Oh, great…the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck is still making stops and picking up passengers. This time the target is Neil deGrasse Tyson who someone, actually several somones, decided was a powerful man too full of himself who needed to be taken down a peg or sixty, and thus he has been accused–Democratic Senators would say “credibly” accused—of two episodes of sexual harassment and one rape. This is no trivial matter for Tyson, whose carefully constructed image as the new Carl Sagan is now in real danger. So is his job, his celebrity, his reputation and perhaps his marriage.
The three accusations belong in two boxes. The two sexual harassment claims may bolster each other, for harassing is an attitude, a habit, and a form of ethics blindness. Real harassers never do it just once. Rape is something else entirely, and, obviously, far more serious, since it is a crime.
Let’s examine each of the accusations, and Tyson’s defense, which he issued in a long Facebook post over the weekend.
Workplace Harassment: Hostile work environment and Unwanted sexual advances (2018)
Ashley Watson, who began a job as Dr. Tyson’s assistant on “Cosmos” in the spring, told an interviewer that on one occasion he asked if she would like to come to his home to share a bottle of wine and “unwind for a couple of hours.” She agreed to come in for one glass, she said, believing that they were going to talk about work and her future assignments.
Once in the astronomer’s apartment, she said, he told her that “as human beings, we all need release,” and asked if there were any “releases” she needed. (Oh-oh!) As she began to leave a while later, and he asked if she would let her show her a Native American handshake.” This required clasping their hands together , finding the pulse on the other person’s wrist, and looking into each other’s eyes. (Super Oh-oh, and also “You’ve got to be kidding me.”) She says that it made her uncomfortable, and she broke it off after about 10 seconds.
As she was again trying to leave, she says Dyson commented, “I want you to know that I want to hug you so bad right now, but I know that if I do I’ll just want more.”
Then, the next day, he told her, “You say you want to be a producer, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle for you because you’re too distracting.”
She says told a supervisor ,a line producer,about what had happened, and that she was quitting.. The supervisor, asked Watson if she wanted to file a complaint. She said no. The supervisor suggested she tell her co-workers that she was leaving because of a family emergency, which she did.
Comment: If accurately described, this is slam dunk sexual harassment. The apartment visit is an extension of the workplace. If it is a veiled “date,” Tyson has crossed a line because he is the woman’s supervisor with hiring and firing power. She cannot consent meaningfully. The release comment, depending on the delivery and context, is creepy and plausibly sexual in intent, unless he also said, “Me? I like to watch baseball. How about you?” The “Native American handshake” sounds like a nifty version of the old “shoulder rub.” Now there has been touching, and forced eye-gazing. Ew. The last comment at the apartment is also a sexual advance, especially in context with the rest.
Tyson’s Explanation: Not good. In his Facebook post, Tyson described the handshake as one he uses “in appreciation of people with whom I’ve developed new friendships.” He said that at work, Ms. Watson freely offered hugs, which he typically rejected, but that on a few occasions, he “clumsily declared, ‘If I hug you I might just want more.’”
“My intent was to express restrained but genuine affection,” he wrote.
He also wrote that . Watson had come into his office after the incident in his apartment and told him she had been “creeped out.” He said he had “apologized profusely” and that she had accepted the apology.
Comment: Tyson’s defense is essentially “I didn’t mean anything by it, she construed it the wrong way, and anyway, she accepted my apology.” Those are three excuses, none of which carries any weight in sexual harassment cases. It’s what the harasser did, and how the harassed felt about it that matter. His apology and her acceptance of it, even if true, do not and cannot undo the event. The encounter and his words made her uncomfortable working with him, and objectively, anyone can see why. It is also interesting that Tyson doesn’t deny the “release” conversation, or his later comment about her being a distraction.
Since Watson had to leave her job, this episode could justify a lawsuit for sexual harassment.
Accusation #2: Sexual assault (2009)
Katelyn N. Allers, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, told the website Patheos about meeting Dr. Tyson in 2009 at a party after a gathering of the American Astronomical Society. Dr. Allers has a tattoo of the solar system extending from an arm to her collarbone. She said Dr. Tyson was “obsessed” with whether the tattoo included Pluto. “He looked for Pluto, and followed the tattoo into my dress,” she now says. She did not object at the time. Now she says she found the incident “creepy” and that it made him uncomfortable.
Tyson’s Explanation: Tyson, who is, as if it wasn’t obvious already, a big enough nerd to have a continuing part on “Big Bang Theory,” noted that Pluto had lost its planet status p three years earlier, “so whether people include it or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me.” He said he did not know until now that Dr. Allers had been uncomfortable. “That was never my intent and I’m deeply sorry to have made her feel that way,” he wrote.
Comment: This sounds similar to the episode that got Garrison Keillor fired, but in that case the NPR star was in the workplace, and his victim was an employee. The episode would be an absurd basis for a sexual assault charge, and Allers sounds like the kind of professor who would turn up at a Congressional hearing decades later to tell the story. They were equals, it was a party, he was out of line, she should have put a stop to it, and could have. Yup, Tyson was wrong, rude, disrespectful, and may indeed ne so clueless that he didn’t realize it. For Allers to raise this nine years later, however, is unfair, and mean.
That said, the episode does put the 2018 accusation in context. Tyson clearly doesn’t get it, and the 2009 party assault lends credibility to the 2018 accusation. Men like this engage in sexual harassment and have no idea that they are doing anything wrong.
In addition, his statement that “whether people include [Pluto] or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me” doesn’t pass the giggle test. How many people have tattoos of the solar system, even in Tyson’s world?
Accusation #3: Rape (1984)
Tchiya Amet El Maat has publicly accused Tyson of raping her in 1984 when they were both graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. She says recalled Tyson giving her a drink of water that apparently caused her to become unconscious. She was naked and on his bed when she woke up, and when he saw she was awake, he started having sex with her. She says she passed out again, was blacked out much of the night.
In 2014, she filed a report with the Austin police, but her complaint was not investigated because Texas has a 10-year statute of limitation on sexual assault charges. Her report came 30 years after the alleged incident. She also says she never had a relationship with Tyson.
Tyson’s Explanation: He denies the whole thing. Tyson says El Maat and he had a brief relationship and that they had been “intimate only a few times, all at her apartment.” He finds the timing of the accusation suspicious, “as my visibility-level took another jump,” and notes that she says she cannot remember much of the night. “It is as though a false memory had been implanted, which, because it never actually happened, had to be remembered as an evening she doesn’t remember,” he wrote.
Comment: He said/she said, a decades-old incident, no substantiation. Tyson should be presumed innocent, and there is no reason to believe the female accuser, and many reasons to doubt her veracity and motives. Of course, what Tyson says now would be identical whether he was guilty or not. He is, or should be, considered innocent until proven guilty. Tyson’s progressive colleagues, fans and allies don’t believe in that principle, as we learned during the Kavanaugh hearings.
Good luck, Dr. Tyson.
A spokeswoman for the Museum of Natural History said that the museum was reviewing the recent allegations. “The museum is not aware of any other allegations and has received no complaints,” she said. Fox and National Geographic said in a statement that they had “only just become aware of the recent allegations regarding Neil deGrasse Tyson.”
“We take these matters very seriously and we are reviewing the recent reports,” they said.
I don’t know what good reviewing them will do., but if they are fair, the likely conclusion is this:
- The rape accusation should be discounted. It is too late, too foggy, unprovable, and unfair.
- The 2009 accusation is likely accurate, but by itself would be something that a mature, fair colleague would forgive. However, it does show a man whose ethics alarms don’t work very well around women.
- The 2018 episode was sexual harassment. Should Tyson forfeit his career because of it? He’s a scientist and TV personality, not a judge or an elected official. He needs to learn how to conduct himself professionally, and he should retire the “Native American handshake.” I would put him on probation, without having a lot of hope that he could avoid other sexual misconduct in the future, since he seems profoundly clueless.
My guess is, however, that he’s finished.
And the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck just keeps rolling..
Source: New York Times