Why you shouldn’t trust people who support sexual predators

[CW: mention of child sexual abuse]

Should you trust people who support sexual predators? My answer is no. Here’s why:

Anyone who is ethically flexible enough to justify knowingly supporting a sexual predator is ethically flexible enough to justify harming the people who trust and support them.

This week’s news provides a useful case study.

After writing about how to avoid supporting sexual predators, I talked to some of the 250 people who signed a letter of support for Joi Ito to remain as head of MIT Media Lab. They signed this letter between August 26th and September 6th, when they were aware of the initial revelations that Ito and the ML had taken about $2 million from Jeffrey Epstein after his 2008 conviction for child sex offenses.

Here’s the dilemma these signatories were facing: Ito was powerful, and charming, and had inspired loyalty and support in them. The letter says, “We have experienced first-hand Joi’s integrity, and stand in testament to his overwhelmingly positive influence on our lives—and sincerely hope he remains our visionary director for many years to come.” When given evidence that Ito had knowingly supported a convicted serial child rapist, they chose to believe that there was some as-yet unknown explanation which would square with their image of Ito as a person of integrity and ethics. Others viewed taking Epstein’s money as some kind of moral imperative: the money was available, they could do good with it, no one was preventing them from taking it. They denied that Epstein accrued any advantage from the donations. Finally, many of the signatories also depend on Ito for a living; after all, as Upton Sinclair says, it is difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends upon their not understanding it.

These 250 people expected their public pledge of loyalty to be rewarded. Instead, on September 6th, we all learned that Ito and other ML staff had been deliberately covering up Epstein’s role in about $8 million in donations to the ML, in contravention of MIT’s explicit disqualification of Epstein as a donor. The article is filled with horrifying details, but most damning of all: Epstein visited the ML in 2015 to meet with Ito in person (a privilege accorded to him for his financial support). The women on the ML staff offered to help two extremely young women accompanying Epstein escape, fearing they were trafficked.

Ito knew Epstein was almost certainly still committing rape after 2008.

Needless to say, this not what the signatories of the letter of support expected. Less than 24 hours after this news broke, the number of signatories had dropped from 250 to 228, and this disclaimer was added: “This petition was drafted by students on August 26th, 2019, and signed by members of the broader Media Lab community in the days that followed, to show their support for Joi and his apology. Given when community members added their names to this petition, their signatures should not be read as continued support of Joi staying on as Media Lab Director following the most recent revelations in the September 6th New Yorker article by Ronan Farrow.”

What happened? This is a phenomenon I’ve seen before, from my time working in the Linux kernel community. It’s this: Every nasty horror show of an abuser is surrounded by a ring of charming enablers who mediate between the abuser and the rest of the world. They make the abuser’s actions more palatable, smooth over the disagreements, invent explanations: the abuser can’t help it, the abuser needs help, the abuser is doing more good than harm, the abuse isn’t real abuse, we’ll always have an abuser so might as well stick with the abuser we know, etc. And around the immediate circle of enablers is a wider circle of dozens and hundreds of kind, trusting, supportive people who believe, in spite of all the evidence, that keeping the abuser and their enablers in power is ethically justified, in some way they aren’t privileged to understand. They don’t fully understand why, but they trust the people in power and keep working on faith.

That first level of charming enabler surrounding the abuser is doing that work with full knowledge of how terrible the abuser is, and they are rationalizing their decision in some way. It might be pure self-interest, it might be in service of some supposed greater goal, it might be a deep psychological need to believe that the abuser can be reformed. Whatever it is, it is a rationalization, and they are daily acting in a way that the surrounding circle of kind, trusting people would consider wildly unethical.

Here’s the key: you can’t trust anyone in that inner circle of enablers. They are people who are ethically flexible enough to rationalize supporting an abuser. They can easily rationalize screwing over the kind people who trust them, as Ito did with the 250 signatories of a letter that said, “We are here for you, we support you, we will forever be grateful for your impact on our lives.” His supporters are finding out the hard way that this kind of devotion and love is only one-way.

I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can refuse to knowingly support sexual predators. I also refuse to associate with people who support sexual predators because I know I can’t trust them to act ethically. I encourage you to join me.

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