Jun 23 2013

Apologies Are Hard

They’re almost never ideal, for lots of reasons. Emotions are high. Full understanding rarely happens with the immediacy of a cartoon light bulb over someone’s head. The harm that has been done can rarely be undone simply with words. It is easy to view words as trivial.

When apologies are really, really good, people hold them up as shining examples, but this is the sort of thing that happens in the English-speaking world maybe once a year. Most apologies have the kind of faults we expect and deal with in any other communication.

With that said, I want to thank Ron Lindsay for his remarks yesterday evening on the CFI blog. They give me hope for moving forward on this, and they help me resolve the dilemma of wanting to support the good work of my friends at CFI while being unable to support the management.

Some specifics on the remarks and the circumstances surrounding them.

  • While the remarks don’t contain much in the way of specifics, the apologies there are solid apologies. I’ve heard them referred to as not-pologies. They are not. They apologize for both the behavior and the results of that behavior.
  • CFI is holding a branch leaders meeting at the moment. Several people who are there are telling me (in varying degrees of public settings) that discussions there have been intense. They are also confirming that when Lindsay says he’s starting to understand what the letters told him. He is listening again.
  • Lindsay has apologized to CFI staff. Official communications from CFI refer to this apology as “heartfelt”, and people at the meeting confirm this. Both in terms of professionalism and in terms of him dealing with people I care about, this is huge to me.
  • Comments are closed on Lindsay’s post. As someone who has been targeted with nonsense in the comments of prior posts at CFI on this topic, I appreciate that.

There are, of course, things I would still like to see going forward, but I wouldn’t have expected to see them at this stage of the process.

  • A prompt announcement of Women in Secularism 3. Given that the existence of the conference and Melody Hensley’s helming of the conference have been points of general, public contention in the past, I would like to see both of these confirmed as soon as possible.
  • Melody’s reception speech from Women in Secularism 2 posted at the CFI blog. It is still painful that the coverage of this excellent conference has been dominated by this issue, particularly in CFI communications. It would be good to see something positive, and Melody’s speech was that.
  • Understanding that what happens online is an important part of our movements these days, both in its positive and negative effects. I think work is already being done on this score. At least, I hope this is one of the messages that Lindsay is taking away from the letters that were sent to the board and from the discussions with his staff.
  • Willingness to reach out on controversial topics. I don’t think feminism should be particularly controversial topic, but controversy is obviously built around it. With this and other hot-button issues, I would like to see secular and skeptical leadership (I am not just talking about CFI here) talk more to the people involved in the controversies. When conflict has extended this long, it needs to be understood in order to be dealt with.

There are some ambitious items on that list. That’s fine. Sorting this stuff out is a process, shaped by our interactions with each other. It breaks down when a person or an organization shuts down and stops interacting. With Lindsay’s apologies online and at the branch leader meeting, the shut down is over. That’s important.


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  1. 1

    CFI is holding a branch leaders meeting at the moment. Several people who are there are telling me (in varying degrees of public settings) that discussions there have been intense. They are also confirming that when Lindsay says he’s starting to understand what the letters told him. He is listening again.

    This is what has me most optimistic. The core of an apology is a pledge to change your future behavior, based on a better understanding of why your past behavior caused problems. Without that understanding, any apology is worthless.

    I wish it came quicker and more transparently in Lindsay’s case, but oh well.

  2. 2
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    That’s actually not a bad apology. It’s hard not to read it as being spoken with gritted teeth by my angry 15-year-old son (back when he was 15), but I think it pretty much hits the points you’d want in an apology, and definitely sounds like the shovel’s handle-to-ground now.

    It really oughtn’t to have taken several weeks, but at least he got it right when he did it.

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    This is good. Progress.

    You know what would be fabulous for WiS3? Martha Nussbaum and Christina Hoff Sommers going head to head. It’s a fantasy, but boy I would love to see that.

  4. 4
    Stephanie Zvan

    I’m not going to read tone into the brevity. Ron Lindsay is the last person I’m going to fault right now for not wanting to step off very firm ground in what he’s saying.

  5. 5
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Point taken, Stephanie, fair enough; my contention is baseless.

  6. 6
    Lou Doench

    So how fast does Ron Lindsay lose his #bravehero status? One of you guys who monitors the pit will have to check, I can’t go there to check because I’m not supposed to be drinking right now…;)

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    Lou: Well, Russell Blackford has already excoriated him on Twitter for capitulating to the bullies.

  8. 8
    Lou Doench

    I saw that at Ophelia’s. I’ll be diplomatic and say only… I don’t like that guy.

  9. 9

    I’m happy that he apologized. When I wrote to CFI, I specified that I didn’t particularly want him to apologize, I wanted him to understand more. I believe, optimistically, that I see that in his statement. His personal statement is a big improvement on the vagueness that CFI published last weekend.

    I think there should be a dialog somewhere about real examples of “privilege” being a sticking point in sincere discussion. It’s just hard to have sincere conversation when trolls (and jerks echoing the same shallow memes as trolls) are so over-represented in the conversation. It’s also hard to stay on topic in a large group. It’s easy to dwell on the edge cases and become polarized. I think very small, more personal conversations may be part of the answer. I’d like to see more question and answer, and less making claims about the meanings of the other person’s text. (Mis-interpretation of the use of the word ‘privilege’ being an issue in the forefront of my mind.)

    I agree with about 95% of what JT Eberhard wrote at Patheos. I would like to see dialog about those last 5% differences of opinion that seem to come from having a different frame of reference.

  10. 10
    Paul Loebe

    Emotions are winding down. People are starting to talk at both ends. Let’s start moving towards progress again.

  11. 11
    Stephanie Zvan

    Paul, from what I’ve heard, the CFI branch leader meeting has been quite emotional. Additionally, people on one end of this have talked so much they’ve been accused of fixating on this one thing.

    I absolutely want things to move forward. An incorrect narrative of what has happened, however, won’t help with that.

  12. 12
    G Pierce (Was ~G~)

    I was going to send a “cancel my membership” type letter last week but for various reasons decided to wait until after this conference. I’m still thinking this through, but I think it’s important to remember human psychology and that people are more likely to really “get it” when they have some space and time to get it on their own so they don’t feel they are being forced into it. We all have ego barriers that get in our way. The most sincere epiphanies need to happen when a person feels safe to question themselves. I have tweeted a thank you and want to try to nurture a road toward a positive outcome.

    Now if only the Board would be so wise as to apologize.

  13. 13

    I’ve decided to take what Ron said at face value, partially because I spent part of yesterday thinking about the fact that if we wait around for perfect allies, we aren’t going to have any, and pondering just how much imperfection we need to tolerate in an ally vs how much we shouldn’t tolerate.*

    I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me, this is something I can accept. Of course, we will all be watching to see where things go from here, but for now I’m hopeful.

    I do think the apology comes across as stiff, but (as you said) apologies are freaking hard. Apologies in text are even harder. It’s incredibly easy to misread tone due to lack of non-verbal cues even under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances here are hardly ideal.

    And while some people are peeved that it took so long for this apology to come (and I understand that), I rather appreciate it. Ron could have shrugged off the feminist side as being a lost cause due to already burned bridges and held fast to the anti-feminists, but he didn’t. He had to know that this apology would piss off people like Blackford while failing to appease some of the people on the feminist side. He made the apology anyway. That must have been incredibly hard, more so then one might initially think. It’s easier to apologize when everyone’s mad at you; you don’t have anything to lose. But to apologize while knowing that you’ll lose some of your backers because of it? Now that’s rough.

    So I think this move took courage and I am incredibly happy that he made it.

    *I was trying to figure out how to process the whole American Atheism alleged wrongful termination/racism thing.

  14. 14
    Paul Loebe

    I’ve no insight or inside information. I just want to resolve it and move forward. I hate fixating on the negative.

  15. 15


    CaitieCat, I am completely unfamiliar with the idiom “shovel’s handle-to-ground”, and neither Google nor context is being particularly helpful in figuring out what it means. What does it mean?

  16. 16
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    “Shovel down, no longer digging furiously deeper in the certain hope that there’s an exit down there somewhere.” :)

  17. 17

    Is there a “Ron LindsGAY” account on Twitter yet? It can only be a matter of time.

  18. 18

    @16: ah, thanks.

    @17: Why should there be such an account? It sounds like it would be inappropriate on several levels, including using a reference to homosexuality as a derogatory, and an ad nominem attack as well.

  19. 19

    @17: Why should there be such an account? It sounds like it would be inappropriate on several levels, including using a reference to homosexuality as a derogatory, and an ad nominem attack as well.

    It’s a common tactic of the anti-feminist faction. For some reason, they think this is a clever critique or satire: setting up a Twitter or other social media account that looks nearly indistinguishable from that of your opponent, then saying horrible terrible things and making people think your opponent is saying them. For example, there’s the Twitter account, @centre4inquiry, not to be confused with the actual CFI official Twitter Account which is @center4inquiry. Their handle reads “Center for Radfems,” and they like to RT stuff like this: The prosecution are now pushing for the death penalty in the Ron Lindsay case.

    They’ve done this for Ophelia Benson over and over, and Rebecca Watson, and probably plenty of others I don’t know about.

  20. 20
    George Petzen

    I can’t help feeling that having speakers request their removal from the CFI speakers list, conferences turning back CFI sponsorship and , one might assume a falling off in membership / renewals, had as much to do with what seems like a corrective about face as the barrage of letters. On the other hand, whatever the cause, I welcome it as a good start. After a bridge is burnt, lessons are learned that help to build a stronger bridge. With sprinklers, if necessary.
    As a middle-aged white male, having all of the privilege that statement entails, I suspect that a conference with a focused track on understanding these issues from both sides (keeping it civil!) might have some value. Both sides have issues here, I shall not begin to identify them as I might embarrass myself in ignorance of what I might miss. Having said that, I can see that I stand to learn much more and gain a better understanding of how we can all move forward together. I would even let Ron Lindsey sit next to me if he wants to.

  21. 21

    For example, there’s the Twitter account, @centre4inquiry, not to be confused with the actual CFI official Twitter Account which is @center4inquiry.


  22. 22

    To add to what SallyStrange said, the haters have form for homophobic nicknames. Something like “Ron LindsGAY” wouldn’t be the worst they’ve come up with.

  23. 23

    Don’t trust the bastard and don’t forgive him.


  24. 24
    Stephanie Zvan

    arbor, you’ve been spending the last year of comments on this blog trying to tell me what to do. Stop.

  25. 25

    A prompt announcement of Women in Secularism 3

    Totally agree with this one. I think this would be a great way of saying “We’re not just paying lip service or hoping this will all go away. We’re dedicated to getting this right.”
    Given all the work associated with a conference, I don’t know how likely it is, but if I were them, I’d prioritize getting this on the board as quickly as possible. It’s an important signal.

    As for the brevity of the apology, I’m guessing he was going for “short and to the point”. Can’t much blame him for that. This buys him a bit of slack from me, simply because I honestly didn’t expect it. The real test is how he (and the board) acts from now on, but I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.

  26. 26

    I think those who wish to reject Ron’s apology are forgetting that the goal here is not to have a movement only for feminist atheists, but to bring together a large coalition of people committed to social justice and atheism. Such a movement cannot exist without a commitment to feminism. Nonetheless, our culture makes such a commitment difficult for many decent and otherwise reasonable people– all the other side has to do is say “shrill” and all the buttons are pushed for many white men of privilege– and not just for white men of privilege.

    I started reading atheist blogs– mostly here at FtB– about the time that DJ Groethe started blaming people calling for sexual harassment polices for the dropoff in women’s registration at JREF. I was appalled, but unsurprised by some of the misogynistic responses during the arguments that followed Groethe’s boneheaded statement. What really upset me, though, was the hyperskepticism of so many toward the feminists.

    That didn’t surprise me; it’s pretty much a normal day at the office for someone in academic chemistry, but it did make me almost stop reading atheist blogs altogether. Yeah, I have to put up with this at work, but I don’t have to put up with it in my free time. I reasoned that with both atheist groups and UUs, there is a segment of the population I agree with pretty much completely, and a segment that drives me crazy. With the UUs, it’s the woo crowd that drives me crazy, and with the atheists, it’s the antifeminist/libertarian strain. I was willing to self-identify as a UU, because I shared a commitment to social justice and the inherent dignity of women even with those who I wished were more rational. I wasn’t willing to self-identify as atheist with those who promote or condone antifeminism.

    There are basically two reasons I stayed and have slowly become more increasingly involved. First, I saw a couple clips from the first WiS conference and realized that there are many people involved in the atheist movement who share my values. The clips also made it clear that there are a lot of intelligent, witty and fun women in this movement, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know many of you better through your writings, and, more recently, in person at WiS2.

    The second reason I stayed– and this is more relevant to the current discussion– is even during the worst of the battles, people like Stephanie and Greta convinced me that we’re making progress. I started to see comments from men who explained that their minds had been changed during these discussions, and I watched many of these men become strong advocates of feminism in atheism. I found that incredibly encouraging, and it’s a fight I can take part in. It was pretty clear to me that a split between those who embrace egalitarianism and those who don’t would eventually lead to a larger, more productive community than an atheist community so worried about divisions that it was willing to countenance MRAs and other misogynists and their apologists. Yes, a split at some level has to happen, but the end goal is to become the mainstream segment of the atheist community as the other groups become increasingly marginalized. How it takes for that to happen depends a great deal on how much of the current movement is willing to get on board.

    The question is not about whether there are enough people out there to build such a movement, but about whether current instituions are capable of leading such a movement. Abandoning institutions with similar goals is a measure designed to (a) get those institutions to respond to under-served groups or (b) lead to the formation of newer institutions who can lead professionally. Those are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals.

    I take Ron Lindsay’s apology as an important sign that, whether or not the CFI board as a whole is listening to feminst atheists, he cares enough about the feminist atheists who work for him to put his ego aside and begin to listen. Yes, we might wish that this weren’t as difficult a task as it is, but I think we nonetheless have to give him credit for moving in this direction in spite of the difficulty.

    I don’t mean that it’s not necessary to develop institutions with a primary focus on feminist atheism; indeed, I think we’ll need effective institutions that lead in this area. And, yes, I’d be more inclined to give my financial support to those institutions than to CFI or American Atheists. But I contributed to AA to show my appreciation for Dave’s support of the feminist community. I think I will now follow Stephanie’s lead and make a contribution to CFI earmarked for Melody’s salary.

  27. 27
    Ophelia Benson

    That is one great comment.

  28. 28
    Ophelia Benson

    I re-posted it at my place, with Stephanie’s permission.

  29. 29
    A Demonic Duck Of Some Sort

    @19 Sally, I checked out the ‘centre4inquiry’ Twitter account you mentioned, and couldn’t help but notice that it only had about 50 followers. Strange thing for you to be criticizing, especially when accounts like @AngrySkepChick or @elevatorGATE have over a thousand followers between them.

    Why overlook the popular accounts to focus on one nobody’s heard of? Is it because the popular accounts don’t make your point well enough for some reason? What might that reason be?

  30. 30
    Stephanie Zvan

    Uh, maybe she talked about the CFI “parody” account because we’re talking about CFI?

    Seriously, I’ve seen some inane comments from the sock-puppet brigade, but that might just win “Pointless Gotcha of the Decade”.

  31. 31

    The subject of the post is CFI. Maybe that gives you a hint?

    No, I guess not. Fucking idiot.

  32. 32
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    I, too, will wait to see whether there’s a program of action behind this tepid apology. But it’s a start.

  33. 33

    Stephanie Zvan:

    Seriously, I’ve seen some inane comments from the sock-puppet brigade, but that might just win “Pointless Gotcha of the Decade”.

    That’s silver medal stuff.

    There’s currently another myth doing the rounds, that you “pioneered” hashtag spamming, by using the #scio13 tag to criticize someone. Therefore, when you complain about people flooding conference hashtags with misogynistic drivel, you’re being hypocritical.

  34. 34

    I understand continuing to talk now that there is an apology, but I want to know that there has been a personal apology to Rebecca Watson. A public apology from Ron Lindsay. She didn’t deserve the “alternate universe” crap from the leader of an organization she’s worked so hard to support. I want to see someone in a leadership position decided to give her credit for her outspoken, clear, and reasonable requests from atheist organizations.

  35. 35
    Stephanie Zvan

    Yeah, I “spammed” the hashtag of a conference I’d been moderating sessions at since 2009.

  36. 36

    But if you define “spamming” as posting a message about something you’ve been participating in for years, then you’re clearly equivalent to those who flood skeptic hashtags with hundreds of abusive messages.

    Do you think Gurdur is consciously dishonest, or is he one of those people who believes his own fiction? (Recently he accused me of “mak[ing] stuff up out of thin air a lot”, then attributed an utterly fictional quote to me, and then accused me of being “fond of resentful defamation”. It’s almost bizarre in its audacity.)

  37. 37

    @19 Sally, I checked out the ‘centre4inquiry’ Twitter account you mentioned, and couldn’t help but notice that it only had about 50 followers. Strange thing for you to be criticizing, especially when accounts like @AngrySkepChick or @elevatorGATE have over a thousand followers between them.

    Why overlook the popular accounts to focus on one nobody’s heard of? Is it because the popular accounts don’t make your point well enough for some reason? What might that reason be?

    You want to know the really real answer? I had no idea, until reading it here just now, how many followers any of these accounts had. I don’t go out of my way to pay attention to them, so I am not as exhaustively familiar with the different outlets the harassers use as you seem to be. I merely seized on the example that sprang first to mind, and the fake CFI account previously caught my attention during the WIS2 conference since it was quite active in spamming the hashtag.

    The only point I was trying to make was to explain to buddhabuck why hyperdeath was speculating about whether there was a homophobic spoof Twitter account for Ron Lindsay.

  38. 38
    Jennifer Beahan

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and suggestions and I agree! Many of the comments above me in this thread are also very encouraging.

    It most certainly was an intense and emotional leadership conference, but I really appreciated Ron’s attitude heartfelt discussion with our branch leaders and staff. It is clear to me that CFI is committed to understanding what happened and much time was spent talking about how we (CFI) can move forward with discussion of these very important issues to improve things going forward.


  39. 39
    Raging Bee

    I’m perfectly happy to accept the obviously-made-through-gritted-teeth apology that’s been offered so far (and, in fact, I kinda think it was more sincere than a smoothly-written voluntary not-pology, and sure as Hell more sincere than the aggravating mush from the CFI board) — but OlderThanDirt @34 makes a very good point: Lindsay made unfounded PERSONAL attacks on certain people in a public forum, so he really does need to make DIRECTED PERSONAL apologies to those individuals, BY NAME and IN PUBLIC, in addition to the general apology he’s already made.

    (And if he ever apologizes to Rebecca Watson for anything, big or small, that’ll trigger REAL howls of outrage from the Pittiful.)

  1. 40
    Onward » Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] my post yesterday on Ron’s apology was too grudging. It read as chilly to me then, but see Stephanie’s post for reasons to think it’s [...]

  2. 41
    Anatomy of another apology » Lousy Canuck

    [...] nor in the behind-the-scenes inside baseball that had to happen before the apology was manifested. Stephanie has suggestions for what CFI can do further. Surly Amy is optimistic. Ophelia reversed herself on her initial [...]

  3. 42
    Apologies Are Hard: Stephanie Zvan » Greta Christina's Blog

    [...] urge everyone who cares about the Ron Lindsay/ CFI thing to read Stephanie Zvan’s piece about it. It has some actual facts and information that may help you make a decision about how to respond, [...]

  4. 43
    We’re making progress » Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] post by Martha, originally a comment on Stephanie’s post Apologies Are [...]

  5. 44
    Good on Dr. Lindsay | Reasonable Conversation

    [...] (h/t Almost Diamonds) [...]

  6. 45
    Accepting Ron Lindsay’s Apology » Greta Christina's Blog

    [...] Lindsay Apologizes, Amy Davis Roth (Surly Amy) Accepting Apologies And Moving On, Amanda Marcotte Apologies Are Hard, Stephanie Zvan Moving Our Community Forward, Kim Rippere and Elsa Roberts, Secular Woman Onward, [...]

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