Sunday, June 23, 2013

Public Actions: Mistakes and Apologies

There have been several incidents recently where public figures have made a mistake. Following very public discussions of their mistake, they apologized. Well, some of them did.

If you're a public figure, life is difficult, but there's a surprisingly simple rubric to follow:

  1. Don't fuck up.
  2. If you do fuck up, stop fucking up.
  3. Whether you manage to stop fucking up or not, apologize.

There, isn't that simple? Now, no one said it would be easy, but if life were easy, we'd all remain children forever.

The three incidents I'll be talking about were mistakes made by Kickstarter, by Mike Krahulik, and by Ron Lindsey. I'll strive for brevity.

The mistake made by Kickstarter is the most forgivable, in my eyes. A rather sleazy guide on how to pick up women was about to be funded. Someone followed the links and found that it wasn't merely sleazy, but also included advice on how to initiate and attempt to get away with sexual assault. That's right, a how-to guide for rapists in the bud. When I say "about to be funded", I mean that Kickstarter was told about the additional information with two hours left. In those two hours, they failed to cancel the project. That was Wednesday. On Friday, they issued an apology, in which they explained the nature and reason for their failure, and that they were altering their rules to prevent such an incident from occurring in the future.

In my eyes, Kickstarter did everything right. Their system relies on users to police one another (like Youtube or any other large, public forum), they had only a brief window in which to act, and their system has always been biased toward creator freedom. After the project closed, successfully funded, there was nothing they could do to prevent its creator from receiving those funds, but they did remove it from their site and changed the rules so that they could more definitely and quickly act in the future. And theirs was a sincere apology.

Kickstarter: a not-huge mistake followed swiftly by sincere apology and real action for change. This is how you do it, people.

Mike Krahulik, the artist at webcomic Penny Arcade engaged in a discussion on Twitter that quickly got bad. From defending an insensitive panel ("The panels are submitted by the public and we try to give everyone a space to speak") it turned into an argument which quickly came to center on Krahulik's lack of knowledge or understanding about transgender issues and language. He was called a bigot and he responded angrily. He had an email conversation with former PAR writer Sophie Prell, in which she said she was hurt by his comments and he apologized, but demonstrated some further lack of understanding. Yesterday, Saturday, Mike apologized.

I’ve spent the last few days trying to apologize to people I hurt. I’ve been doing it via email and I’ve given out my phone number a lot. I realize I was wrong and I’m genuinely sorry. I also realize I can’t possibly apologize on the phone to each and every person I hurt. I’m going to keep trying, but I’ve also decided to personally make a donation to the Trevor Project of $20,000.00. I also plan to keep interacting with people on a personal level and I understand that will be an ongoing process. In the meantime I’m hoping this donation will do some real good for a group that desperately needs it.

In short, Mike made a mistake and, when confronted, he responded rather naturally and defensively, which only served to compound that error. He then spent a lot of time learning about the issue and personally apologizing to people. Feeling that wasn't enough, he issued a public apology and also made a donation of $20,000 to an organization dedicated to helping LGBTQ youth. No, money isn't everything, but $20,000 is a hell of a statement. This is not a half-assed weasel. I have no doubts about the sincerity of his contrition. He didn't do everything right, but he's a hell of a long way from wrong.

Finally, we have Ron Lindsey. Lindsey is the CEO of CFI, the Center for Inquiry, an organization whose mission is "to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values." Last year they hosted the Women in Secularism conference, and this year hosted Women in Secularism 2. The significance is that the atheist, skeptic, humanist, secular, etc. organizations of the United States have for the last two years been dealing with a controversy: some have called for social justice issues (such as race, gender, and sexuality) to have more prominence in these communities and for minorities to have more prominence as speakers and leaders, while others have said, "No, we're fine the way we are. Shut up." WIS2, for example, was subject to an unceasing campaign of harassment on twitter that has since died down (more than a month after the conference). Threats and harassment; this is what women, gays, racial minorities, and others advocating social justice can expect in the atheist and secular communities. Not from everyone, of course, but from a large portion of the community.

Ron Lindsey, as CEO of the organization hosting Women in Secularism, gave the opening remarks. Ordinarily you would expect a warm welcome, some excitement about what's to come, and some requests for donations. Lindsey decided to take things in another direction. Instead of welcoming his guests, he made it a point not to do so. Then he decided to chide a room full of feminists about how feminism silences men. Some took exception to Lindsey's ham-handed "what about teh menz?!" statements and the ignorance/arrogance of speaking to a room full of experts about their subject when you yourself aren't an expert.

In the month that followed, there was silence from Lindsey and the Center for Inquiry. Meanwhile, feminists and allies called for an apology from either1. MRAs called for a parade. Finally, entitled white men have a voice! This past Monday, CFI finally issued an apology. I can quote it in full:

The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.

CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.

That's it. They're unhappy about the controversy. There's no mention of the fact that it was their CEO's statements that caused the controversy, that he attacked his guests, that he and they have been silent for a month about this. This isn't an apology; it's not even a notpology. There's no hint of contrition.

I'm sorry... that you're all so Jewish.

CFI and Ron Lindsey are good example of how to do it exactly wrong. Lindsey screwed up, then he got defensive and angry and made it worse. Then he and CFI did nothing for a month. Then they issued this... this namby-pamby milquetoast excuse of an apology. Needless to say, people are upset. Many prominent bloggers and organizations have withdrawn their support of CFI, cancelling speaking engagements, and refusing their sponsorship. As PZ Myers said, they can't even buy friends at this point.

There you have it. Two examples of doing it right, and one of doing it very, very wrong. No one expects anyone to be perfect. We just expect you to own up to your mistakes and promise to try and do better in the future. Kickstarter and Mike Krahulik are fekin' awesome. CFI and Ron Lindsey not so much.

1 - Not, as some MRAs (Men's Rights Activists; think of a white guy agitating for white rights, it's like that) have had it, Lindsey's firing. They wouldn't be upset if Lindsey were asked to resign, but that's not what they're calling for. An apology would suffice.

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