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

Taking it Personally: Privilege and Women in Secularism

Illustration by Tom Gauld for The Guardian

Illustration by Tom Gauld for The Guardian

There is a tendency for people to take criticism of ideas personally.  It’s true of all people, though I noticed it particularly this weekend at the Women in Secularism conference.  People also have a bad habit of criticizing individuals rather than their ideas.  I do not claim freedom from this tendency, although I do work very hard to try to be clear in that distinction.  I do not like the speech that Ron Lindsay used to open the conference with, but this doesn’t mean that I do not like Ron Lindsay.  I don’t know him, he is quite probably a pretty cool guy generally speaking.

Of course, I am not the only person who took umbrage at his opening speech.  I wasn’t particularly upset by it, I just felt it was wrongheaded as an opening speech for this event in particular and demonstrated poor understanding of the cultural theory behind the terms of “privilege” and the intent of “shut up and listen.”   I think it’s inappropriate to use the opening speech to criticize the conference goals rather than introduce it. I also think that the way he talked about critical theory indicated a lack of familiarity with the scholarship on the subject and the power dynamics at play. At best it was terrible tone deafness which was then exacerbated by his position of power in the organization, his race and gender and socioeconomic status, and the fact that he was giving the opening address not a lecture.

I also agreed with Rebecca Watson that it was particularly bad for these apparent misunderstandings to be delivered by a wealthy white man who was part of the organization in charge of the Women in Secularism conference.  In other words, it was a poorly expressed, poorly timed message delivered by exactly the wrong person for the message.maiself

For stating that, I have been accused of being sexist, of having it out for men, for having it out for Ron Lindsay, of quote-mining, of being dismissive, of shutting down dialogue by calling people names, and just good old “fuck you” and “fuck off” from strangers. I am dogmatic and hateful and trying to tear people down.

Rebecca Watson has also gotten this kind of response, but far more intense, for level-headed criticism of the talk.  In response, Ron Lindsay felt the need to make it about how Rebecca Watson is a Bad Person.  (At least further accusations of quote-mining will be justified by the use of quotes):

Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe.  At least that is the most charitable explanation I can provide for her recent smear.  Watson has posted comments on my opening talk at Women in Secularism 2.  It may be the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea.

Perhaps Watson was too busy tweeting about how “strange” it was to have a “white man” open the conference to pay attention to what I was actually saying

I’m just glad Watson didn’t notify security: “white man loose on stage, white man loose on stage!”

There are also places where it continues to be clear that he doesn’t understand the “shut up and listen” suggestion, but at least those aren’t unnecessary and unprofessional attacks on someone who has criticized something he said.

Now I’d like to offer some advice to Ron Lindsay: Shut up and listen.

  • Shut up because you’re just making this more and more of a PR disaster.
  • Shut up because you’re hurting Melody Hensley and the amazing event she put together.
  • Shut up because if you’re so busy coming up with ways to defend yourself, you’re failing to understand why people are upset.
  • Shut up because it is so very clear that you are not listening.
  • Shut up because you can’t talk and listen at the same time.
  • Listen to what other people in your organization have to say.
  • Listen to what other people in the cause have to say.
  • Listen to women and men who are upset about the opening speech.
  • Listen to criticism of what you said and remember that it’s not about who you are as a person, but the argument that you’ve made.
  • Listen because it’s the right thing to do.

I appreciate that there are those who somehow think that this “shut up and listen” thing means don’t use critical thinking, but it’s actually about defensiveness.  People always take things personally.  When someone says, “You’ve got privilege,” most of us want to yell, “I worked really hard to get what I’ve got.”  And most of us have worked really hard, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t privileged — learning to see the privilege is difficult, and to see it we’ve got to be willing to shut up for a little while and recognize the possibility that there are things that we didn’t know before.  In other words, if you’re not prepared to just listen for a little while, you’re going to spend the entire time trying to prove someone wrong instead of considering the possibility that they may have a point.

Ron Lindsay presents this as a war where either you “believe reason and evidence should ultimately guide our discussions, or you think they should be held hostage to identity politics.”  This negates the possibility that this is a fight between factions who think that reason and evidence point to the necessity of identity politics and those who refuse to listen.