Anatomy of an apology

People are talking a lot lately about what qualities a genuine apology might take — what sort of apology, for instance, Ron Lindsay might be expected to make if many of the feminists he’s so undercut with his opening speech are going to actually accept it and thereafter find it in their hearts to resume their support of CFI, given that most of us have explicitly ASKED for such an apology.

Kickstarter gave us a great example that we can dissect, even where it has a few rough edges yet. They even did it in exactly the right order.

The backstory: a really horrid pick-up artist manual with first draft material including passages like:

Pull out your cock and put her hand on it. Remember, she is letting you do this because you have established yourself as a LEADER. Don’t ask for permission, GRAB HER HAND, and put it right on your dick.

In the context of a relationship where you’re not particularly familiar with a person, there’s good reason why there was an outcry against this rape-culture-steeped, utterly empathy-free, deep-fried nonsense, and why Kickstarter has apologized for not acting in time to shut it down. The Kickstarter was fully funded, and they were made aware with only two hours left before it closed. They were not able to stop the automated processes from finishing, and so this pick-up artist’s manual on how to input Konami codes into women to unlock Sex Mode will probably come into being.

(Then again, it probably would anyway — I have no idea what the kickstarter would actually fund, short of vanity press publishing.)

So, despite the damage that was done, why does Kickstarter’s apology work?

Let’s dissect it.

A genuine, good, real apology has several distinguishing characteristics, without which you can safely assume either that the person did not intend a real apology, or does not know what they did wrong.

On Wednesday morning Kickstarter was sent a blog post quoting disturbing material found on Reddit. The offensive material was part of a draft for a “seduction guide” that someone was using Kickstarter to publish.

First, you identify the problem.

The posts offended a lot of people — us included — and many asked us to cancel the creator’s project. We didn’t.

Then you identify the reaction to the problem. Avoid loaded words as much as possible here. “Offended” is slightly loaded, but not terribly so. The context is important, of course.

We were wrong.

An unambiguous declaration that you were mistaken. Follow up with how, exactly, you were mistaken.

However, be careful about this part:

Why didn’t we cancel the project when this material was brought to our attention? Two things influenced our decision:

The decision had to be made immediately. We had only two hours from when we found out about the material to when the project was ending. We’ve never acted to remove a project that quickly.
Our processes, and everyday thinking, bias heavily toward creators. This is deeply ingrained. We feel a duty to our community — and our creators especially — to approach these investigations methodically as there is no margin for error in canceling a project. This thinking made us miss the forest for the trees.
These factors don’t excuse our decision but we hope they add clarity to how we arrived at it.

The reason you need to be careful is because you can very easily be construed as making excuses for your behaviour. Adding clarity as to why you’ve messed up is good, if it acknowledges that the things you did were miscalculations or errors.

Let us be 100% clear: 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.

This is an acknowledgement of an error — that links were provided including samples of the content, but the people who accepted the Kickstarter didn’t follow them. However, it does not expressly call this an error. (Update: Apparently this wasn’t the part that was linked in the original kickstarter, that was actually a sample of Chapter 1. The rape tactics passages people turned up from r/seduction were from a later chapter.)

Then, you discuss what can be done to remediate the situation. Pay careful attention to making a strong case for anything you claim is no longer an option.

Where does this leave us?

First, there is no taking back money from the project or canceling funding after the fact. When the project was funded the backers’ money went directly from them to the creator. We missed the window.

One of the best things you can do, if reversing the damage entirely is impossible, is to at least try to limit the damage.

Second, the project page has been removed from Kickstarter. The project has no place on our site. For transparency’s sake, a record of the page is cached here.

Transparency is indeed important, though when the offense is material that should be pulled, it’s difficult to be both transparent and to reduce the harm by removing the harmful material. This option, providing a link to’s cache, is a decent one.

Third, we are prohibiting “seduction guides,” or anything similar, effective immediately. This material encourages misogynistic behavior and is inconsistent with our mission of funding creative works. These things do not belong on Kickstarter.

And this is a declaration of intent toward prevention of future harm, by explaining what will be done proactively to change the circumstances through which the original offense happened.

Fourth, today Kickstarter will donate $25,000 to an anti-sexual violence organization called RAINN. It’s an excellent organization that combats exactly the sort of problems our inaction may have encouraged.

This is just gravy. This is above and beyond. It suggests that the people with the purse strings felt some monetary restitution was in order to make up for a money-based error. It will go a good way toward showing good will and commitment to actually fixing the underlying problem, though it doesn’t fit in the context of every apology.

We take our role as Kickstarter’s stewards very seriously. Kickstarter is one of the friendliest, most supportive places on the web and we’re committed to keeping it that way. We’re sorry for getting this so wrong.

Thank you,


A little pro-us cheerleading at the end — with a reiteration that the errors were entirely your fault — doesn’t really hurt. This can make or break your apology, though. Don’t overdo the pro-us message, as it can severely undercut any appearance of contrition.

Otherwise, this was practically the template for how we do acknowledgements of error in the IT industry, especially the parts about harm mitigation and prevention. It shouldn’t be difficult to do this sort of thing genuinely, and without redoubling the harm. It’s not like we haven’t, as a society, practically perfected this skill.

I don’t see why something like this from Ron Lindsay with respect to his disrespect of the people involved in WiS and feminism in general, and preferably also one from CFI to make up for their underwhelmingly vacuous non-statement, would either be hard to swallow for the parties involved, nor would fall flat or on deaf ears.

HOWEVER, time is an important factor. The more you drag your heels on trying to make up for things, the more the wounds fester.

In Ron Lindsay’s case, it’s been a month now. The longer the grievances go unacknowledged and without the least hint of trying to make up for them, the more unlikely the community and the aggrieved are to actually receive any sort of apology, even a genuine, contrite and solid apology like the one here from Kickstarter.

Anatomy of an apology

16 thoughts on “Anatomy of an apology

  1. 1

    I would be shocked and amazed if any apology were forthcoming from Ron Lindsay at this point, even a mushy one. But if he were to respond like Kickstarter did, even at this late stage, I would hold him in better regard. (Even “high regard”, were he to explain the delay in a way that made sense.)

  2. 2

    To be fair, I don’t think links were provided to the offensive material from the Kickstarter. It wouldn’t have been approved in that case. That took detective work (Google) to find.

  3. 4

    HOWEVER, time is an important factor. The more you drag your heels on trying to make up for things, the more the wounds fester.

    See also: Paula Deen and the Food Network’s poor initial response. They made the mistake of “ending the contract at the end of the month”, then backtracked and cancelled it immediately.

  4. 5

    It’s kinda nice to have such a timely actual apology; the contrast between this reaction and e.g. Lindsay’s so clearly demonstrates why we’re not extending him the benefit of the doubt, especially because this is not particularly difficult, assuming one actually cares about the harm one’s actions cause and wishes to not act in harmful ways.

  5. 6

    I mean, seriously: apologize (with a specific statement identifying what you did wrong so we know that you know), identify what steps you will take to mitigate any harm caused (if possible), identify what steps you will take to avoid the problem in the future, and perhaps apologize one more time. Simple. Lindsay could have easily avoided the WiS kerfuffle* by following the simple script, instead of doubling down and taking nonsensical pot-shots at Watson.

    *According the the CFI board statement, the “controversy” is what makes them so unhappy – shouldn’t they be mighty pissed that he didn’t defuse it when he so easily could have done so? A big part of the justification for CEO salaries – to the extent that there is any justification – is that the buck stops with them, and they take the blame (and perhaps resign) if something goes wrong. The (nominal) job insecurity requires higher pay to compensate for the (supposed) periods of unemployment.

  6. 7

    I was taught something along the lines of: “Admit you did something, Acknowledge you caused harm, Apologize for the harm, and then Advance (this is the behavioral change you should expect from me).

    Most public apologies fail at the Admit/Acknowledge stage: “I can see how some people might think what I said/did racist…”.

  7. 8

    tl;dr: “Apologize Simply | Simply Apologize”

    Two qualities greatly contributing to sincerity are terseness and directness. Kickstarter used very few words in its apology, used just a sentence or two in each paragraph, and mostly used simple, short, declarative sentences. All of that contributed to the sincerity of their statement.

    Form often is content. — pH

  8. 11

    This is just gravy. This is above and beyond.

    I think that this isn’t actually just gravy. Not in a secular world where gods don’t have their thumbs on the balance, anyway. In a world without gods, it behooves us to make amends for our wrongdoings, and every good apology ought to include not only a plan to prevent future harm but an offer of restitution or amelioration of the harm done already.

  9. 12

    Good piece. Back when I was still at FTB, I had a (possibly long-winded) 4-part series on the same issue: How to Be Wrong.
    In Part 3, I teased out an apology into 7 separate pieces (pretty much what you’ve done here):

    1. You admit it.
    2. You explain it.
    3. You accept full responsibility.
    4. You say you’re sorry.
    5. You fix what you broke.
    6. You promise never to do it again.
    7. You remember and learn from it.

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