21 January 2014

Goddesses, editors, and owning your words

UPDATE: It appears as though Henry Gee has deleted his Twitter account.  I wonder if some sort of official statement from NPG is coming, or if we will see some kind of apology from Gee. 

Ironically, perhaps the best advice on apologies I can find come from two of Gee's critics - Janet Stemwedel and Kelly Hills.  The Harvard Business Review Blog has a good primer.  In my line of work, Shel Holtz is known as a smart guy and has had something to say about this as well. 

The best piece of advice on apologies I could probably give NPG right now is to make sure they include an of act of contrition.  Or as they say in Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, "saying I'm sorry is the first step.  Then how can I help?" 

I'm  grateful to the community of online science writers because I learn new things from them almost every day.  Of course, lately those lessons have very little to do with science. I had no idea this community was such a fertile source of public relations case studies.

In recent months, the topics of evolution and exploration have taken a back seat to stories of power dynamics, personal insecurities, and institutional inertia.  From my virtual vantagepoint as a "PR guy," it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  Here's the latest.

"Isis the Scientist" describes herself as an "exercise physiologist at a major research university."  She is a passionate and provocative feminist and an active blogger with many friends in her community. She focuses, understandably, on the challenges women face in science and academia. She doesn't use her real name online.  She's good at getting under the skin of people who don't agree with her. Also she has amazing taste in shoes.   

Henry Gee is an author and senior editor at Nature.  He is known for his scholarship, his fiction, and his provocative comments as well.  Isis has criticized him in the past, as have others.  Few people can match his passion for the books of J.R.R. Tolkien.

A few days ago, Isis made a back-handed "subtweet" (actually, opinions differ about what a subtweet is) about Gee.  A day later, Gee responded on Twitter by revealing Isis' name and professional affiliation several times, calling her "inconsequential" and sarcastically suggesting Nature was "quaking in its boots" because Isis wouldn't read the publication.  He then sent a few messages to others on Twitter suggesting he had been the victim of ceaseless harassment from Isis that took a significant toll on him and others.  Isis responded by essentially taking the high road

Clearly the two have some sort of history, though as PZ Myers notes there isn't much to see publicly.  I have no idea what has gone on behind the scenes. 

First, the issue of transparency and "outing" or "doxing" people.  I've been pretty consistent about this issue, even when it applies to science communication. One example of my thoughts comes from 2011: 
The one quote that still resonates with me from #scio11 came from Steve Silberman at the panel on “keepers of the bullshit filter.” He said you can’t call bullshit on someone if you’re anonymous. I know this is a sensitive topic for many in the science blogsophere, and some of my favorite science bloggers don’t use their names. But as a PR guy with a political background it’s so important. It goes to the heart of credibility. It drives me nuts when I see so many political ads out there funded by people who don’t want you to know who they are. If I tried to hide my identity or my interests while speaking for a client I’d be slaughtered for it, and rightfully so. If you want to influence people with your writing, I think it’s important to be transparent and to own your words.
I have long thought it's important to reveal the identities of people who use anonymity to help them harass or attack others without accountability, to hide a conflict of interest, or to conceal an obvious and harmful hypocrisy.  But I also know that transparency is easy for me.  I can own my words and share my opinions without much fear of reprisal.  If I'm attacked, a formal and an informal system is in place to defend me.  I'm given the benefit of every doubt.  I'm a straight white man with an education and a job.

What happens to women who voice opinions (or even facts) under their own name?  Ask Amanda Hess or Amy Wallace or Adria Richards or Caroline Criado Perez or countless others.  If you're a woman and you're just talking about general stuff, you can expect someone to invoke your femininity as a reason to not take your thoughts seriously.  If you  have something to say that challenges the existing power dynamic, you can expect rape threats, death threats or worse.  Some women can take the abuse, some women can't, but one thing is certain: no one should have to.

Was Isis a bully, or was she trying to call someone on their crap? Opinions clearly differ.  What I've seen publicly leads me to believe she's more of a cultural whistleblower than an online thug.  She doesn't deserve the abuse she knows she's about to take - much of it directed toward her newly-known professional address. No one does.

One thing is certain: Isis now has to own her words, and there are a lot of them.  It seems as though she's prepared a least a little for this; she says her closest colleagues know her identity already.  I expect she may have an uncomfortable moment or two if she's suddenly reminded of a smug insult she threw upon meeting her target.

Of course, Gee has to own his words as well, and right now he looks petty and vindictive.  He claims Isis is "inconsequential" yet seems to suggest he still isn't over an argument he had four years ago and says the psychological pain he's felt is "huge."

Perhaps Isis has sinister, Hannibal Lecter-esque powers that allow her words to drive people to insanity or worse.  Maybe she's jealous of Gee and lashed out at him because she has horrible self-esteem. Perhaps she led a years-long campaign of torment and bullying and threats that only a public outing could stop.  Stranger things have happened.

Or, perhaps Gee is just another one of those entitled brats who, despite obvious intellect, can't discern the difference between intent and impact. Maybe he thinks he isn't about to be lectured by anyone on right and wrong, especially some mid-career Shelia who doesn't have the guts to use her real name. Or maybe he just can't get over the time someone got the best of him in an argument.  Stranger things have happened.

More importantly, however, Gee isn't the only one who now owns Gee's words.  Nature does as well, thanks to three things: his obvious and public position, the lack of an appropriate disclaimer on his Twitter bio, and his mention of his employer in his tweet.  If Gee thinks it's obvious he was only speaking for himself, he needs a lesson in public relations.

Wherever you go you're a representative of your company's brand, especially if you're a senior-level employee.  When in public (or online) you have to conduct yourself appropriately.  It's generally not wise to generate a series of tweets that look like the script of a soap opera.  It's one of the reasons we have disclaimers - such as the one Gee has on his personal blog. If it's on his blog and not on his Twitter account, it's easy to assume one is personal while the other is not - especially if your job title is "Senior Editor, Nature."

What's more, Journalists know that "outing" someone has to be done carefully, with significant preparation and consideration for the ramifications and safety of the person in question.  I don't know if Gee warned Isis privately that outing her was a possibility.  As an outspoken feminist it's clear Isis would be subject to hateful abuse likely up to and including rape and death threats, and it's just as clear Gee either didn't consider this or thought it wasn't as bad as the "hurtful untruths" he experienced.

Additionally, Something Isis and Michael Eisen mentioned is very important. Nature uses a peer review process that keeps the identity of reviewers confidential, apparently to protect the integrity of the review and to prevent "score-settling."   One of the senior editors has now demonstrated he is willing to reveal someone's identity to settle a personal score. As digital life continues to blur the lines between the personal and the professional, I'm not sure how Nature can credibly preserve their process without removing Gee from it.

Finally, all of this happens in a particular context.  This is just the latest in a string of unforced errors that demonstrates Nature Publishing Group's lack of situational awareness on inequality issues.  This simply reinforces the perception that when it comes to gender equity issues, NPG either doesn't get it or doesn't want to.

And if you think it's bad for them now, just wait for someone at NPG to decide to stand up to defend Gee.

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