100% of the people a complete sense of safety, the 4.32 result for males may well be an "acceptable" level. We probably have to decide on an acceptable but non-zero value on the harassment measure as well.

Now, it would be surprising if male harassment and male perceived safety are only exactly (or just barely) acceptable. Men are generally (and in this case I think quite rightly) [seen as]* "privileged" with regard to how much sexual harassment they have to put up with. The mean score on perceived safety could fall a little from 4.32 and still be within acceptable limits; the mean harassment score could rise a little from .59 without causing alarm. The question is how much? That would give us a baseline against which to assess the 3.36 (for safety) and 1.44 (for harassment) results for women. It would also give us a policy objective.

With this in mind, I want throw out a series of questions that I don't think the sexual harassment alarmists give enough attention. They should have some answers to these questions. Their research should enable us to answer them.

How likely are female astronomers to experience harassment during their careers? [And how likely are male astronomers to experience it?]
At what stage of their careers are they most likely to experience it? (How likely at each stage?)
How serious is the harassment likely to be at each stage?
Do female astronomers experience more or less sexual harassment than female flight attendants and female bankers?
Do female scientists experience more or less sexual harassment than female politicians? (Related question: Do female lab assistants experience more or less sexual harassment than female interns in the political system?)
Do female scientists experience more or less sexual harassment than female science writers?
Do female science writers experience more or less sexual harassment than female political or financial journalists?
How much more or less?

In so far as we can measure these things, I suspect that female scientists live very sheltered lives. The reason they breathe a sigh of relief over not being raped after men hit on them at faculty parties is not that they are at a high risk of being raped. It's because they are conditioned by an ideology that tells them to consider themselves lucky and privileged. In a sense, they are. I just think they deserve to enjoy it more. And they deserve to enjoy the company of the men they work with much more than some of them appear to be able to because of the current obsession with harassment.

*I had left these two words [out]** in the original version. That's a pretty big blunder! Fortunately, it only stood for about 30 minutes.
**Okay, this is ridiculous! In the above footnote, which was supposed to explain the addition of two words I had left out when I first published this post, I left out the word "out" in the phrase "left these two words out", so it now looked like I was saying that the "blunder" was to leave the bracketed words in, i.e., the opposite of what I was trying to say. To be clear: the original post could have been read as me saying that males are "rightly privileged", i.e., they deserve their privilege. I meant to say that they are "rightly seen as being privileged". That is, it's not wrong to think of men as having it easier than women in regard to sexual harassment. I don't think they should have it easier.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Story

Once you have heard Monica Byrne's story about Bora Zivkovic, Kathleen Raven tells us, you have essentially also heard her own story about him. Her story is actually a bit more complicated, but Raven also writes too ambiguously about the events for my tastes. Her emotion lacks an objective correlative, "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of a particular emotion," as T. S. Eliot defined it. Or, to put in Hemingway's terms, we vaguely sense how we're supposed to feel upon hearing her story, but we can't quite discern "the actual things ... which produced the emotion that [she] experienced." "The real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion," does not quite come into view.

Here's my sense of what happened.

She had had a couple of glasses of wine on an empty stomach. In November of 2010, Raven was a graduate student attending a conference reception, "eager to get [her] name out to potential employers". Zivkovic had obvious potential in that regard and she "ended up in a cab with" him heading towards a restaurant for dinner with a group of people. Though slightly impaired by the wine, she was able to follow his story about coming to America, asking many questions. After dinner, Zivkovic paid for her part of the bill and what follows is best to get in her words:

I made my way to the hotel lobby, anxious to get away from Bora because I knew I was putting myself in a risky situation. But somehow we ended up standing together in front of the elevators. “Let’s go up to the bar at the top,” he suggested to me. I nodded. Once there, I ordered a plain Coke. He talked and talked. I don’t remember much. I do remember, as we later both stood waiting for the bell to signal my floor, that he leaned over and kissed me on top of my head. I mumbled a farewell as the doors opened and walked away.

The story picks up in May, 2012. Raven had won an internship in New York, which offered Zivkovic a chance to see her about once a month when he had business in the same building. They spoke with such familiarity on these visits that a coworker who overheard them thought they might be married. In July, he invited her to dinner and she accepted. She reminded him of the kiss he "stole" when they first met, apparently forgetting to censure him for it. When they stepped outside he told her, like he would tell Byrne a few months later, of his current marital difficulties. She now forced the issue, asking him whether he wanted to sleep with her. He appears to have indicated he would. She told him she was not interested. He apologized.

Although she says that his answer "confirmed [her] worst fears," for some reason, and one that is not specified, they continued to meet. He apparently continued to express a sexual interest in her. As she tells the story, he had not understood that she wanted to nothing to do with him personally. She also seems to have had some difficulty just telling him frankly that she was not interested in being his friend or unrequited love interest. As a result they appear to have had a very complicated relationship, much of which took the form of an email correspondence. He seems to have gotten the impression that clear boundaries had been drawn and that they were therefore able to speak freely. Aside from that kiss on the forehead and, no doubt, some hugging. The relationship never became physical. (Raven certainly does not tell us that it did.)

There is an episode in which everyone behaves very strangely:

This past June [2013], at the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists meeting in Helsinki, I participated on a panel with my incredibly talented fellow science journalists. Bora recruited all of us and organized the panel. On the night before the meeting began, he arrived to the official conference hotel late at night. “Which room are you in?” Bora texted before or soon after he entered the hotel. I sent him the room number where my husband and I stayed. “Can I come by and see you now?” he texted. “No, I’m afraid we have to wait until tomorrow morning. My husband is already in bed, sorry,” I texted back. A few moments later, I heard a knock at our door. I opened it expecting to see housekeeping staff. Bora stood there. He said, “Hi!!” and walked past me into our room. My husband sat shocked in our hotel bed. Bora grabbed me in an embrace, picked me up, swirled me around, and kissed me on the cheek. After a few minutes of small talk, he left.

The date is important. According to the fragments of an email correspondence Raven published, this is almost a year after they appear to have established some ground rules for their relationship. As Zivkovic apparently understood it, "the ‘dangerous’ moments [had] passed, and [they had the] beginning of a wonderful friendship, having each other as confidants, enjoying each others company, enjoying intellectual discussions, sharing deepest secrets with complete trust, and yes, feeling safe to do flirty things with each other fully knowing it does not mean a breach of trust." Obviously, Zivkovic thought they were friends and that any problems in their relationship would be worked out between them in private. It's not hard to imagine that Raven (and her husband) thought Zivkovic was nuisance by the time he showed up in their hotel room. What is difficult to understand is how this felt like harassment.

Raven's story is somewhat disjointed, impressionistic. She gives us glimpses of encounters that do seem strange, but that also leave us wondering why she continues to cultivate the friendship. If she was ever his subordinate, she does not say so. (This is a very important piece of information in a sexual harassment story.) She has organized her presentation, not chronologically, but according to the kind of communication that passed between them. First the in-person encounters, then an exchange of emails. (I've tried to restore chronological the order a little here.) Throughout, the reader is looking for the source of the power he had over her. It seems to be mentioned only in passing at the very beginning: she was "eager to get [her] name out to potential employers". As with Byrne, he didn't seem to think of himself as an employer. He just liked her and he thought she liked him.

Throughout she seems to have been in complete control of the boundaries of the relationship. Finally, in August of 2013 she tells him bluntly to stop talking about his sex life to her, and by October she breaks off the relationship entirely. "We can no longer be friends," she wrote to him, arguably at the very moment when he needed friends to stand by him as the accusations of sexual harassment were surfacing. Indeed, from a narrative point of view, the remark is jarring. It reminds us of the earlier definition of the relationship, in which Zivkovic clearly stated that he considered her his friend, indeed, a very close friend. Apparently, she had encouraged him in this belief throughout the past year, and we (the readers) suddenly realize that this is the same period throughout which she felt he was harassing her.

I want to stress, as I did in my reading of Byrne's story, that I am not questioning the facts or even Raven's experiences. I am pointing out some weaknesses in her writing about them. I am suggesting that the emotion she says she felt (that of being harassed) remains "in excess of the facts" as presented. They do not provide it with an objective correlative. She says she "left [their] meetings feeling crushed, confused, cowardly." She says she felt "violated" by a kiss on the forehead that she "didn't ask for". But at no point does she seem to actually get hurt.

Ironically, Raven does provide a formula for another emotion: Zivkovic's despair. Recall that she not only turns her back on him in a time of need but, in that very moment, recasts (for the first time we know of) their year-long friendship as a prolonged campaign of harassment. That moment must have been as jarring for him as it is for the reader. "I am not a suicidal type," he writes to her after she reverses the poles, "but I see no reason to live any more." That's an emotion one can actually find a basis for in the narrative. I submit that it is a poor story that leaves us feeling only sympathy for the would-be villain and only confusion about how the soi-disant victim was harmed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What Happened

"...the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action..." (Hemingway)

According to Monica Byrne, Bora Zivkovic friended her on Facebook sometime in the fall of 2012. She was "delighted". Zivkovic was a well known blogger and editor at Scientific American and Byrne was an aspiring writer. She assumed that he was making contact because of her writing. She sent him a link to a recent piece she had done and invited him for coffee. He accepted.

But he did not seem to be interested in her writing after all. He wanted to tell her about himself and his marital problems. Apparently, he thought she had invited him on a date. From the start, she struggled to maintain the illusion that this was a "business meeting", that he might take her on as a writer for Scientific American or in some other way help her career. He, by contrast, seemed to be trying to situate the date in his own midlife crisis. He talked about sexual frustrations at home and a near-affair he once had. She was uncomfortable with these topics, but she listened and nodded politely.

A strange thought now occurred to her. "In my head, I told myself that I could still write for him, as long as I didn’t meet with him in person ever again." He had told her he was a "huggy person", and she considers herself to be one too, so she hugged him when they parted. He continued the flirtation with a Facebook message saying that he had enjoyed the sexual turn the conversation had taken. He was apparently reinforcing the idea that the relationship was, if anything, a personal one, perhaps even a romantic one.

Upon seeing this message, she still believed she could "salvage the working relationship." But she soon thought better of it and finally sent him a message explaining how she really felt. She made it clear that she was not comfortable with the conversation and admitted to him that she had concealed this at the time in the hopes that he might help her with her writing career. She also suggested that their coffee meeting constituted an act of sexual harassment. He was traveling at the time and didn't respond immediately. When he did, he offered her an apology, explaining that he was going through a difficult time but that he was past that now. The story tells of no further communication between them.

According to Byrne, the strange notion that she might "salvage" a professional connection to Zivkovic and yet never meet with him in person again was a result of "trauma", as was her politeness throughout the meeting. Even when they hugged, she was "still in shock". She reported "the incident" to Scientific American and she wrote her blog post, "This Happened", about it. She "thought it was important to speak up for [aspiring science writers]. And for all women who might have been put in this position by this guy—or ever are, by any guy. This is what sexual harassment looks like."

The problem with this claim is that her story lacks adequate imagery. If this is what sexual harassment looks like then sexual harassment is virtually invisible even when it's happening right in front of your eyes. The relevant action and the resulting "trauma" occurs inside Byrne's mind. From a narrative point of view, this could easily be fixed by introducing some important elements.

First, Byrne could have specified that she approached Zivkovic to talk about her writing. In her account, she is needlessly vague about this. She says she sent him a link to a piece she had written and invited him for coffee. This could mean many things. It could mean that she wrote him a professional email, explaining who she is and that she would like to talk about possible opportunities. Under those circumstances, it would indeed be inappropriate for Zivkovic to push a romantic, or even just "friendly", agenda at the meeting. He would effectively be wasting her professional time for his personal pleasure. And he would be exploiting his position of power to that end, even if, and actually especially, if he also gave her a writing gig to keep her attention.

Clarifying such initial correspondence is important especially since the contact was made through Facebook. While it's not purely a dating site, it's also not a purely professional networking tool. Given the facts as stated by Byrne, we can imagine an invitation from which it would have been reasonable for him to draw the conclusion that she was contacting him for pleasure not profit. Indeed, it's even possible that she was intentionally vague about her intentions in order to maximize her chances of meeting him. That sort of thing does happen. So it's important to tell the story in way that rules it out. This could have been easily done by posting the exact wording of the invitation.

Byrne says she was "furious" when Zivkovic implied that their conversation just sort of ended up being about sex. He was pretending, she believed, that he didn't intentionally make that happen. "The conversation had gone that way," she suggests, "because he’d very deliberately led it there, and kept it there, despite my non-response." Notice that she doesn't say, "despite my objections". This is how she had described the situation in her narrative:

None of these topics were invited by me. I tried to listen politely and nod when he paused, but otherwise not engage or encourage him. He seemed not to notice how uncomfortable I was. I was trying to mitigate the situation as it was unfolding—which I later read is a common immediate response to trauma, trying to minimize it or pretend it didn’t happen.

In other words, she may very well have been successfully concealing her discomfort from Zivkovic. She says he "seemed not to notice" but her account is also consistent with his actually not having noticed. She was trying to land a writing gig; she even freely admitted this to him later. She was making an effort to keep things cordial. And it was under these circumstances that he intimated more and more details about his private life. This, remember, is simply her account of the events.

My point here is not that she wasn't harassed. Perhaps she was. My point is that she is writing about it in a way that doesn't establish an objective correlative for the emotion. Her discomfort and "trauma" is "in excess of the facts" as Eliot puts it. It's possible that this is because it's all in her mind. But that's not the claim I'm making. I'm saying there's nothing here to see that looks (to me) like harassment. I'm asking Byrne, as a writer, to be more detailed.

Please believe that I thought long and hard about the ethics of criticizing a self-described harassment victim's abilities to describe her own harassment. It's not clear to me whether the criticism is made crueler or more fitting (or both) by the fact that she is a writer, a published novelist. In this series of posts, in any case, I'm deliberately concentrating on professional writers and critiquing, not their experiences, but their writing about them. I think it's important that we become good at writing about these things, about what actually happened to make us feel certain things, rather than what we've been conditioned to feel and conditioned to say.

But there's an important thing to consider here: in a court of law (or some other "due process") the facts would be determined by the collective efforts of the accuser, the accused, and an authority. It is precisely because we are relying on first-person accounts that have to stand entirely alone that this literary problem arises.

In fact, the literary demand for an "objective correlative" is like the "reasonable person" test in legal proceedings. You can't just say, "He looked at me and it made be feel bad," and expect an authority to punish him for sexual harassment. You have to describe something that a reasonable person would interpret as harassment, i.e., you have to say "what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced" and do so in such a way that a reasonable would experience the same emotion when faced with the same "sequence of motion and fact". That's the sense in which your description will fit "the formula of a particular emotion." And, if the facts can be determined to be as you say, if the motions are found to have happened as you describe them, then he will indeed be dealt with with all due severity.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fact and Emotion

"A writer's problem does not change. He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it and seems actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I've worked at it very hard." (Ernest Hemingway)

Beyond the immediate, practical difficulty it constitutes in the daily lives of men and women, sexual harassment can be approached as both a scientific and a political problem. We can try to determine the general facts of sexual harassment, its prevalence and scope in a particular community, or we can engage in activism against sexual harassment, raising awareness about its harmful effects and influencing policy to mitigate them. I've been doing both here at this blog. But sexual harassment also has a distinctly literary dimension; there is the problem of how to write about it. This problem arises every day (as it were) in journalism, and episodically in the blogosphere. Its ultimate solution is no doubt still out there to be discovered by a competent novelist. In any case, it is what will be concerning me over the next few posts here.

In Death in the Afternoon (1932), Hemingway offers an excellent statement of why writing is hard:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (p. 10)

It is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's definition of what he called the "objective correlative" in a work of art: "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of a particular emotion" (SW, p. 100). I think it is important to keep in mind that sexual harassment is not so much a fact that one is confronted with as an emotion one is subject to. This goes, no doubt, for the victim as much as the perpetrator. When Ezra Pound said that "the arts provide the data for ethics" he meant that they help us to recognize the emotions we feel precisely. They make us more emotionally accurate. To deploy a somewhat overused, but entirely apt, word in this context, the arts improve our empathy, our compassion, our ability to feel what others feel. Ideally, the accurate representation of sexual harassment in art would make us able to better feel how we are making others feel.

In the context of natural science, there is, today, a "literature" on sexual harassment. The subject has not, to my knowledge, found its way explicitly into a work of science fiction, but I certainly recommend it to a writer who is brave enough to tackle it. I think we can all agree that it would take some courage for a writer of vulnerable reputation to take on the subject of sexual harassment among scientists. Perhaps I can, not only inspire them, but also encourage them. Perhaps what I offer here can even be useful to them in a technical way.

Leaving aside official reports and the testimony included in them (which are difficult to hold to any particular literary standard), the written accounts of sexual harassment available to us for critical examination have been produced mainly by journalists, often science journalists, which in some cases means scientists who have become "science communicators". There is also at least one notable attempt to produce a literary representation of a "typical" case of sexual harassment in astronomy by the president of the American Astronomical Society. What is interesting is that many of these accounts are written in the first person, by people who are explicitly trying to capture "the actual things ... which produced the emotion that [they] experienced," as Hemingway puts it. The purpose of such writing is presumably also the one stated by Hemingway: "to project [the experience] in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it".

As journalism, however, it is clearly also "aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day." It is not often, as Pound described literature, "news that stays news." But even if it is merely news and not quite literature, it does in a certain sense attempt to provide Pound's "data of ethics". In most cases, we are being given the account of a woman who felt harassed by the actions of man; we are presented with a "sequence of motion and fact", and it is being offered as "the formula of [the] particular emotion" that "shall be" known in the community as "sexual harassment". Unfortunately, we are given only one side of the story. If the writing is successful, we are shown how it feels to be harassed. Interestingly, part of the experience is often the feeling that the perpetrator is unaware of his effects on the victim. The literature on sexual harassment, rarely presents his side of the story, his experience. This, it is believed, would give him an undeserved "platform" to defend himself. I would counter that it would provide would-be harassers with data that might be useful in modulating their behavior. We are trying to learn how to treat each other with respect.

To that end, I'm going to embark on a project of literary criticism. I'm going to look, first, at one of the earliest cases of the current wave of sexual harassment awareness in science, namely, the shaming and firing of Bora Zivkovic for his treatment of several female science writers during his tenure as blog editor at Scientific American. I became aware of this case during my coverage of the Tim Hunt affair because, as people pointed out to me, many of the same journalists who were unjustly shaming Hunt had participated in the shaming of Zivkovic. I read the accounts of Monica Byrne and Kathleen Raven with great interest, and what I found was both puzzling and worrying.

As I've suggested in my posts on Sarah Ballard, the accusation of sexual harassment does not seem to find any straightforward ground in the facts of the case. Rather, it is asserted again and again that she had a number emotional experiences, feelings, which suggest that she at the very least thought she was being harassed. Or, rather, she had experiences, the memories of which would, years later, lead her to conclude that she had been harassed. But, as I've also put it, this emotion lacks any obvious objective correlative. Once we have listened, as the famous slogan would have us do, to the relevant objects, situations, and chains of events, we do not immediately find ourselves believing that she was harassed. We do not, as it were, feel her harassment as a reality, as "part of our experience", as we read the account.

This is true also of the "data" provided by Byrne and Raven. It's not that we (their readers) think they are lying, although that accusation has been made by some; it's that we can't locate the objective ground of the harassment accusation even on the assumption that everything happened as they say it did. This is the way I want to approach the stories told by Byrne and Raven. I want to critique them, not as inaccurate accounts of the facts, but as imprecise representations of emotion. I want to suggest that if we are going to have a serious conversation about what sort of behavior constitutes sexual harassment, i.e., what sort of things should not be done, or not be done in a particular sequence in particular situations, then we are going to have to write more lucidly, more truly, and perhaps, indeed, more honestly, about it. I also think we need to include in our data the experience of the alleged harasser.

These are just preliminaries. In the weeks to come, I want to start with Byrne, then look at Raven, and finally apply the lessons learned to understanding the case of Nicole Cabrera (which I've written about before). That is, ultimately I want apply the understanding of sexual harassment in the science writing community, to understanding sexual harassment in the astronomy community. I want to get beyond "element of timeliness" and toward and understand of harassment that might be "valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck ... always".

Friday, February 10, 2017

Political Violence

"One way a man untrivializes himself is to punch another man in the mouth." (Don DeLillo)

I didn't write about the punching of Richard Spencer when it happened. Perhaps I should have. Apparently, there's been some discussion about whether or not it was "okay" to punch him. For me, this is a no brainer. It was not okay to punch him. That's not because it's never okay to punch anyone. Sometimes it's okay to punch somebody. But it's never okay to run up to someone and punch him because you think he is Richard Spencer and you think Richard Spencer is a Nazi. It's not okay to punch a Nazi anytime you want. Like anyone else, even a Nazi has to give you some reason to punch him. If you don't wait for him to give a specific reason to punch him, you are doing what Nazis do. You're being a bully.

Think about it. You could say that the punch was "motivated", but the motivation was way too general to be of use here. It didn't arise and it won't pass. If it is a legitimate reason to punch Spencer, then Spencer should never again feel safe. If someone is just standing there being himself, you have no particular reason to punch him at this moment. You could have punched him an hour ago and you could wait an hour and the moment will be just as good. Indeed, if you're going to say it's okay to punch him now, what you're saying is that someone could be punching him again and again at this very moment. (On YouTube, of course, Richard Spencer is getting punched again and again as we speak for entertainment.) This image of continuous, ongoing violence brings to light the brutality of the single, arbitrary punch.

That's the next thing to think about. If you think the actual punch was "okay", i.e., fair, ask yourself whether a combination of punches would also have been okay. Ask yourself whether it would have been okay for one person to run up and hold Spencer and another to punch him in the face five times in quick succession. Or ask yourself whether the same blindside hit, but this time with a baseball bat, would have been okay. The end of this slippery slope is obvious. Ask yourself whether it would have been okay to shoot Richard Spencer.

This is what makes it a no brainer for me. The line has to be drawn squarely on this side of violence. Don't hit someone if there's nothing about the situation that calls for that exact kind of violence. There are times when shooting someone is justified. And times when punching someone is justified. But if the situation doesn't allow you to distinguish between the appropriate violent response, if it doesn't allow you to choose your weapon, then violence is simply not okay. The same, like I say, goes for the fact that the moment that Spencer was punched could not be distinguished from any other occasion. To punch him at the time was no more justifiable than it would be to punch him at any other time.

There can be no kind of person who can legitimately be subjected to arbitrary violence, no matter how mild, at any time, simply because of who that person is. Violence has a time and a place, an occasion on which it can be justified. Its subject in some way "asks for it". The story about it can be told such that a punch (and even a bullet) was an appropriate response, fit for the occasion. Norman Mailer once pointed out that Muhammad Ali's greatness could be seen in the moment he held back one last punch as George Foreman fell to the canvas in Zaire. The punch was not needed. The fight was already over. In Richard Spencer's case the fight had not even begun, because the only sense in which it had begun would imply that we are at war with whatever Richard Spencer represents. If you think that punch was okay, then that is what you want. War.

Postscript: Noel Plum, going at this a bit differently, gets this issue right too. We might say that just as my concern is that you won't know how hard to hit, Plum points out that you don't really know who to hit.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Romance of Science

"In Miami, this was the norm. [Here] white Americans had to assimilate to our culture, learning how to speak Spanish and how to kiss on the cheek, hello and goodbye." (Nicole Cabrera)

Culture matters. Kissing someone on the cheek is expected in one culture and forbidden in another. Touching someone on the shoulder is reassuring in one culture and disconcerting in another. Or rather, each culture has its way of kissing and its way of touching appropriately. Decency is neither in the lips of kisser or the cheek of the kissed, neither in the shoulder of the held or the hand of the holder. It's in the manner they are brought together—the manners that bring them together. What has interested me lately, for wholy impersonal reasons I assure you, is what the current norms are for touching and kissing astronomers.

Perhaps "norms" isn't the right word. These days, there are quite explicit rules on the subject, and I find this somewhat puzzling. If I were an astronomer, I would find it quite distressing. Consider the story Nicole Cabrera tells at the Women in Astronomy blog. As I read it, she met a young man at a conference. She was an undergraduate attending her first conference, he was a post-doc. Apparently, he took a liking to her, seeking out her company at the conference sessions whenever the chance arose. During the formal part of the program, he kept things professional and scientific, no doubt mindful that her primary interest in being at the conference was to learn about science and try out her own ideas on other smart people. He seems to have offered engaging and interesting conversation on this front.

But one evening at a social function he got the courage to proposition her. He invited her to sit with him in a sofa, and when he thought the moment was right, he put his hand on her knee and invited her to his hotel room. She politely declined, making reference to a relationship she was in at the time. This ended the conversation. Nothing further happened. He appears to have taken the rejection in stride.

Joan Schmelz (I presume) appended an editor's note to the blog post, which made the significance of the story for so-called "allies" in the anti-sexual harassment movement explicit:

If this incident had happened in 2014 and not 2009, Nicole could have called on Astronomy Allies for help. Incidents like this illustrate the need for the Allies Program. If you ever feel like you are being stalked, harassed, or targeted at an AAS meeting, please know that you are not alone. Contact an Astronomy Ally!

This reminded me of a project I've had on the back burner for a while. The American Astronomical Society, like most professional organizations, has an anti-harassment policy, not least to govern interactions at conferences like those between Nicole and her suitor. The policy is promoted at conferences with official signage, which offers a very broad definition of “harassment”—namely, anything “unwanted”—and encourages people who “experience or witness” such behavior to report it using a phone number. It seems like a very simple and direct procedure, which got me thinking.

For further information, we are directed to the Executive Officer of the AAS, Kevin Marvel. I wrote to him back in November. My first question was simple: How many reports have been made at AAS meetings since this policy has been implemented and the reporting mechanism established? This question is especially relevant in the light of the framing of Cabrera's story at the Women in Astronomy blog: this is one of the "unreported" harassment incidents that are now easier to report.

At the time, I was asking to get a better sense of the prevalence of the problem of harassment in astronomy, about which there has been a lot of press lately, but not a lot of data. The use of the hotline would provide a useful indicator. But since the reporting system does not allow anonymous complaints, and requires detailed information about the problematic encounter, we here also have a way of understanding the nature (not just the frequency) of harassment in astronomy. This led to my second question: What sorts of behaviours are being reported to the hotline?

Kevin offered a detailed and helpful response:

To date [November 16, 2016] we have had 8 anti-harassment complaints since our anti-harassment policy went into effect in 2008. Not everyone uses the hotline, so that is not the right statistic to reference. This number captures all complaints received, including the hotline.

Reported behavior has ranged from inappropriate touching or propositioning to harassing language or aggressive questioning to the point where people felt threatened. Not all of the complaints have been made by women against men. Not all of the complaints have been about sexual harassment, although the majority have been.

All in all, that seems like a quite tolerable level, and it confirmed my sense—and my assumption before the Geoff Marcy story unleashed sweeping claims about "rampant" sexual harassment in astronomy—that astronomy is a community that is very hospitable to women and generally manned (if you'll allow it) by decent people who treat each other with kindness and respect. Kevin did emphasize that there was concern about unreported incidents, but described the available data as "positive".

When I read Cabrera's story last week, I immediately sent Kevin and Schmelz emails asking them to clarify the nature of the transgression. Was the behavior Cabrera describes against the harassment policy of the ASS? I asked Kevin. In Schmelz's case, since she seems pretty clear that her answer is "yes", I asked her to clarify just exactly what he did wrong and what she thinks should happen to him as a result. I haven't yet heard back from Schmelz, but Kevin offered the following:

We deal with each harassment issue as it comes to us in the same way. That process is detailed in our anti-harassment policy and begins with a written complaint and an investigation. Based on the facts and the severity of any inappropriate action and any history of past incorrect behavior, different responses would result. There is not a one-size fits all solution. The AAS believes it is inappropriate for a professional science conference to be considered a dating or pickup zone. We believe that a professional scientific conference should be just that, a scientific conference. Our actions in establishing and advertising our anti-harassment policy and processing the few claims we have received fully and confidentially are steps to establish an open culture focused on science. We believe we are succeeding and we will continue to take steps to ensure that culture is maintained.

Now, in the Cabrera case, most of the facts are known, and for the sake of argument let us assume that they are uncontested. That is, let us take the blog post as the text of a "written complaint", and let us assume that the subsequent investigation would have extracted a full confession. Let's imagine that the post-doc simply admits to doing exactly what Cabrera says he did.

I think it is worth discussing this in the community. I think it's worth defending the post-doc's actions as wholly appropriate, at least for the sake of argument, i.e., for the sake of having a conversation about how romantic relationships can even begin to happen at conferences without undermining the important work of science. Indeed, it is interesting how well Tim Hunt actually captured this problem with his his infamous "trouble with girls" remark. One of the difficulties that having both genders is science constitutes is simply love. There's no avoiding it. "The doctors are working day night," sings Leonard Cohen, "but they'll never ever find a cure for love."

Kevin gets a little too close (for my tastes) to suggesting that they will:

The AAS believes it is inappropriate for a professional science conference to be considered a dating or pickup zone. We believe that a professional scientific conference should be just that, a scientific conference.

Is it really the AAS's official position that no romances can be pursued at an AAS conference? Notice how careful the post-doc in Cabrera's story was. If he wanted to talk to her during the day, he made sure to keep it about the science. "Every interaction was friendly and professional," Cabrera writes, "and we talked mostly about my research and my studies." He waited until "the unofficial party happened" to make his move. He was completely open about his situation and his intentions. She rejected his offer. And that was the end of it. Is it really the position of Joan Schmelz and Kevin Marvel and the American Astronomical Society that this kind of thing should never happen?

Notice that letting it happen doesn't turn the entire conference into "a dating or pickup zone". But it does suggest something that I had thought was obvious and desirable: science isn't the only thing that happens at a scientific conference. It's also a lot of fun. People don't just "network" professionally. They actually socialize. The make new friends and, occasionally, find a new lover.

I sometimes hold time management seminars for researchers. When we get to the topic of conferences, I usually indulge in a little humor. I encourage them not to bring their "work" with them. That is, I tell them to get their writing, grading, and grant-applying done before they get to the conference. Don't sit in your hotel room between sessions working. "Let your schedule be open to what conferences are for," I tell them. "Things like: networking, catching up with old friends ... adultery." It usually elicits a little laughter, some of it nervous. Are we really going to have to give up the mild "debauchery" (outside the workshop) of the academic conference in the interest of gender equality? I, for one, hope not. But I'm not an astronomer. This isn't my community. I'm just hoping astronomers have a serious conversation about this before they turn out the lights. In the sky?

Monday, February 06, 2017

Astronomy Bleg

I don't know how many astronomers read my blog these days, but I imagine that it's more than were reading before I started writing about Geoff Marcy. This post is a simple request for assistance and information. Feel free to post anonymously in the comments below. Please don't post if you're not a member of the astronomy community. [You can interpret membership very widely, as in the first comment below.]

First, I'm curious to know how my work on sexual harassment in astronomy is being received by astronomers. Do you think what I'm doing is helpful or harmful? Or do you think it's just a waste of my time?

Second, how interested would you be in an official response to the sorts of arguments I'm making. Do you think university administrators, the AAS, the CSWA, science policy makers, etc. should engage publicly with my concerns? Or do you think that this would be a waste of their time?

Third, why isn't there a conversation about these things with more than one side? As I've put it before, where are the substantive disagreements? Where are the detailed discussions about how serious the problem is and what the best way to fix it might be? Do you think things are already going in the right direction, and all we need is a periodic reminder and something new to be ashamed of? Shouldn't serious questions like this be talked about seriously?

Finally, is there anything you can do to break through the silence I'm encountering from the "ally" community. I've reached out to most of the major and some of the minor figures in the movement to end harassment in astronomy. Very few of them seem willing to speak to me. On one level, that's fair enough, since I'm not really a member of the community. But what disappoints me, as I just said above, is that no one else is discussing these things either, at least not as something one might sometimes be wrong about. I seem to be the only who is engaging with the movement critically. What gives?

All comments and advice are welcome. I'm happy to stand corrected on my assumptions in this post. And I'll footnote this post with such corrections as needed. Please do circulate this bleg to other astronomers if you feel inclined. I really do want to learn how this looks from inside the field.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Beautiful Minds and Beautiful Bodies

As a counterpoint to my post on a scene from Cannonball Run 3, which was not nominated for any academy awards, consider a scene from the Best Picture of 2001, A Beautiful Mind. John Nash is at the pub with his colleagues. A girl at the bar is watching him playing pool. They encourage him to go talk to her, and he does. He sits down on the bar stool. She's obviously interested in him, but he is awkward and doesn't say anything. She breaks the uncomfortable silence by suggesting that he buy her a drink. He explains that he's not very good at this sort of thing and perhaps, since it's all just about an "exchange of fluids" anyway, that maybe they should just go straight to the "intercourse". She calls him an asshole, slaps him, and walks away.

The scene is intended to be comical and mainly sympathetic to Nash. His eponymous "beautiful mind" is both brilliant and schizophrenic. The "harm" done in the scene, at least according to the director, is done to Nash not to the woman, who walks away with her dignity in tact. He is just an ordinary socially awkward man who lacks the charm to win an otherwise perfectly available woman for an evening's "exchange of fluids". Neither the filmmaker nor the audience, I suspect, feels any particular sympathy for the mentally ill person who is here subjected to violence for saying the wrong thing to the wrong woman. (He gets away with saying something similar to his future wife later in the film.) This is all considered perfectly amusing, if a little tragic, especially in the late 1940s, where the scene is set, but also in 2001 when the film was made. We understand what happened here.

Sixty-five and fifteen years later, many things have changed. In my upcoming posts I want to look at two examples in which the men are known, and had their careers ended as a result of engaging in behavior roughly similar to that demonstrated by Russell Crowe in his portrayal of John Nash. One of them is the case of Geoff Marcy, which I've already written a great deal about. The other is the case of Bora Zivkovic, which I haven't yet looked at closely, but which seems worth investigating. The cases as such are only loosely connected. But I think they are bound together after being caught up in a sort of dragnet. There has been a lot of activism on the sexual harassment front, and it seems to have started within the science writing community with Zivkovic.

I think this pressure from the media side is telling. But I'll also try to unpack that in a later post. What I want to do here is highlight the curious case of Nicole Cabrera, who wrote a post for the Women in Astronomy blog back in 2015. I think it's best that you simply read that post before reading my take on it. It's not very long and I don't want to be accused of misrepresenting the facts.

As I read Cabrera's story, she was not at all the victim of sexual harassment. Rather, a man met her at a conference and took a fancy to her. In an attempt to impress her, he talked about her science, unsurprisingly making sure to do so in flattering terms. He waited until an appropriately social function to make an overt move, and his advances were rejected. He respected her rejection, and nothing further happened.

Before you make too much out of that hand he put on her knee, let's acknowledge that it was probably a result of his misinterpreting a physical cue from her. And let's further compare it to how you feel about a woman slapping a man for asking her to skip the preliminaries and go straight to the sex. If you want to ban the unwanted hand on a knee at a party, you're going to have to ban also the no less desired slap to the face in a pub. There are versions of each that should rightly be considered assault, and in those cases we rightly call the police. But do we really want university bureaucracies to adjudicate the "professional" appropriateness of these actions and reactions?

"Boundary issues" are always issues on the boundary between minds and bodies, or even hearts and minds. Back in 2001, it seems, it was understood that scientists were somewhat awkward in matters of the heart. By 2015, they were losing their jobs because women were feeling uncomfortable with that awkwardness. Surely there is some cause for concern here?

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Basic Values

Here is the core problem with Chancellor Dirks' position on Milo Yiannopoulos's free speech rights:

While we have made clear our belief that the inflaming rhetoric and provocations of Mr. Yiannopoulos were in marked opposition to the basic values of the university, we respected his right to come to campus and speak once he was invited to do so by a legitimate student group. The violence last night was an attack on the fundamental values of the university, which stands for and helps to maintain and nurture open inquiry and an inclusive civil society, the bedrock of a genuinely democratic nation.

At the very moment that he is supposed to condemn the violence that suppressed Yiannopoulos's right to speak (and his audience to hear), he denounces Yiannopolous's speech. At first pass, this might look like a version of "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." But it is undermined by its own verbiage. Dirks does not just "disapprove" of Yiannopolous's rhetoric; he describes it as "opposed to the basic values of the university". And he does not go so far as to offer to defend Yiannopolous's rights to the death; he says merely that the riots, too, were "an attack on the fundamental values of the university".

Notice that this casts Yiannopoulos's "rhetoric and provocations" in the very same role as the protesters' violence. It suggests that speech can be as much in opposition to the "fundamental values" of the UC Berkeley community as the violence intended to suppresses speech. What Dirks' has forgotten is that (with a few famously debated exceptions) no speech is against the basic values of a community whose fundamental value is free speech.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Thoughts on UC Berkeley Riot

Unlike Ken White, I did not think that UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks' statement about Milo Yiannopoulos was "exceptionally good". While violent protestors are, of course, entirely responsible for their own actions, I think the protests could have been tempered by a stronger statement in defense of, not just Yiannopoulos's right to speak, but the right of Berkeley students to hear him speak and the right of the Berkeley College Republicans to put on a speaking event on their campus. Though Dirks' statement did of course mount such a defense, it was weakened by his insistence on denouncing the speaker in very strong terms.

Instead, I think Dirks should have told prospective protesters simply that Yiannopoulos is the guest of a legitimate campus organization, that he is there only to speak, and therefore has the familiar rights that go along with that activity (rights that should be especially familiar at the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement). He should have said that formal requests to have the event cancelled have been received and noted. And that they have been rejected. [Update: he did say this.] Yiannopoulos would therefore arrive on campus as a guest of the University.

Dirks, on the contrary, appealed to a legal separation between the university and the college republicans to distance UC Berkeley from the invitation. This may have been technically correct, but I think it is unwise and, perhaps, a little disingenuous. The Chancellor, presumably, did have the legal authority to cancel the event at any time prior to the moment when it was, in fact, cancelled. He chose, rightly, not to do so. At that point, he should have extended practical protections to the event organizers and the guest speakers. I.e., he should have offered his hospitality.

Denouncing a guest in advance of his visit cannot be considered hospitable by any measure. I would argue that the Chancellor in effect declared the event "fair game" for protest, and even disruption. What he should have said is that he considers Yiannopoulos his personal guest, and no disruption will be tolerated. Berkeley had decided to "hear his views" and his views, accordingly, would be heard by Berkeley. Students who participate in making it impossible for the event to proceed should be expelled on those grounds.

This is a strong case of what I have called the need for decorum on college campuses. In fact, I have suggested that once a speaker has been approved by college administrators and the venue has been allocated, it is entirely appropriate to ban protest against the speaker.

The important thing is not to invite speakers that then feel genuinely unwelcome. The speaker is a guest and should be treated accordingly by the entire student and faculty population. The relevant protest could easily be held well before or after the event and should be directed at the administrators who allow it to go forward and the student leaders who selected the speaker. Students who feel that the wrong speakers are generally invited to campus might consider studying at a different school, where student organizations, united by different interests and values, choose different points of view to listen to. If the Chancellor judges that students will rise up violently against a speaker—i.e., that the Chancellor's authority cannot protect the speaker from violence—then the Chancellor should indeed disinvite the speaker. But this should lead to some serious reflection about what sort of culture the community fosters.

Banning protests and dis-inviting speakers are sometimes appropriate actions, I want to stress, but not always necessary. Some campuses will be able to trust their students to demonstrate peacefully and respectfully, even with a sense of humor. Berkeley's chancellor clearly cannot trust the culture of protest his students practice. I think the UC Berkeley community should be ashamed of itself this morning. And I think Chancellor Dirks has an important statement to issue in the days to come. I'm looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.