The not even a non-apology apology

Most of my criticism of Ron Lindsay and, by extension, the CFI, has been about terrible communication in response to an initial mis-step.  Ron Lindsay had the good sense to apologize for writing a nasty blog post about Rebecca Watson, though he continued to be quite adversarial in tone, even in the apology.

In the world of public figure and corporate responses, you have a lot of options: Ignore, deny, obfuscate, non-apology apology, tactical apology, and a full apology.  All of these play out differently depending on whether the organization thinks they’ve done anything wrong, what the level of public backlash is, and whether there are legal issues involved.

For a lesson in contrasts, we can look at how American Atheists responded to the lawsuit being filed by AJ Johnson and how CFI has responded to the complaints about Ron Lindsay.

AA released a long, detailed refutation of claims of racism, providing evidence and a rebuttal to all major points made.  This despite the fact that they are dealing with a legal matter, which often makes organizations become very tight-lipped.  It should be noted that this doesn’t mean that AA is innocent from any and all accusations, I am not privy to any special knowledge here, but it does mean that they are willing to publicly engage openly and clearly with those who are criticizing them.

CFI on the other hand released a statement that functionally just acknowledged that people were unhappy with them and that that was sad.  No acknowledgment of the claims or who was involved, certainly no detailed response to any of the criticisms, and no indication that they cared at all about the feedback that they had been getting — either to be indignant or apologetic about it.  Greta has a much more thorough parsing of just how bad this statement was.

What would a good statement have looked like?

Pretty much anything that wasn’t this: The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.

OK wow passive language.  Here’s the problem the CFI is expressing, that is what is happening in this whole statement, so they should just express it.  They are also so incredibly vague here.  They should have just not said anything if this is what they were going to say.  If I stood where they apparently stand on the issue, I would have replaced that sentence with this:

“The CFI Board has read dozens of letters about Ron Lindsay’s remarks at the recent Women in Secularism 2 conference.  While we find nothing offensive ourselves in Ron Lindsay’s opening speech, we are making an ongoing effort to understand the perspective of the people our event was meant to support and are happy to receive further feedback.  Our goal is to be supportive of women, and if women feel we are not fulfilling that goal, we are eager to continue to receive feedback.  We were disappointed in the tone Ron Lindsay took in responding to criticism and have told him in no uncertain terms our feelings about this.  He apologized soon after these remarks, and we feel that that was the correct course of action and support him.”

While this would not have made people happy, it would have at least indicated that the board:

1. Understood the issue

2. Knew the details of the complaints

3. Cared about the responses that they were getting

4. Had an opinion about what happened, even if it was the wrong one

5. Acknowledged the need for the apology already given

6. Were not closing the door to further feedback

7. Had some sort of discussion with Ron Lindsay about his behavior

Stop making geek culture be about how you were bullied

Update: More thoughts here.

To my mind, being a geek is a lot like being gay or being atheist.  These are things that can be completely invisible to an outsider.  No one in high school knew I went home and wrote Hercules fanfiction.  No one knew the fathomless depths of my geekery.

Greta Christina has a wonderful post about how, as being gay has become more normal, the people who are out are also becoming more normal.  Normal, to most outcast’s minds, is a bad thing.  If there’s one thing you can comfort yourself with when you’re an outsider, it’s the feeling that you’re better than the people who are, as you see it, “insiders”.  Greta says the same thing is going to happen with atheists — we’re going to stop being statistically smart and amazing on average, and start being just sort of average.  Because what we’re working towards is acceptance, and when coming out isn’t difficult, more people come out — no bravery required, no willful pride necessary, any and all may apply.

I think that this is the same as what has happened with geek culture, and it has pissed off a lot of old geeks.  They feel that new geeks have not paid their dues to be able to call themselves that.  You weren’t bullied?  Well, then you’re not a *real* geek.  I used the term “hipster geek” in my previous post, which I basically took from John Scalzi, and while that expresses the attitude accurately in some ways, it doesn’t explain the why.

Being a geek in high school for most people is hard.  It is as hard in some places as being out and gay.  And unlike being gay, there is no nerd-jock alliance in high school.  There’s no Geek Student Alliance.  When, to be who you are, you have had to go through hell, it can be very irritating that there are people who didn’t go through hell and claim to be the same as you.

“Oh, you grew up in San Francisco with hippie parents who drove you and your same-sex partner to the movies before you could drive, well I grew up in the Deep South where coming out meant I was beaten up every day, therefore you don’t really know what it’s like to be gay.”

We all want to be understood and when you’re tortured, you want to have gotten something from it.  If you’re tortured and it doesn’t mean anything, that’s so much worse than if your torture earns you something, some sort of credibility, some part of a special club of people who overcame.  But the reality is, being bullied doesn’t earn you anything.  It doesn’t make you a better person, it doesn’t make you higher ranked in the world of geekdom, gayness, or atheism, and it doesn’t even always give you insight into the world, though sometimes it can.  Being bullied is simply a horrible thing that happens to people.

Someone calling themselves “…” responded to my previous post about who gets to be a geek and said the following things:

Some of us paid our dues is what I’m saying. “sexism in geekdom”? When I was growing up, all – and I mean all – girls at my school would have rather been sent to Saudi Arabia than be called geeks.

And that, in a nutshell, is why geek culture is male dominated.

Anyway, my point was that there are some of us who paid our dues in that area. It’s not about being “hipster”, it’s about a certain annoyance that comes from people who would have treated you like you were carrying a radioactive strain of leprosy back in the day now finding it’s cool to like LotR. It’s irritating to say the least.

I’m fully aware that that tiny handful of geek girls who existed – and they were a tiny handful, don’t even pretend otherwise – had as rough a time as the rest of us. But I find this rapid retroactive identification with geekdom… suspicious. Yes, it’s quite astonishing how many people were geeks back then nowadays. It’s a wonder that there was any other kind of person around in the schools at all… It’s a bit like the Jewish population explosion in vichy France, isn’t it?

That’s true, but it is also true that girls were some of the most viciously anti-geek ones, and it is true that many of the blows we soaked up was because the guys in question wanted to impress the pretty girls, who were not above egging that sort of thing on.

There’s another point; yes, it sucks that girls got ostracised at times by other geeks, but being a geek meant you got ostracised by definition. And geek fratricide is hardly uknown. If you objected to one group, why didn’t you form your own? That’s what I did, and let me tell you, I didn’t get any approval or help. You talk about the community… back then there wasn’t a community. There was just what you and the tiny handful like you could put together. You scraped it together as best you could, and only for one reason, because you loved it, and if you couldn’t – tough. People would be disgusted that you even tried, let alone that you were upset when it didn’t work.

I am simply repeating, for the last time now, that there are very good reasons why geekdom is traditionally clannish and insular, and it might be nice to see that reflected. You know, just for accuracy and politeness sakes.

You read this and you can see, he is pissed off. Leaving aside his troubling loathing of women because of how he perceived the “pretty girls” in high school, he is pissed off that he had to work so damn hard at something that other people aren’t having to work hard at.  He is pissed off that some girls made fun of him in high school and made him feel bad about himself and that some girls now claim that they are geeks too.  Maybe even some of those same girls!

I think this attitude is incredibly fucked up.  I think it’s time to let go of the anger.

Most people feel like outcasts in high school, even those people the rest of us thought were cool. What the commenter is doing, and what a lot of geek guys are doing, is creating definitions of what is cool enough for them to accept you.  You have to pass their “geek” test.  As a geek, I find this border patrolling deeply embarrassing.

As it happens, when I was in high school, most of the self-described geeks I knew were girls. Monty Python club? Mostly girls. Yearbook, newspaper, lit mag, math team, academic decathlon, religion club… all of these were dominated by girls. I don’t interpret that to mean that boys are less legitimately geeky.

Was I bullied?  Sure.  At home moreso than by my peers, but both.  I was told I would always be unhappy, that I would never find a boy who would date me, that “guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”, that I was too fat even for nerds to want to date, that if I didn’t drink I wasn’t a real teenager, that playing games with my friends was going to make me die a virgin, that I would marry the first boy that would have me out of desperation, that not going to the football games or pep rallies signified a deeply troubled mind, that hanging out with my teachers instead of my fellow students was bad.

And by boys who were geeks I was told that I was too intimidating, that a girl who was better at them than a game was a problem, that a girl who knew more about movies than them was cool but not really, that I could kick their ass on Star Wars trivia was threatening.

And if a kid today can go through high school watching movies and writing fanfiction and having monty python club and participating in acadec and reading comics and no one thinks less of them for it: AWESOME. If everyone, including Joe Peacock’s “6 of 9s”, wants to embrace their inner weirdness and smartness and they can do that without it being embarrassing, fuck yeah! That’s amazing! I wish I had been so lucky, and maybe me pushing the boundaries a little helped them. Maybe I made the world a little bit better for people who like the same things I like!  Maybe the world sucks a little less now than it did then.  Or maybe now I am trying to make the bullying meaningful.

Being a geek shouldn’t be about a persecution complex.  It shouldn’t be about being better than other people.  It shouldn’t be about bullying people who want to be your friend now because of what you think they may have been like in high school.  It should be about embracing people for being themselves and being grateful that they can be themselves when they are with you.

Women in Secularism Conference 2012

ImageTomorrow I’m going to be getting up bright and early to do all of those things I haven’t finished doing tonight in order to only be woefully behind when I get back home on Sunday, because I’m driving up to Washington, DC to go to the Women in Secularism Conference.

I was going to just do a list of people who I am excited to hear speak, but then I realized that it was everyone whose name I recognized, which meant that basically everyone, so I’m just pasting the whole list here for you!

If you’re in the DC area at all, you should make an effort to come, it’s going to be AWESOME.  Also, I’m hoping that I will get to meet Edwina Rogers.  Really, really hoping that happens because I’d love to report what she’s like in real life.

I will be live-blogging, which will probably translate to Twitter: @ashleyfmiller

Greta Christina AND Sikivu Hutchinson

Two of the most badass women in the atheist movement are going to be in Columbia, SC during the next week.  It’s pretty amazing.

Tomorrow night (2/23) Sikivu Hutchinson will be here talk about, among other things, Strom Thurmond, race, and religion.  Which gives me an excuse to post the following picture!

Strom "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement" Thurmond

Then!!  Then it will be Greta Christina, who is tied with Jen McCreight and Heidi Anderson as my favorite people of all time ever in the atheist movement, on Sunday!  I AM SO EXCITE.  She will be talking about sexuality and religion, which gives me an excuse to post THIS picture:

The Heroes Columbia Deserves

Details for Sikivu’s talk here: http://www.facebook.com/events/298007953588030/

Details for Greta’s talk here: http://www.facebook.com/events/389913497701994/

COME SEE THEM THEY ARE AMAZING.

TAM Friday

First up this morning was a marginal breakfast.  I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit.  Cooked fruit is not chocolate.  It does not make things better.  It makes them measurably much worse.  Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside.  It’s gross.

George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker.  It was pretty funny.

Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about.  I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.

Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV.  I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view.  When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t.  Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.

Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff.  If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.

Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there?  No, not at all.  And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines.  Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids.  Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV.  Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV.  There’s more than the Discovery Channel.

They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be.  I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor.  They’re tricksy people.

*deep breath*

Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.

Next up was Lawrence Krauss.  A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls.  There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM.  If that happened, I couldn’t tell.  There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.

He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.

Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing.  Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians.  It shows how lame psychics are.

Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around.  I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around.  I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.

And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people.  Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved.  So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it.  If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities.  South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion.  Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time.  These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live.  Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate.  And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.

Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.

After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.

Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast.  She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History.  She was fantastic.  She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention.  Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.

They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious.  Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary.  He was talking about the biology of aliens.  I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.

He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like.  Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science.  What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science.  The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue.  Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in.  It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on.  That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere.  I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.

And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever.  I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again.  It was a panel on the future of humans in space.  It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss.  NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass.  He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything.  The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence.  Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.

NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end.  I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine.  He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about.  Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up.  His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true.  I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud.  Hysterically funny.  I want it to happen.

And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day.  I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs.  I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books.  It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table.  After that, I went down to eat.  Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party.  I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.

Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them.  They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well.  I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others.  I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun.  It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half.  Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.

AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!