I’ve held back on speaking publicly about Joi Ito’s actions as head of the MIT Media Lab, for several reasons. First, I’m both a friend of Joi’s and in a very casual way I talk with him about matters spiritual, and I didn’t (and don’t) want to shut down lines of communication in either capacity. Second, I didn’t want to get caught out having responded too rapidly while the news was still developing. Third, the floor was dominated by people with greater engagement on behalf of women who’ve endured rape and abuse, and there’s nothing I can say that would add to the righteous fury they express in the wake of the horrific, expanding, Epstein scandal. Fourth, I try to choose what I say carefully. In some ways, it’s still too soon to speak up; on the other hand, silence is complicity, and keeping quiet would betray my responsibility to women who experience sexual violence, and that would betray too many about whom I care.
A declaration of interest: Joi has been kind, interested, encouraging, and a committed friend to me. I’ve seen a very good side of Joi; I have respected him in many ways, and where I have disagreed with him, we have done so cordially and with generous patience. Thus (and for other reasons as well), in what follows I want to keep as close as is possible to recounting facts. The evident facts themselves say an awful lot.
If Joi had asked me for advice,* I’d have counselled him to have nothing whatever to do with Epstein or his money. I am sure Joi would have known this, just as he recognised Ethan Zuckerman’s principled stance against doing business with Epstein, and just as it has been said that he tried to keep Ethan (also a friend) away from Epstein and the women in his entourage. If (as seems clear) MIT had blacklisted Epstein as a donor, then soliciting donations from him and concealing those funds signify a self-conscious determination to violate the good advice of eminently trustworthy, respected friends as well as the prudential governance of his employers. Larry Lessig (whom I also count a friend, sees the anonymity as an ethically positive gesture, suggesting Epstein’s disinterested benefaction; others have raised questions about Larry’s apprehension of the ethics of philanthropic giving, arguing that Epstein was not disinterested at all, but hungrily seeking self-justification and ego-reinforcement from hobnobbing with great scientists. I’d simply add here that this secrecy does not resemble, to my mind, what the Judaic tradition teaches about anonymous giving being the height of charity, or what Jesus was talking about when he said ‘Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing.’ Epstein seems to have known exactly what both hands were doing.)
Now, soliciting major gifts involves delicate ethical judgements, and most institutions tilt the scales at least a little toward laxity. It’s only a very rare philanthropist who came by vast sums of money without the faintest trace of exploitation. (George Bernard Shaw dramatises vividly some of the intricacies of the moral calculus of wealth in Major Barbara.) The ethics of institutional development constitute a high-stakes game of poker, with the integrity of administrators and institutions at stake in every hand, and I can’t guess how many walk away from the table without having lost at least a little honour or integrity. Ardently as I believe in higher education (and museums, and social service agencies, and other ventures that depend on philanthropic charity to sustain their missions), some hands are not worth playing out, even if your cards are strong, even if you think you know your opponent’s tell, even if you’ve successfully bluffed before.
Not only did Joi use Epstein as a source for Media Lab funding, he also received substantial sums from Epstein for his own investment funds. Doing personal business with Epstein carries none of the (nominal) exculpatory value of serving higher ends.
Joi made a name for himself in part by building strong communities, strong teams. I know; I’m part of a couple of them to this day (so far as I know, Joi hasn’t looked in for a very long time). Such communities, such teams depend on trust and some sorts of altruism; one has to be willing to forgo certain sorts of satisfaction in the interest of others for the whole group to thrive. In the Warcraft guild that Joi founded, players from around the world not only cooperated for in-game accomplishments, but connected in enduring out-of-game relationships as well. The same is true of the circles of digital friendship in which Joi moved, and which in some cases he midwived.
He likewise took active roles in movements for open access and copyright reform, and as best I recall he was (at least, at the time) avowedly very committed to women’s causes.
The MIT Media Lab’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein repudiated the values and principles that made Joi’s superlative skill at parlaying weak ties into effective social connections as a positive force. Many of the people in Joi’s social network have admirable reputations for conscientious effort to make the world better, freer, safer, and more open; Ethan exemplifies them, and he has honourably sacrificed an extraordinary position for his work because he could not in conscience mix his social actions and paedagogy with toleration of and benefiting from Epstein’s evils. Others who respected and trusted Joi have found themselves defending somebody who betrayed them and belied their testimony.
And none of this comes close to the injury done those women who might have expected Joi to stand up for their interests, rather than throwing in his lot with their assailant.
This is where matters stand this morning; I’ve tried to keep this to agreed facts in the public domain.
Now, all of this unravels in a world criss-crossed by incoherent institutions relative to shame and honour. ‘Shame’ has been deprecated by many commentators; it has been used overwhelmingly to constrain and punish women, it provides a convenient outlet for anonymous bystanders to shore up their self-righteousness by piling on with others in convulsive mass condemnation, and its mechanisms entail attributing some sort of reality to entities such as reputation or souls or character or a moral status that subsists over time. Those are problematic and unpopular qualities.
But I’m not sure we can do without some manner of thinking and acting with the categories of honour and shame, and to some extent their widespread unpopularity makes it difficult to work out the way a populace should handle behaviour that may not be judicially culpable, but which nonetheless corrupts a community’s integrity, aspirations, and internal practices of informal moral evaluation. We have seen a long succession of public figures wanting, trying to make comebacks from wrongdoing of various kinds, and no coherent set of heuristic standards has emerged to guide publics’ deliberations of ‘how much is enough’, ‘what must they do’, or ‘there is no coming back’. We need to do better, for the sake of those who suffer wrong (that they may know that some consensus view of recompense, penitence, or retribution has been fulfilled) and for the sake of the society (lest it be continually be afflicted with wrongdoers who sashay back into roles of prominence and power by observing minimal markers of contrition, or none at all).
Gut feelings — affects — will appropriately play some part in all this, but we need more. We need, as it were, a social gut whose guidance reflects not the whims of a capricious unbound individual but a shared sense of the sort of people we must be, the sort of relationships we support (and discountenance), the sort of consequences we expect for all transgressors (not exculpating stars, nor vilifying the powerless). We need to grow a discourse of right, wrong, indictment, vindication, acquittal, and condemnation that better equips us to respond to moral challenges. Since not every praiseworthy action brings a direct reward, though, and not every disreputable action warrants judicial penalty, that goal will entail acknowledging a bound-ness to honouring some kinds of conduct, and shaming other sorts.
For the time being, the highest priority must fall to repairing lives directly and indirectly damaged by the far-reaching malefaction of a once-living moral horror, and mending the shredded social fabric that made it so easy for him to get away with his atrocities. This nightmare story of violence, deceit, and complicity, has brought to the fore some people whose reporting, whose prosecutorial diligence, whose integrity commends them; while we will not in this lifetime come to a point of saying ‘We’ve done enough’, we can work toward reaching a point at which our shared vision of a common good equips us to distinguish, in word and action, between despicable behaviour and commendable behaviour — so that we can know not only to abstain, but to shy away from the
latter former, and not only to applaud, but to enact the latter.
* I haven’t been in touch with Joi for months, although we have communicated (and Margaret and I visited him at home) during the post-Epstein-conviction window; nothing even vaguely pertinent to his fund-raising efforts came up in discussion, as far as I remember. That being said, my memories of the early phases of the Epstein story are limited. I know that I was eager for the resolution of the case of some billionaire with a Trump connection who had been very plausibly accused of rape and trafficking, and had a vague sense that he had gotten off with the sort of indulgent sentence allotted to wealthy defendants. I don’t remember any association with Harvard or MIT from those early reports.