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.
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:
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.
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.
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).