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

The not even a non-apology apology

21 thoughts on “The not even a non-apology apology

  1. 1

    Someone pointed out, and I think this is important, that for all the lack of substance, there’s still something in there that’s simply wrong. The conference itself was uncontroversial. It was a smashing success, from what I hear! The controversy “surrounded” Ron Lindsay’s remarks, not the conference.

    1. Liz

      Right…that kind of implies the critiques were crapping all over ALL of the speakers – when in fact most people angry at Lindsay took pains to say how great the rest of the sessions were…That’s really SO weird and so unfair to the rest of the people who put on all the hard work that went into it.

      All for the sake of Lindsay? He must be a very special person indeed.

  2. 2

    Or how about this: “We understand that the timing and content of Ron’s speech were upsetting to many of the conference attendees. We have had an internal meeting with all the CFI staff involved, and have instituted a policy on prior review of speeches given on behalf of CFI at CFI sponsored events. We feel that this policy will help prevent such problems in the future. We also hereby commit to sponsoring WIS3 next year.”

    I’d have taken that.

    1. 2.1

      Bare minimum, would still have been disappointing because I’d expect an org founded on feminist principles to take a definitive stand, and yet, I think a statement like this would have sufficed for a lot of people. Weak sauce? Yes, as it doesn’t actually address any concerns directly. But sauce nonetheless.

  3. 3

    I finally figured out what this reminded me of…

    It reminded me of Mark McGuire — the baseball player who took an oath to testify before Congress about the use of steroids, and then proceeded to say precisely and exactly nothing about his use of steroids in baseball.

    He kept saying over and over again “we have to look forward” or some such lawyer-approved drivel.

    The statement sounds like it was written by a lawyer — or maybe a lawyer-philosopher. Which, in this instance, would have been precisely the wrong job description to have in order to communicate effectively.

    10-to-1 Ron either wrote it himself or had substantial input into what it (didn’t) say.

    1. Liz

      or what Gore said after the SCOTUS decision or what Obama said after the election with regard to the financial collapse and the crimes of Wall Street….

      Different scale –but remarkably similar tactic.

      Must be in a PR handbook somewhere.

  4. 4

    Perfectly said. I could have accepted their response had it been anything like what you wrote. I would still have disagreed with their position, and been upset at their failure to understand the issues at stake, but at least they would have made it clear that they are prepared to entertain dissent. I might have been able to continue supporting CFI despite this issue, since I do feel they do lots of other good work. But the statement they released makes it clear they are not prepared to listen to dissenting opinions, and is an embarassment for an organization that purports to promote “science, reason, and secular values.”

  5. 5

    It’s so vapid and content-free that it doesn’t even rise to the level of “the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea.”

  6. 6

    I had an English teacher once state The passive voice is the root of all evil. Never use it.. It appears CFI had different teachers.Of course, her emphasis was on clear communication of your opinions and feelings, and that may have run counter to CFI’s goals in this statement.

    1. 7.1

      You’re wandering in to “Dear Muslima” territory here. Wrongful termination is indeed illegal, and luckily the court system is said up to deal with complaints. What Ron Lindsey did was stupid but not illegal. That’s no reason to ignore it.

      I don’t need to play a game of whose miserycock is bigger.

      1. I don’t know what that means but I know when someone pretty respected, like AJ Johnson, sues their former employer and alleges racism and a hostile work environment, and there is evidence of a pattern to this effect, it’s a big deal. I’m kind of annoyed that atheists don’t seem to be taking it seriously, given the stereotype that atheists don’t really care about black people or women’s issues.

        I’m not going to sugar coat it – I think it’s bullshit that barrels of internet ink are getting spilled about Ron Lindsay and next to nothing about this.

          1. Good! A website I wasn’t familiar with is Lots of really interesting info about the history of feminism. I’m more a big tent type of person and I think it’s important to be able to reduce down concepts into things people can understand and believe in. That’s why I like the analogy of the patriarchy to a farm – it makes sense to me and neatly fits the frustrations both men and women can have.

          2. So it only took you one or two years of people telling you to look up “feminism 101” before you actually did it, huh.

            I’m not really sure if congratulations are in order or not.

  7. Liz

    I wasn’t aware of it until yesterday – but that does not imply that I don’t care…I am just not that heavily involved.

    I know we can walk and chew gum at the same time and there is no reason not to address both situations….

  8. 9

    Some people don’t like being mentioned in “long, detailed refutation[s]” of lawsuits that have nothing to do with them. Just because a blogger mentions someone does not require a national organization to them post information about the ending of another person’s stint with them. Some people want to be left alone.

  9. 10

    With the exception of naming Lindsay and admonishing him re: comments, I don’t see any actual difference between what they said and how you reformulated it.

    They certainly indicated their past, ongoing, and future support of women.
    They certainly indicated their desire to continue communications and share common values.

    Their statement was fine, and the shitstorm FTB has placed around it wrong headed.

    Will this never be published too?

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