Apologies

m. note: I wrote this when it was relevant to the news, but never published it.

Bill Maher wrote a NYT article on The Opinion Pages chastising our culture of apologizing. This was published March 21, 2012. This was after he made questionable comments about Tim Tebow, defended Rush Limbaugh’s first amendment rights, and called Sarah Palin a cunt. Maher, famous for being opinionated and using less than polite language, is somewhat right. Not about Sarah Palin, but about our culture.

We love apologies. Basically, whenever there is a scandal, controversy, or someone just says something someone else doesn’t like, there are public apologies.

Juliette Lewis said she didn’t like the performance of Saturday Night Live musical guest Lana Del Rey. Later she retracted the comment. People are allowed to have opinions.

Like many people on the internet, I listened to “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” a gripping and, ultimately painful, account of conditions in the Foxconn factory that makes Apple products. His story, it later came out, contained many little lies, and some big lies. This American Life, which posted the original story, posted a followup where they retract the story. In the retraction, Daisey informs us that he “[doesn’t] live in a subjective universe” and that “stories should be subordinate to the truth.” When asked why he didn’t tell the truth, he responds by saying that “everything in this story is built our of the trip and the time I spent on the ground, so I don’t know if I would accept that interpretation.”

Ethan Zuckerman wrote about the nature of truth, narrative, and advocacy in a manner much more in-depth, educated, and thoughtful than I am capable of. He is an expert. I am an opinionated twenty-something from the internet. I live in a world that is highly personal and perhaps even agoraphobic. The vast majority of my time is spent inside my head. Most of my experiences of the physical world around me break down to a series of facts. The temperature is 10 degrees C. The sun is bright and the clouds are white and grey. The florescent lights above my desk are white like clouds, without the warmth of bulbs or the milk green tint of the compact florescent in my room. When I open my eyes, the colors I see are dull compared to the bright ones in my mind.

My experience is entirely subjective.

During Retraction, Daisey doesn’t apologize or even admit the extent to which his facts are fabricated. Instead, he gives a poor apology and justifies himself, changing his tone throughout his story. I think it was an awful apology, but I also think it’s honest. Is there really value in a meaningless apology?

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Blame

There was a thing on twitter about a video featuring a geeklist t-shirt. Deets are up on Storify. I’m not going to talk about this at all. Even though I want to. Especially the “you represent your employer, but someone we give approval to use out image is not someone who represents us” dichotomy. Instead, I am going to look at the apology letter Geeklist put out.

I’m going to do this in a random, haphazard way. Some of what I say will be based on my understanding of feminist rhetoric, but most of it will be based on my opinions about apologies.
At the heart of it, an apology is about acknowledging that something you did had a negative impact on one or more other persons. The trick about apologizing is that when you do it, you don’t actually have to understand why they’re upset (people don’t always have to be rational–i.e. their being upset doesn’t have to be based in rationality.) By apologizing, you are showing that you respect how someone feels.

A proper apology has three parts:

  1. The apology
  2. Taking responsibility for your actions
  3. Acknowledging that your actions caused trouble (emotional, practical, etc) for someone else.

There is an optional part four, that is not always actually necessary or accurate. In part four of an apology, much like in Confession, you say (and mean) that you will try not to do it again.

Examples of apologies:

I’m sorry I was late. I hope it didn’t cause too much trouble.

That one doesn’t include part four. This one does.

I’m sorry I killed your vampire boyfriend by driving a stake through his chest. I realize you must have cared about him a lot, and turning him into dust caused you pain. I’m going try really hard to not kill any of your boyfriends in the future.

The most important thing in the second apology is that the speaker isn’t trying to put the blame on anyone else. They don’t try to justify their actions. They don’t mention that the vampire boyfriend in question is a parasite who will bring only pain and suffering and death to the world around them. They didn’t say he attacked first. They say that they killed him. They say they recognize it hurt the person. They say they’ll try not to kill any more boyfriends (regardless of whether they are monsters who may or may not deserve non-existence.)

So now let’s look at the Geeklist apology.

Hi everyone. We never meant to offend any person and are very sorry as we clearly have.

This sentence is a pretty good start. I don’t think the word “clearly” is necessary, but nbd.

Geeklist is all about inclusion of every geek. Male and Female alike.

I recently had a conversation with someone about the use of the language “male and female” exclusively. I guess that’s because, incidentally, nearly every trans-person I know I know through geeky things. It would be nice if people (myself included) used inclusive language more frequently, but I’m not ready to talk about that now. I am more bothered by the capitalization of female.

We hope you’ll forgive the company and founders and use this as an opportunity to hire more women, support women in tech and their great achievements and promote a healthy work environment for all.

I’ll uhh assume this was just a poorly constructed sentence. I’ll happily use this as an opportunity to hire more women, support women in tech and their great achievements and promote a healthy work environment for all. Will you?

I like how this starts though. “We hope you’ll forgive [us].” It’s a great semantic way to push the power into the hands of the offended parties. It acknowledges, in a respectful way, that their feelings are of value.

We did not create the video at question.

Okay. Now the real problems start. In Apologyland (and in Offensiveland) this actually doesn’t matter. In general, in the conversation, blame is not placed on Geeklist for making it. Blame is placed on Geeklist for endorsing it (and non-comment is an endorsement of sorts), and for not visibly trying to remove it.

What makes this a particularly tricky is that the first thing Geeklist says acknowledges that the video isn’t ideal, and that they should do something about it. This is them saying that whatever they did was because of something someone else did. The seed of this whole argument (the video) is the fault of someone else.
Either Geeklist’s brand is under an free\/open (free or open) license, or the person who used it a) violated their IP or b) did so with their endorsement. I do my own stuff and then label it CC-BY-SA. At work, I do stuff and label it CC-BY-NC-SA. I recognize someone could take these materials and, you know, use them in ways I don’t find acceptable. Like to make fun of me, for example. But, unless they were violating the license, I couldn’t actually do anything (short of changing said license.) However, I am entirely capable of saying that I don’t approve of this reuse/remix. And I would do so. Alternatively, Geeklist could issue a cease and desist, sue, or just allow them to be arrested for a reported copyright (or trademark?) violation. Or, they endorsed the use of their brand. And, well, that’s what they’re apologizing for, right

Their website has an “All rights reserved” copyright note at the bottom. Let’s hear what Geeklist has to say about these copyright violators. (Or people they endorsed. Either way.)

It was created out of love for Geeklist by a great Woman entrepreneur at Design Like Woah for us.

Why is “Woman” capitalized? Anyway. This is the classic “X (who is part of the offended group) did it, so it’s okay. Or at least, you know, it’s not our fault.”

I get it. I really do get it. When an individual within a group makes a statement about that group, it’s easy to assume that it is okay. But, once you learn it’s not (and hopefully the objectification of women in geek culture is known by someone who is such self-professed geek), it stops being acceptable.
Regardless of that, this is a bad thing to do when apologizing. Don’t blame someone else. Srsly.

She makes shirts and made awesome ones for us. She also goes way out of her way to help us ship to our men and women alike globally who love our brand.

btws, you guys, men and women all over the world love our brand! On a real note, I don’t know why this is here. He blames her, now he says she’s great.

She is fighting to grow in a male dominant sector and marketing to her client. Please support her and buy her shirts. http://www.designlikewhoa.com/

Oh! I see. She’s just trying to be a woman in a man’s world. It’s not her fault either. You are all victims of circumstance. She’s doing what she has to do to survive in a man’s world. She didn’t mean for the video (that she, and not you, is responsible for) to be offensive, it was just, you know, what she had to do. And, if we buy her shirts, then she won’t have to do that anymore. Good to know.

[ Correction: Just spoke to Gemma, her videographer owns it and she is trying to contact him (thanks so much Gemma)]

“btws, you guys, not her fault either.”

As for our handling of the twittersphere. We could have handled it better.

This is one of those great opportunities to apologize that people often drop. Part of this is the language “we could have” carries an implication that there was an opportunity for something to be different (in this case better), but it was not. There is, again, no accepting blame. No one says “we should have done better.”

I know Shanley personally, have skyped and emailed her many times and interviewed her for a job at Geeklist. She is an awesome candidate that as a startup I was very sad the timing was not right to work together.

“Even though we said a bunch of awful stuff to her, we still think she’s good. I hope the internet doesn’t hold it against us forever that we threatened her job. In spite of the fact we think a person can’t have a private life and opinions outside of their employer, and that she was awful to her employer, we should have hired her and you can too.”

Of our 5 person team 2 are women and I am certain they can speak on our behalf as respectful gentlemen in the workplace who create a welcome environment for all. In my wildest dreams we would never wish to offend any woman [or anyone].

“The women I am in charge of at work, who I have the power of employment over (and I have already said that a company should get rid of people who publicly damage the company’s name), would agree that I, and my other co-founders, are respectful gentlemen in the workplace.”

Something we talked about at the FSF was that Amazon has done both good and bad things for the Free Software movement, and both of these should be recognized. In context, Geeklist might not be made of bad guys, but but they did a bad thing and we should treat that as it is. I think the fact he has a section on this idea is really deflecting from the point that something wrong was done. He doesn’t want to be responsible for his actions.

I also own a business with my wife where we have over 350+ women employees. I’ve built my career over 15 years working to make this world a better place for women, mothers, and children.

I’m skipping this as it’s more of the same. Also, I do wonder how he’s working to “make this world a better place for women, mothers, and children,” but that’s not relevant to his actual apologizing.

The initial request made sense and we were discussing finding Gemma to take it down, when we got taken off guard a bit by her continued comments. We handled those poorly. We apologize as well if our handling of the tweets offended anyone.

There are two points here worth looking at: response and blame. As Storify pointed out, which is a very valid comment, response time is SO important in PR issues. An immediate response, as I learned from The West Wing, is vitally important. This response can be as simple as “Hey, saw your comment, we’re looking into it now.” Instead, the language used at the time was an immediate response of “it was old and made by a friend, we need to update it with a less skintastic version.” When the takedown was requested (admittedly using the word “fucking”), the response from Geeklist was both immediate and reactionary, failing to address the issue.

If they were, in fact, “discussing finding Gemma to take it down” after the initial comments (within what I assume was a short span), then their response at that time should have said so. (Sorry, I know this is talking about the actual event, and not the letter, but I’m getting to that.) By mentioning their response, they are saying, again, that they’re not to blame for what happened. “We got taken off guard, we were just trying to be the good guys!”

After that, they again push the blame onto the “Twittersphere,” by saying that the people interpreting (reading) their comments are the ones who did it wrong by being offended. “If our handling” is a strong part of that. It’s like saying “If you happened to get in the way of my fist punching, I’m sorry you got hurt.”

In exchange, please direct this media attention to Gemma’s company and support her company by buying her shirts. A women entrepreneur in the valley who used our logo and the fact we wanted shirts to help promote her business to her clients too. Tech geeks.

As far as I can tell, this is them saying that they don’t like the bad press, so please pay attention to Gemma, who was involved in making the video or the shirts or something but doesn’t own the IP rights to any of these things. I actually just think this part is silly.

We are sorry.

The best thing said all letter.

The thing that gets me about this most of all (and sorry you had to read through two thousand words to get here) is that they never actually say what they’re sorry for in any way that doesn’t blame women. A woman made this, a woman used our logo, a woman was offended. They never really acknowledge that their actions hurt people in a way they were responsible for. “It’s your fault for interpreting this thing we didn’t do as offensive.”