Jun 23 2013

Anatomy of another apology

So, Ron Lindsay apologized. That’s good. Not superlative good, but it’s not bad, in any respect.

Someone pointed out privately the timing between my post on Friday dissecting the Kickstarter apology, and this apology. I chuckled, and said that I only wish I had that level of influence. But this does put me in a position where I have to parse the apology in light of what I wrote on Friday, and despite the fact that I do find this apology somewhat wanting, I also know how difficult it must have been to do, and that wins from me a lot of (provisional) goodwill.

The first thing I note is exactly how brief this apology is. In the same way as the CFI statement was terse to the point of vacuity, Ron’s is small, lacking in specifics, but worded in my opinion extraordinarily carefully, such that you get the impression he was strongly advised that his words would be parsed and reparsed, so “don’t say anything that can be misinterpreted”. Since we in the secular / skeptical / rational communities on the internet are heavily invested in both reading and writing, we do have a tendency of attaching ourselves to ill-thought-out phrases and attacking people over them. However, we’re also incredibly forgiving in that respect — apologies for these ill-thought-out phrases are forthcoming and are accepted generally all the time.

What really rankles is when someone expresses an ill-thought-out idea and refuses to engage honestly with counterarguments. We as a collective of communities suffer from SIWOTI syndrome (Someone Is Wrong On The Internet) — though since that makes up a large part of the dynamic of debating with one another, sharpening our claws on one another so we’re better equipped to engage with irrationalists of all stripes, one might say that this SIWOTI syndrome is the mechanism by which our communities improve ourselves.

It has been a few weeks since I have said anything in public about the controversy over my remarks at the Women in Secularism 2 conference. As CFI announced via Twitter, this pause was to enable the board to have time to consider the matter. The board has issued its statement. It is now an appropriate time for me to make some remarks.

I do feel that both delays helped fan the flames of the conflagration, and that there was actually precious little for the board to consider and debate over. If the question was whether or not Lindsay should be fired, that’s different — and maybe that’s why they convened the panel, to determine whether or not the grievances against Ron were enough to merit firing him. But for the statement they put out, thin-gruel as it was, it appears that they did not even demand an apology nor acknowledge that Ron’s actions were the proximate cause of the “controversy surrounding the Women In Secularism conference”.

Unless there’s political calculation in this — and there could be, but I’m being very charitable here — I can’t believe that the statement they made in any way forced Ron’s hand. That suggests to me that it is contrite.

I am sorry that I caused offense with my talk.

This is good. However, it is worthwhile to also say how, exactly, you caused offense, presenting the best form of the arguments made against what you did. For instance:

“My talk repeated tropes that are used against feminists and feminism in many of the same ways that creationists attack atheism and evolution. Accusations of dogmatic atheism, suggestions that Piltdown Man disproves evolution, and accusations of attempting to control the scientific discourse by not ‘teaching the controversy’, all would have been as ill-received at an atheists’ convention as were my assertions about dogmatic feminism and silencing of men was received by the feminists in attendance. Knowing that the conference we’d put together would specifically attract the intersection between rationalists and feminists, raising the spectre of the more irrational complaints against this crowd was every bit as ill-received as it should have been.”

I am also sorry I made some people feel unwelcome as a result of my talk.

You didn’t make everyone feel unwelcome, certainly. But you did make a LOT of people feel unwelcome, so “some” is an understatement. The visceral reactions around me were ones of, “I paid money to be talked down to like this!?” Some people walked out of the first speech. Some people clenched their teeth and resisted jeering outright. But yes, this is an acknowledgement that the result of his welcoming speech was markedly different from the intent.

From the letters sent to me and the board, I have a better understanding of the objections to the talk.

Again, presenting the objections would be helpful here, to show your understanding. I can see why one might not want to do so, in case they get it wrong, though — because getting it wrong here, now, would make things worse, not better.

I am also sorry that my talk and my actions subjected my colleagues and the organization to which I am devoted to criticism.

Please accept my apologies.

This is an apology to CFI. It must sting to be the focal point of criticism, and to force the organization you are “devoted to”, to either defend your actions or condemn them.

This is a start, and I accept the apology for what it is. It could have been improved in a number of ways. For instance, perhaps Ron could have said “I was wrong”. If he doesn’t believe that he WAS wrong about feminism in general, then at least he could acknowledge that he was wrong about the people in the room to whom he was speaking. He could also have expressed commitment to making Women In Secularism 3 happen.

To me, this apology has bought him and CFI some leeway and time. They are now under a good deal of public scrutiny, and their actions at this point determine whether or not I can bring myself to support CFI at the national level. With both the national US and national Canadian CFI boards in crisis, I am distraught that I feel I can’t support either at the moment. Therefore, I would sincerely appreciate any effort made by CFI to repair the damage they’ve done, or at least to acknowledge that there were specific missteps that can be avoided the next time around.

As apologies, this one was not particularly great. But it’s something, so I’m willing to offer an olive branch, as long as they don’t use it as a club. CFI would be well advised to put in some efforts toward healing the conflagration. There was a lot of backstory that was either skimmed or missed entirely in Ron’s preparation for his speech, and it re-tread territory we’ve covered so often before — again, like someone bringing up some hoary old trope like Piltdown Man as disproof of evolution. It’s tiresome to fight the same battles over and over again, each time against someone who thinks they’ve just developed a knock-out argument.

But, again, it’s something. And it’s not like there isn’t any good in it, 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 assessment and is optimistic as well. There’s a lot of reason to be optimistic, battle-worn though we all are.

And what I can do further is to blog about happier, funnier topics.


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  1. 1

    To me, this apology has bought him and CFI some leeway and time. They are now under a good deal of public scrutiny, and their actions at this point determine whether or not I can bring myself to support CFI at the national level.

    Good analysis… that’s about where I stand, too. I note that a lot of Stephanie’s optimistic stance comes from knowledge of the CFI board’s current internal discussion, rather than Lindsay’s statement itself. I hope some sort of address will be forthcoming from CFI as a whole.

  2. 2

    For instance, perhaps Ron could have said “I was wrong”. If he doesn’t believe that he WAS wrong about feminism in general, then at least he could acknowledge that he was wrong about the people in the room to whom he was speaking. He could also have expressed commitment to making Women In Secularism 3 happen.

    He could have, but then he would have to believe these things.

  3. 3

    Excellent post. A very well-thought-out position and commentary.

  4. 4
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    Ok. I can grudgingly accept the apology. I hope he comes to more fully understand the criticism (sooner rather than later).

    I have never been a fan of ‘please accept my apology’. Polite though he may be , he is not in a position to make requests .

  5. 5

    I think Lindsay’s apology is far better than the CFI board’s, in almost every way. While the board was sorry that there was controversy, he apologized for giving offense and making attendees feel unwelcome. He also says he read and learned from the letters people took the time to write, whereas the board didn’t acknowledge them at all. To me, those two elements in particular make this apology far more meaningful than the board’s not-pology.

    I also sincerely hope that there’s a WiS3.

  6. 6

    I feel funny. I don’t think I accept this apology. But I know I don’t reject it, either. I guess…I feel like the way to put it is, I acknowledge this apology. Without a smile, without a sneer.

    I further acknowledge that it was probably not an emotionally easy thing for him to write. Bearing that in mind, I acknowledge and appreciate that he positively, unflinchingly identified his own words and actions as being the cause of the anger, distress, and general discord.

    I don’t know. I felt like a lot of other people were substantially more angry than I was. Maybe it’s different when you’ve just been really, really, really sad. Maybe the way you accept an apology when you’re sad is only that you stop getting more sad, and then you kind of nod and say, OK, I can listen if you can talk, and I’ll go make us both a cup of tea so we have something else to look at and something to do with our hands as we sit here together. That’s how I feel.

  7. 7

    Hey Jason,

    amazingly, there is another apology that might be worth giving this treatment. The guy from Kickstarter has done pretty well http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mstfCms6aE

    of course, it is possible he is not being honest. Especially when you read his ongoing position http://abovethegame.info/

    But that was a well rounded apology, if he had left out the dig at Kickstater/freeze peach it coulda been pretty close to perfect.

  8. 8

    Have never been involved in CFI or either WIS conference before, so I can say that as a relative outsider, CFI will really need to publish a clear, zero-tolerance harassment policy. Not just for sexual harassment, but for all kinds. Then, CFI will have to follow up with enforcement at all conferences, so all are truly welcome at freethinkers’ conferences. Words are a great start, but only action will show that freethinkers mean what we say about commitment to social progress and human decency.

  1. 9
    The intersection between rationalists and feminists » Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] discusses Ron Lindsay’s apology and, while accepting it, suggests ways to expand [...]

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    Accepting Ron Lindsay’s Apology » Greta Christina's Blog

    [...] We’re making progress, Martha (guest post on Butterflies and Wheels) Thank You, Ron, Dana Hunter Anatomy of another apology, Jason Thibeault Ron Lindsay Apologizes: A Small Step in the Right Direction, Adam Lee Good on Dr. [...]

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    What the little deal is about Ron Lindsay’s apology | David's Slingshot

    [...] Lindsay has apologized and my reaction is in one way much the same as Jason Thibeault’s: the timing of his and my previous posts demand follow up. Beyond that, we tend to [...]

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