“The needs of the many,” privilege, and power

There’s a certain set of sentiments which undergird a lot of thinking in engineering, and especially engineering about data. You want a method which has good performance “on average” over the population. The other extreme is worst-case, but there are things you can only do in the average case. By focusing on average-case gain, you get a kind of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” way of thinking about the world.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one... or the few?

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one… or the few?

Now in the abstract land of mathematical models and algorithms, this might seem like a reasonable principle — if you have to cram everything into a single population utility function you might as well then optimize that. However, this gets messier when you start implementing it in the real world (unless of course you’re an economist of a certain stripe). The needs of the many are often the needs of the more powerful or dominant groups in society. The needs of the few are perhaps those who have been historically marginalized or victimized. Extolling the benefits to the many is often taking a stand for the powerful against the weak. It’s at best deeply insensitive.

Two instances of this have appeared on the blogosphere recently. Scott Aaronson blogged recently about MIT’s decision to take down Walter Lewin’s online videos after Lewin was found to have sexually harassed students in connection with the course. Scott believes that depriving students of Lewin’s materials is a terrible outcome, even (possibly) if he were a murderer. Ignoring the real hurt and trauma felt by those who are affected by Lewin’s actions is an exercise in privilege — because he is not hurt by it, he values the “the good of the many” trumping the “good of the few.”

The whole downplaying of sexual harassment as being somehow “not serious” enough to warrant a serious response (or that the response “makes the most dramatic possible statement about a broader social issue”) in fact trivializes the whole experience of sexual violence. Indeed, by this line of argument, because the content created by Lewin is so valuable, it may be ok to keep online even “had [he] gone on a murder spree.” The subtext of this is “as opposed to merely harassed some women.” I recommend reading Priya Phadnis on this case — she comes to a very different conclusion, namely that special pedestal that we put Walter Lewin on is itself the problem. Being able to downplay the female victims’ claims is exercising the sort of privilege that members of the male professoriat (myself included) indulge in overtly, covertly, and inadvertently. If STEM has a gender problem, it’s in a large part because we do not pay attention to the ways in which our words and actions reinforce existing tropes.

The second post was by Lance Fornow on dying languages in response to an op-ed by John McWhorter on why we should care about language diversity. Lance thinks that speaking a common language is a good thing:

I understand the desire of linguists and social scientists to want to keep these languages active, but to do so may make it harder for them to take advantage of our networked society. Linguists should study languages but they shouldn’t interfere with the natural progression. Every time a language dies, the world gets more connected and that’s not a bad thing.

I guess those poor bleeding-heart social scientists don’t understand that those languages are dying for a good reason. The good of the many — everyone speaking English, the dominant language — outweighs the good of the few. This attitude again speaks from a place of privilege and power, and it reinforces a kind cultural superiority (although I am sure Lance doesn’t think of it that way). Indeed, in many parts of the world, there is and continues to be “a strong reason to learn multiple languages.” By casually (and incorrectly) dismissing the importance of linguistic diversity, such a statement reinforces a chauvinist view of the relationship between language and technology.

We start with desirable outcomes: free quality educational materials that lower the barrier to access or speaking a common language to help facilitate communication and cooperation. By choosing to focus on those outcomes and their benefits to the many, we value their well-being and delegitimize the harm done to others. If we furthermore are speaking from a position of power, our privilege reinforces stigmas, casting a value judgement on the rights, experiences, and beliefs of the few. It’s something to be careful about.


11 thoughts on ““The needs of the many,” privilege, and power

  1. There’s an additional point to be made about Lewin that Aaronson’s blog post overlooked: the harassment occurred because the student reached out to Lewin with questions while using his online lectures to learn physics. In a “traditional” teacher-harasses-student-in-the-classroom case, you fire the teacher partly to punish him and partly to make sure he doesn’t harass future students. In the age of online classes, the only way to really do that is to remove the class.

    Yes, it’s unfortunate that future students won’t be able to learn from some truly wonderful physics lectures — but the fault for that is not MIT’s, but Walter Lewin’s, for behaving in the manner he did and forcing MIT to act.

    Furthermore, in this case, the videos are under a creative common license. Those who think that there is no other way to learn physics other than a Walter Lewin video lecture can still find them legally hosted at numerous other online learning sites. They don’t have to resort to bittorrent. So the actual “punishment” of the other online learners is in fact a minor inconvenience that’s being blown out of proportion as an “injustice” while an actual injustice [i.e. sexual harassment from someone you are supposed to trust] is blown off.

    • Actually, you gloss over the fact that the STUDENT contacted the teacher, while somehow using that fact as part of your argument. The student didn’t know what they were getting into when they contacted him, but Lewin didn’t seek the student out, either. Your false analogy between physical and virtual classrooms is false because it equates the two on student-teacher interaction. In the one, a student has to interact with the teacher, live. In the other, they can watch the videos and do the coursework, without interacting with the teachers. The last time Lewin taught online was in 2013. He was not actively involved in this student’s learning experience. “In the age of online classes,” the best way is to make sure everyone knows what they’re in for if they contact the teacher, and make sure that his contact information is not available through their course. False dilemmas (“My way or the highway!”) really don’t serve discussion. Don’t act like it’s the ONLY action MIT could take.

      Prefacing every video with a warning about Lewin’s history discourages contacting him. You say “sexual harassment from someone you are supposed to trust.” Make sure they don’t trust him, by becoming the definitive source for his lectures, all prefaced with a warning. MIT hosting the videos and issuing a warning makes it much more likely that those looking for and viewing his videos will be made aware of Lewin’s history, because of OCW’s reputation for high-quality lectures, discussion, and collaboration. Students looking for his videos will most likely go to OCW first, and, because of the site’s quality, will most likely stay. They will repeatedly get the message that it’s not safe to contact him. They will get that consistently and reliably, where they otherwise would not if, say, they found it through one of the many other less well-known sites that host it, presumably without a warning.

      So give a warning in every video, and don’t supply any contact information. If they want to contact him, they have to work just as hard to find his information as they would if they were viewing it from a different source. If they do contact him, it’s their fault, not MIT’s.

      Removing the videos is NOT the only option. It is in fact a harmful one. How will students who find his lectures after all this is over know that he’s been a perpetrator of sexual harassment if they only see the videos, and not the warnings?

      • I think we just disagree here. I do agree that another option is to preface the videos with a disclaimer. However, this doesn’t send the right message, I think. It’s still too much on the side of “maximally hurt Lewin” (although it would so more to protect students), and it says that MIT needs the material so much that they feel OK hosting the content as long as they shame him. It’s a bit of a Scarlet Letter approach to things, and I’m not sure the victim(s) would prefer it (given my experience hearing from people who have been similarly harassed). People have different opinions.

        I did learn some physics from Walter Lewin, but I think the rhetoric surrounding his pedagogy is a little overblown. In the end, there are and will be excellent physics instructors. Perhaps they won’t have the same hats. His physics lectures are not the Dead Sea Scrolls or something.

        I don’t think I’m “glossing” over anything — to make a big deal out of the fact that the student approached the teacher is sidling close to “she was asking for it” which is definitely NOT what you are suggesting. I’m not trying to suggest “my way or the highway” but I think that solutions which lean heavily on hurting Lewin to justify keeping the content are not really trading things off properly.

        But your point is well taken — there is a third option out there.

      • My comment was actually supposed to be addressing Erin, who took the all-or-nothing approach. I guess it’s my fault for not being careful about whom I was replying to.

        But, of course she wasn’t asking for it. Should I have stated that explicitly?

        Whether or not you feel the quality of Lewin’s lectures is overblown is beside the point. They’re still well-known. Imagine the following.

        Students hear about his courses, and seek them out. They find them on different sites, which make no mention of the state of affairs. They watch the videos. They don’t understand something. They find his contact information, and send him an email. He may or may not respond, and his response may or may not be one of sexual harassment. If it is, the student entered a situation unawares, just as the person in this case did, and they’ve suffered for it. So, if there were a central place of repute (say, MIT’s OpenCourseWare), that made every student aware of the situation, and discourage contacting Lewin, it would cut down on the cases of harassment perpetrated by Lewin because of his courses, no?

        I’m not sure how you can argue to protect the feelings of current victims, and not discourage the creation of new ones. Honestly, the victims wouldn’t have to view his work any more than they do now. Do you think they find it difficult to hear that Lewin is being punished now? Why, then, do you think they would find it difficult to hear that other people are being informed of the situation (which the current victims were not), and advised not to contact him?

        Your focus on the current victims does an incredible disservice to those who are as yet unaware of the situation, who have just as much potential to become victims. If they remain unaware, they’re no less likely to contact Lewin than the current victims were. You think victims DON’T want active discouragement of victimization?

        For the record, the Scarlet Letter was actually about shaming a woman who had an affair, NOT about anyone who committed a crime. So no, they aren’t at all analogous. On that note, why are registered sex offenders required to make their presence known in their neighborhoods? I would argue–and I think you would agree–that it’s because it’s in the interest of those around them, to know of the situation at hand, and take necessary precautions against becoming victims. Or would the victims of sexual abuse not want everyone to know what kind of person their abuser is? I really bet they wish they’d known. If I were in that situation, I, too, would wish to have been informed.

  2. I agree with Scott and I think you’re misrepresenting his argument both in large and in small. In small large first: you’re implying that Scott prefers to see advantage accruing to the many “privileged” over those who were harmed by Lewin. This casts all the consumers of Lewin’s work as “privileged”. But remember that one of the biggest dreams of open courseware is to make education available to the *unprivileged*—those who due to economic, social, or political circumstances are not actually able to get to a university to learn. Removing Lewin’s lectures is harming those people. And it is wrong to say that Scott is *ignoring* the hurt felt by the victims. Rather, Scott is *weighing* the harm to the victims (and others) imposed by keeping up the videos, and concluding that it is *less* than the harm to those who would use the videos. Less is different from zero.

    Turning to the small, Scott’s “even a murderer” assertion is similarly not saying that harassment is zero. It is saying that it is *less than* murder. I suspect that you feel the same: do you believe that life imprisonment is a suitable punishment for someone guilty of harassment? It isn’t fair to imply that Scott is ignoring others’ hurt; rather, he is weighing harm to both sides differently than you.

    Like Scott, I have heard enough about the value of Lewin’s lectures to believe that they should be preserved for the benefit of mankind. I would like to find ways to do that while still respecting and compensating those who were harmed by him. For example, I would like to see each video prefaced with a brief message informing that Lewin had been charged with harassment and providing links resources for addressing harassment. I also applaud the university’s severing its connection with Lewin and halting his participation in online courses (which obviously creates a risk of harm to future students).

    • Hi David, Thanks for you comment.

      My critique is more of a meta-argument. Scott is articulating a principle here — “good pedagogy is very valuable, and we should separate the person from the product.” This leads to his solution of “censure Lewin, but keep the lectures up.” The point I want to make is that the choice to stick to that principle is exercising a form of privilege. You, or I, or Scott, have nothing to lose, particularly, from sticking to a principle like this. However, what it does is send a strong negative message to women that MIT would rather keep, as its public face, a person who sexually harasses students.

      Now to your specific points:

      • Perhaps ignoring is too strong — indeed, he (and many others — this is not about Scott in particular) is weighing things. The ability to choose how one weighs factors is in fact exercising a form of privilege.
      • I think the fact that the “many” in the MITx case are people who can’t afford to go to MIT is misleading. I recognized this when I wrote the post but didn’t manage to clear it up. Lewin can go and peddle his videos on his own — AFAIK nobody is stopping him from doing so, so those folks are not hurt. Perhaps in search of a cute analogy I muddled things.
      • I have actually seen Lewin’s lectures, since they were on MIT TV all the time when I was there (perhaps you remember we sang in Chamber Chorus together?) He is, indeed, an excellent teacher. However, I also know that at that time MIT had a very unfriendly atmosphere with regards to claims of sexual harassment and assault, and that things have been very slow to change.

      I don’t think the videos are “not being preserved for the benefit of mankind” — I doubt there’s a bonfire of Athena backup tapes burning in Mass Ave, destroying this material in perpetuity. I just think that prefacing videos but still letting Lewin represent MIT sends the wrong message.

    • Actually, contrary to all misreadings of what I write, I don’t really take issue with Scott as much as a particular mode of argumentation he is (or perhaps now, was) using. I realize that’s hard to believe for those who think I’m part of an “army” out to demonize him. As to “Comment 171,” I never once in the comment thread attacked his experience as invalid, wrong, or made fun of him in any way.

      I often do not enjoy Marcotte’s writing — it’s a bit incendiary and goes for shock value. In this case, in particular, I think she is being quite unfair to Scott, who is revealing something quite personal and clearly affecting for him. However, I do agree that to a large degree much of the blame for the unhappiness he felt should not be laid at the feet of “feminism” but rather at the macho bullying culture we have, which dovetails with the conceptual framework of “patriarchy.”

      The kind of “gotcha” snark that you display here and in other comment threads is really disappointing. In fact, it’s a genre of bad argumentation that is so easy to fall into (I’m guilty too, at times). Good on you for trying to “score more points” though.

      • Blaming everything wrong in the world on The Patriarchy is the ultimate in magical thinking. Are you really willing to throw yourself into that trap just so you can deflect any and all criticism of your movement?
        If the disgusting response to Scott’s post doesn’t make you consider your own position, I don’t know what to tell you. It certainly made me question mine.

  3. I am not sure what “movement” you are referring to, or the “army” that Scott assigned me to in his comments. Also, I’m not blaming everything. Marcotte’s comments are mean, but nothing I have written or said really addresses 171. My concern is about Walter Lewin, his actions, and the appropriate response to them, institutionally. I disagree with Scott’s position on that substantive issue. My observation is that his reasoning misses important points because of the perspective from which he is viewing things — a perspective which ignores or minimizes the (female) victims. As male professors (shy, nerdy, or not), we both have this “ease of ignoring.” and it is a form of privilege. If you don’t like that word, perhaps “biased perspective common to other men.”

    Again, the “gotcha,” hyperbole, and misreading on display from your comment is pretty astonishing. You are of course entitled to your opinion as well, but Marcotte’s words don’t make me change my mind about Lewin.

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