Adequate vs. Awesome Apologies

Adequate vs. Awesome Apologies

As Amy posted the other day, Ron Lindsay published an apology for his recent behavior at and following the Women in Secularism 2 conference. I echo Amy’s thoughts: it’s heartening that he apparently listened to the people who complained about his actions, thought about their objections, and then apologized to them without reservation. As I posted on Twitter just after reading it, it’s a good start, and I’m happy to rescind my previous calls for a boycott of the organization.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to pull out a checkbook (if those still existed) and start throwing my money at CFI. There’s a certain amount of lost trust, lingering disappointment, and, dare I say it, skepticism that results from a situation like this, and that apology isn’t enough to clean all that up in one tidy sweep. I gladly accept the apology not because it’s an immediate cure-all, but because I understand that it’s extraordinarily difficult to swallow your pride enough to make an unqualified apology for your actions and I think that needs to be rewarded if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

Lindsay’s apology has me thinking a bit about what makes up a sufficient apology and what makes up a great apology that has the potential to really win back the people who were originally wronged. There have been several recent examples of the latter: Kickstarter’s, for instance. A pick-up artist used the site to fund the publishing of a book that encouraged men to push women’s boundaries when it comes to sex, like putting her hand on his penis without asking permission. When a blogger pointed it out, a grassroots social media campaign began, asking Kickstarter to delete the fundraiser just hours before it was meant to conclude. They did not.

Soon after, though, Kickstarter did release this apology.

Also recently, Gabe of Penny Arcade fame Tweeted some ignorant things about trans* people, insisting that men have penises and women have vaginas and telling fans that if they use the word “cis” (as in cisgendered) they shouldn’t bother talking to him. It got pretty ugly, with feminists and others arguing heatedly that he needed to step back and learn a thing or two before mouthing off.

Soon after, Gabe posted this apology and then quickly followed it with this post.

I think both Gabe and Kickstarter succeeded (in varying amounts) in issuing apologies that didn’t just soothe the ire of outraged fans but also convinced those fans to re-engage and to trust that the same mistake won’t happen twice, and when similar mistakes happen they’ll be dealt with in an open and fair way. Here are some of the aspects of these apologies that I think make them successful:

Work Quickly

Ron Lindsay and CFI didn’t do so well with this point. Lindsay did put out a statement shortly after the big to-do that was meant to be an apology but was weak, qualified with an insistence that he was right, and wasn’t at all comprehensive. That said, it was speedy! Had his latest apology been posted back then, we all would have saved a lot of time and energy.

Kickstarter issued their apology within two days of the uproar.

Gabe issued his apology within 24 hours.

Say “Sorry”

It seems basic, but you’d be surprised at how often people don’t realize how important it is to say the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” without attaching an excuse or additional language that changes the meaning to say “I’m sorry you overreacted.” This is the point that Lindsay succeeded at that made his apology acceptable.

Kickstarter: “We’re sorry for getting this so wrong.”

Gabe: “I’m very sorry about yesterday.”

And while we’re at it, Ron Lindsay: “I am sorry that I caused offense with my talk. I am also sorry I made some people feel unwelcome as a result of my talk….I am also sorry that my talk and my actions subjected my colleagues and the organization to which I am devoted to criticism.”

Demonstrate an Understanding of Your Critics’ Complaints

If you apologize but you don’t actually understand what you’re apologizing for, the people in your audience have no way to know if they’re just going to go through all this with you next week. Lindsay comes close to doing this when he writes “From the letters sent to me and the board, I have a better understanding of the objections to the talk,” but because he doesn’t go into detail, we have no idea if he truly has that understanding or if he just thinks he does. Here’s the way Kickstarter and Gabe do this:

Kickstarter: “Content promoting or glorifying violence against women or anyone else has always been prohibited from Kickstarter. If a project page contains hateful or abusive material we don’t approve it in the first place. If we had seen this material when the project was submitted to Kickstarter (we didn’t), it never would have been approved. Kickstarter is committed to a culture of respect.”

Gabe: “It was pointed out to me that not all women have vaginas and I will admit right here in front of everyone that this came as a big shock to me….This was not meant to invalidate the trans community but I was told it did….it’s not okay when I make a bunch of people who are already marginalized feel like shit.”

Gabe could definitely be clearer here – my ellipses cut out a lot of stuff that distract from the point. But I came away from his post feeling as though he had learned new things in the discussion and that he would apply that knowledge in the future.

Explain, but Don’t Excuse

It’s perfectly fine and even helpful to explain what your mindset was when you screwed up, so long as you make it clear that you don’t believe that those circumstances excuse your behavior. Lindsay doesn’t spend time in his apology doing this, but personally I think this is okay. Because it can be hard to explain your motivations without excusing your behavior, this is something that is best skipped if you have any doubts about your ability to communicate a heartfelt apology.

Kickstarter: “Why didn’t we cancel the project when this material was brought to our attention? Two things influenced our decision….These factors don’t excuse our decision but we hope they add clarity to how we arrived at it.”

Gabe: “I was mad at the assholes who have no fucking idea who I am but when you go hard on twitter plenty of innocent people get caught in the crossfire. I’m very good at being a jerk. It’s sort if my superpower. When it comes to Penny Arcade it has served me well but it’s not okay when I make a bunch of people who are already marginalized feel like shit.”

Gabe comes close to messing up on this count, because he spends a bit too much time explaining that he was lashing out at assholes and it starts to distract from his actual apology, but he does get back around to it and clearly says that what he did was not okay.

Take Action

This is absolutely critical for winning back the trust and respect of the people you originally pissed off. Vaguely promising to do better in the future, as the CFI Board did last week with their execrable statement, is pointless at best and likely to make your audience skeptical that you’re not just trying to placate them with words, without actually doing anything. Lindsay doesn’t do this in his statement, though I’m cautiously hopeful that at some point in the near future he and/or the Board will develop a list of actions to build on all this, like, for instance, committing to sponsoring Women in Secularism 3 run by Melody Hensley. But here are the ways that Kickstarter and Gabe succeeded with this point:

Kickstarter: “…the project page has been removed from Kickstarter….we are prohibiting “seduction guides,” or anything similar, effective immediately….today Kickstarter will donate $25,000 to an anti-sexual violence organization called RAINN.”

Gabe: “I’m going to keep trying, but I’ve also decided to personally make a donation to the Trevor Project of $20,000.00.”

Not everyone has tens of thousands of dollars to commit to awesome charities like that, but there are plenty of other ways to take action as Kickstarter showed with their first two points. Now, fans can feel confident that Kickstarter has made real changes and can be held fully accountable if a similar thing happens in the future. That’s huge.

I hope CFI takes those next steps to restore faith (irony intended).

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

15 Comments

  1. I’m sorry that I still have a checkbook.

    • Yup, same here. It’s still necessary for those of us who rent, in fact. Most casual landlords aren’t set up to take credit card or bank payments, so checks every month make the most sense.

  2. Awesome post. Paula Deen (among many others) should give it a read.

  3. I really like this assessment of what makes an outstanding apology. I’m also glad that folks are giving others some wiggle room for being less than perfect. But, I find myself envisioning one of those SAT-style analogies: apology:not apology::accepting an apology:not accepting an apology. Maybe ‘accepting an apology’ isn’t the right phrase. Maybe it should be ‘conditionally accepting an apology’. If Lindsay had written about me as he did about you, Rebecca, it would take some extra steps to convince me (personally, as opposed to me guessing your response) that all was good and right in the world and it was time to move on.

  4. Rebecca you kind of omitted a ton of things about what Gabe did and without it kind of makes him look more favorable than it does. For example he didn’t exactly take 24 hours to apologize and ended up doubling down on his idiocy. All things considered he basically did exactly what Linsday did if not infinitely worst.

    • That was my initial thought too but I noticed Rebecca had two links for the Gabe apology. I had not previously seen the second one. While I think it’s fair to criticize Gabe for how he handles these things I think the idea that they “succeeded (in varying amounts)” is fair here.

      His double-downs are still out there but in this case he issued a real apology and didn’t keep digging himself deeper as he has in the past.

  5. What makes Kickstarter’s and Gabe’s donations especially meaningful is that they both did it immediately and without prompting. All at once, they demonstrated sympathy, better understanding, and the immediate desire to work to improve the situation. They took action in the face of their shortcomings.

    If Lindsay or the CFI directors were going to do something, I think we would’ve seen evidence of it by now. They seem more focused on choosing words than taking action.

  6. There was actually another story that happened at nearly the same time as all of this in the BDSM world. Shibaricon, a HUGE rope bondage conference, had some significant problems a week after WiS2. A large group of people who had worked with the event as speakers, educators, staff members, volunteers, etc (myself included) signed an open letter voicing concerns about several problems. The apology eventually put forward by the event organizers there was very well written and showed a better understanding of the problems than I had expected. This letter came out within 24 hours of the CFI board statement and I felt it was a stark contrast and a lesson in exactly this issue. Though we have yet to see if changes actually take place at Shibaricon (it’s the kind of situation that requires real leadership change) they seem to be headed on the right path.

  7. There’s a certain amount of lost trust, lingering disappointment, and, dare I say it, skepticism that results from a situation like this, and that apology isn’t enough to clean all that up in one tidy sweep.

    Yes, the things people say and do when they think they can get away with it are always more revealing than the apologies they offer after they get called out. If people hadn’t made such a fuzz and threatened to boycott the organization I see no reason to assume they would have done the right thing by themselves.

    If Lindsay wants to regain some trust, he can stop referring to a piece of s**t like Russell Blackford as “friends”, or arguing that vermin like Dawkins don’t “fall into the “unacceptable” category” and hence should not be shunned. My criterion for deciding who is/isn’t a candidate for my support is simple: Do they still think “keeping the atheist/skeptical movements together” (as in “continuing to include both the feminists and the Slime”) is any kind of goal? If the answer is yes, the deal is off period.

  8. I LOVED Kickstarter’s apology. Coming from a PR background, I begrudgingly admire masterful spin and am truly in awe of perfect apologies delivered in a timely manner. I can understand the reasons why they failed to defund the project and am thrilled about their actions to do better in the future. I hadn’t heard about the Penny Arcade debacle, but it sounds like he’s done an excellent job of recognizing when to shut up and listen.

  9. On the Gabe thing:

    I would also like to add that calling someone a bigot of some sort because of one or two remarks (rather than an active campaign of open bigotry) often leads to making people say “fuck it” rather than actually educating them. Then again, it’s no marginalized individual’s duty to educate those who are marginalizing them. It’s our responsibility, as allies, to call out shitty BEHAVIOR when we see it, and call it shitty behavior rather than calling the offender a shitty PERSON of some sort.

    Unless they’re just being fuckwads. Then call them how you see them. Because they’re not worth the energy it takes to educate.

    Although the tone argument is tired, I think illdoc had it right when he said that there’s a good and bad way to call someone out for bigotry, and sometimes I’m seeing this tendency to jump on someone for one remark and call them –ist in the Skepchick comments section. It bothers me. Some people are straight-up trolls. They can get piled on or booted, I don’t care. But some people are ignorant yet open to learning, and I really hope we don’t lose sight of that fact, nor pretend like we never used to be ignorant and say stupid shit that someone had to call us on.

    • The illdoc reference:

    • To be fair, Gabe had made comments the previous week on Twitter about transgender individuals that had a lot of folks, including Natalie Reed, trying to engage him in a non-abrasive manner and he still drew himself into his defensive, snarky shell. I think that’s partially what led him to making those additional comments the following week that led to the uproar. More people just caught it this time due to the additional coverage over the PAX Australia thing. He was the one that lashed out, and this is also not the first time he’s been tone deaf even in the face of reasonable criticism. There was the Dickwolves thing and the tentacle rape card thing. Do I think Mike Krahulik’s a bigot? Not really. He’s somewhat privilege-blind. But HE’S really the one that makes it hard for himself in these matters. And while his apology seems sincere this time around, only time will tell if he doesn’t just jump into something like this all over again.

  10. Great post. :) And I had missed Mike’s ultimate apology and I’m very happy to see it. I really want to see him break out of his… what does one call it? I don’t know. He knows he has a problem and he knows what it stems from (he’s referred to himself as ‘damaged’ more than once). And I think he honestly wants to be a better person, he just hasn’t figured out how to fully put away the angry mask that he’s carried around for protection for so long; Now that he’s a dad and a ‘capital A’ Adult who’s no longer an bullied outcast but a very mainstream business and charity figure. He certainly ended up handling this incident better than the whole Dickwolves saga (which, I feel, still hasn’t really been put to rest).

    Again, nice post. It’s good to see good. :)

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