Tiny steps

It’s Tuesday, and the internet is still offended. Why? Because a store owner in Missouri posted an ill-advised sign in his window, which was spotted and widely circulated on the internet. It read:

Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business

The owner of the Gelato Mio store saw something at Skepticon that upset him, which prompted him to put up this sign in his store window. You can read more about this on Hemant Mehta’s blog, which details the incident, and the response to the posting of the sign once pictures of it were circulated on the internet. Mehta’s blog is also the place to go to see a further apology from the owner of the store, which is as follows:

To the World:

Hello, my name is Andy and I’m the owner of Gelato Mio, a gelato shop located in Springfield, Missouri. There has been quite a lot of buzz and discussion concerning a picture of the sign I briefly posted in my front window Saturday evening. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my story and offer a heartfelt apology to your community. I messed up, plain and simple. This is NOT an excuse, but how it happened from my perspective.

I decided to welcome the convention downtown by offering the attendees 10% off their purchases at my store. A lot of the group from the convention were stopping by, being very polite and enjoying my Gelato. Saturday night started out as a great night. Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”). What I saw instead was a man conducting a mock sermon, reading the bible and cursing it. Instead of saying “Amen”, the phrase was “god damn”. Being a Christian, and expecting flying saucers, I was not only totally surprised but totally offended. I took it very personally and quickly decided in the heat of the moment that I had to take matters into my own hands and let people know how I felt at that moment in time.

So, I went quickly back to my business, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find, wrote the note and taped it in my front window. This was an impulsive response, which I fully acknowledge was completely wrong and unacceptable. The sign was posted for about 10 minutes or so before I calmed down, came to my senses, and took it down. For what it’s worth, nobody was turned away. I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their beliefs. I’m not apologizing for my beliefs, but rather for my inexcusable actions. I was wrong.

Guys, I really don’t know what else I can do to express my apologies. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails since the incident, and have done my best to reply to each and every one and express my regret for what happened. For the thousands of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. This is me as a human being sincerely apologizing for my actions.

To those of you who accept my apology, Thank You; it means a lot. To those of you who haven’t, I hope you will. I’m just a 28 year old small business owner who made a big mistake. I hope you see that I have not made any excuses, I’ve owned up to what I did, and I apologize.

For what it’s worth, an Atheist reached out to me to help me work through all of this and contact your community directly. I graciously accepted his offer.

I will give everyone who comes to my store this week 10% off as a token of my apology. Really, what’s more universal than ice cream?

Sincerely, Andy

So, Andy acted impulsively, realised the mistake he made, and apologised. End of story, right? Sadly, no, because there are still people out there who would rather make an example of Andy than accept the apology and move on. PZ Myers disagrees, and his objections are now posted as part of Mehta’s blog (and you can see a selection of tweets here). The comments for Mehta’s blog contain a disappointing amount of hate, hurt, and irrationality, and readers seem fairly split about whether or not the apology is to be accepted or not. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to come down on the “accept the apology” side of things, and risk the ire that this will, doubtlessly, bring.

I tend to subscribe to the “don’t be a dick” philosophy, because being a dick doesn’t help get the point across, and mostly just tends to upset and alienate people. For anyone who would like to respond by telling me that they are a discriminated against minority who face abuse every day, and therefore have the right to be a dick, I will pre-emptively counter by reminding you that I live in a country which has, enshrined in it’s employment equality law, the right of a religious, medical, or educational organisation to discriminate on the grounds of religion, and where the vast majority of schools fall under religious patronage, meaning that it is almost impossible to educate one’s children without faith. With that said, please do me the courtesy of not dismissing what I say because I “don’t understand” the discrimination people face.

I think that Andy, like all of us, is human, and that he responded stupidly to something that was designed to provoke a response. He is by no means the only person guilty of such a crime, and I would wager that, if we were to check our own blogs, emails, and Twitter feeds, we’d probably find messages that we regret posting, or that we think now, with hindsight, were posted too hastily. Many people who believe strongly in religion do not merely see religious criticism as criticism of the religion, but as a very personal attack too – I could talk here about the various regions of the brain thought to be associated with religious thought, and the psychosocio-development of religion, but it’s probably more succinct to say that religion and faith are very personal and important things to those who believe, and those who believe tend to identify that belief as a large part of themselves as a person. In short, Andy, as a believer, has an emotional attachment to his faith, and when he saw something that ridiculed that faith, it also felt like something which ridiculed him directly, and his feelings were hurt. He acted, like many of us with hurt feelings do – by lashing out.

Am I aware that it’s irrational? Yes. Am I aware that it is illegal? Yes. Do we all sometimes do irrational, and possibly even illegal, things when we are feeling hurt and upset? If we’re honest, yes. Do we all apologise, publicly, for our irrational behaviour once the fog of upset has cleared? Well, no, actually. Mostly, we don’t. We shroud ourselves in a cloak of indignation, rights, beliefs, and other such emotional things, and declare that we were right anyway, or that it’s a matter of opinion, or other such placations. We use the cloak of indignation to bat away anything that might damage or tear the cloak, lest it expose the flawed logic beneath it. Privately, we might admit that we were hasty, but publicly, we do not want to lose face, so we gather our indignicloak about us and continue on. Does that sound like the kind of behaviour that skeptics revere, or more like the kind of thing that we are renowned for ridiculing? It is, I think, much easier to maintain an air of indignant offense than it is to accept that trashing a menu online  or posting hundreds of fake bad reviews was also an emotional reaction that, in hindsight, may be unjustified.

I’m not saying that what Andy did was ok – demonstrably, it wasn’t; it was offensive, and illegal. What I am saying is that he seems to have realised that his behaviour was offensive and illegal, and taken steps to remedy it. Frankly, he could have simply left the sign there, turned away patrons, and picketed the con for the rest of the weekend, and depending on the area he was in, he may well have received popular support for such actions. The fact is that that’s not what he has done. He took down the sign once his initial upset had cleared. He apologised, and has done so again, explaining (but not making excuses for) his behaviour.

People like Andy don’t understand our beliefs (or lack thereof) simply because we browbeat them into submission. People like Andy may never understand how or why we don’t believe in Jesus or Mohammed or any other deity. It would be nice if, in the future, everyone understood everyone’s beliefs, but if we are honest with ourselves, we might realise that, while we know about the beliefs of Christians, for example, we don’t understand them. I can think of many reasons why someone might have faith, but I don’t understand them because, to me, they seem illogical or hollow or simply weak. I speak the language of science, and evidence, and proof, and they speak the language of belief and faith.

I’m not saying that atheists should lie prone on the ground and allow people to walk all over them, but what I am saying is that responding like an aggrieved extremist group does not do anyone any favours. Do you honestly think that, if his shop goes out of business, he’ll suddenly have a conversion experience, become an atheist, and start attending Skepticon himself? Do you think that a non-acceptance of, what really appears to be, a sincere apology makes you seem like the better person? Do you believe that making a loud example of this person will help anyone, in any way? I don’t. Tiny steps matter.

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20 thoughts on “Tiny steps

  1. Great post, Buffy.

    I totally agree with you that “don’t be a dick” is a fine motto to live by. Clearly, Andy behaved like a dick. That’s not good. Equally clearly, he has given a sincere and unconditional apology for his behaviour. That is good.

    In fact it seems pretty uncontroversial to me that such an apology should be welcomed. It shows that someone has learned from his mistake, which is really a great outcome when you think about it. Not to acknowledge that would be the act of, well, how can I put it? … a dick.

  2. What a lovely apology the bloke made. Far better than the half-arsed “sorry you were offended” pseudo-apologies that some people offer. The best thing is surely to reward such an apology by accepting it.

    You’re spot on about indignation as a defence mechanism.

  3. It amazes me how those who are continuing to cry “bigotry” long after the story should be over are failing to give the full context of what happened, and instead choose to twist the narrative to conform to their pre-conceived “Christians are dumb, evil fuckwits (or words to that effect)” position.

    For them, the story starts when Andy put up his sign. That is incorrect.

    Andy states that he visited the convention not knowing what to expect and stumbled in on what we later find out to be Sam Singleton’s Revival show, a parody of an evangelical service – a show which by all accounts is expressly designed to offend. It baffles me that anybody should be surprised that it fulfilled its purpose.

    And what happens when people are enraged? They take leave of their senses, and do silly things. Particularly if we bear in mind that, although Christianity is not a minority group on the national scale, within the confines of the convention, Andy would have felt as a lone voice among over a thousand.

    And, yes, what he did was a Very Silly Thing(TM). Illegal, some claim, with justification. However, its illegality and the sign’s parallels to those seen prior to the civil rights movement are not immediately obvious – particularly if we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who has just experienced being a minority of 1 vs. 1000 within the confines of the convention. The feeling of being a lone voice still lingers long after one has returned to the wider world where one is no longer in a minority.

    And, really, as Adam says, what else could be achieved? He made an error, which, in the cold light of day and after some rational, logical reflection, was realised as such. The reaction to the “intolerance” is to be commended, and appears to have had the desired effect. Anything further is just vengeance for vengeance’s sake.

  4. By the way, the only part of your post I take issue with is the penultimate paragraph.

    I think it’s a little simplistic to suggest that Andy’s actions arose from a failure to understand atheists’ beliefs. I think it’s more complicated than that. Speaking personally, I often become offended not by criticism per se (of course everyone has a right to do that) but specifically by the subset of that criticism which I believe is based on prejudice and misrepresentation rather than fact, particularly where I am unable to make a response (either by being unprepared to gather my thoughts, or when my voice gets drowned out by a sea of bile). Perhaps that was a contributory factor, not just a failure to understand?

    Also, from a personal viewpoint, I take issue with “I speak the language of science, and evidence, and proof, and they speak the language of belief and faith.” I think such binary distinctions are unhelpful and a barrier to future understanding. I speak the language of all five. Or at least, attempt to.
    Michael Grayer´s last blog post ..Margins for error—let’s see more of them please!

  5. If you ask me Andy is a bigger person than the people who wont let this die. He realized he made a mistake in the heat of the moment in the face of something designed to provoke a response and he was brave enough to face up to that and apologise unreservedly without excuse. What more do people want? What is there to be gained? Andy is no threat to any of you; would your time not be better spent tackling those who continue to use religion as a platform to attack and slander us with impunity?

  6. Good post.
    “If you amplify everything, you hear nothing” – Jon Stewart.

  7. Describe in consequentialist terms how a victim’s not accepting an apology is a wrong action.

    After that exercise, consider these questions: Does the sincerity of the apology matter? Are apologies magic? Do apologies ameliorate harm in any measurable way?

    • Poor victimized PZ. For literally HOURS he and a few others were told (through the most pernicious medium of PAPER SIGN no less) that the were not welcomed to have gelato. Clearly this is an unforgivable offense!

      • It was worse! The sign was up for TEN WHOLE MINUTES! Think of all the poor skeptics who didn’t get a chance to see the sign! They had to wait until they got home after skepticon and then wait for someone to post pictures of the sign so they could blog about it!

        Won’t someone think about THEM?
        John C. Welch´s last blog post ..Another book update

    • I suspect that you’re hoping I’ll answer very simplistically, and say that an apology should always be accepted or something similar, so that you can return by introducing a specific crime with plenty of emotional attachment, such as rape or murder, and then ask me again if it’s always necessary to accept an apology. I’m afraid that that’s not what I’m going to do, because while this essay-question style statement is nice (and a touch passive-aggressive), it doesn’t really address what I’ve said. I have not said that every victim to every crime should accept every apology. I have spoken about one very specific incident, in which I believe the apology should be accepted.

      It’s possible that you’re hoping I won’t understand consequentialist thinking, and so will answer “incorrectly”, allowing you to disregard the post above as a consequence (no pun intended). I’ll ask if you always adhere to consequentialist ethics in daily life, or if you’ve merely chosen them because you believe it suits this particular debate well. If I haven’t opened the discussion in purely consequentialist terms (and I haven’t), then it’s fallacious to demand that further discussion continues in those terms. I could equally ask you to discuss, in deontological terms, the implications of a victim accepting, or not accepting, an apology, but it would all be a lot of very abstract talk which relates only indirectly to the situation at hand.

      Considering your follow-up questions:
      a) Yes, I believe that the sincerity of the apology matters, but since none of us are mind-readers, if the apology (or any apology) is not obviously insincere, then one must look at the available evidence (namely, the apologies made), and decide sincerity based on that (and only on that). Many people are making assumptions about the motives for his apology, but they are just that – assumptions. You don’t know, any more than I do, what motivated the apology. I am willing to give Andy the benefit of the doubt, and believe that the apology was motivated by a sense of contrition. If you have evidence to the contrary, please share it. If not, then what you (and others) may think is just guesswork.
      b) Apologies are not magic, but I’m pretty sure you knew that, and weren’t expecting me to answer that they are. I don’t think that I’ve ever said that apologies are magic, but feel free to correct me if you find an instance of me mentioning their magical properties.
      c) Define measurable. Do apologies magically undo what has been done? No. Do they make people feel better about what has happened because they demonstrate that the other person feels bad about what happened? Sometimes, yes. Are these purely emotional results measurable? That depends on what you are using to measure harm amelioration. Is there some action which is always better than an apology for the amelioration of harm? No, I don’t think so.

      Some return questions to you then, based on the above; what do you suppose could happen that *would* ameliorate harm in this particular case? What do you suppose the ideal outcome would be here? And finally, describe, in consequentialist terms, whether it is a right action to cause someone to lose their livelihood?

      • And that my friends is what we refer to as verbal ownage! This issue a very minor thing that has been blown out of proportion just like the “elevatorgate” incident. This so called “crime” that the shop keeper “committed” cannot be equated to a something like genocide or rape.

        Sheesh get over yourself before you become the mirror image of a fundamentalist; you sad, bitter, pathetic, little person.

  8. As if to illustrate the point, this discovery about a pub landlord is making big waves in my hometown of Cambridge today:
    http://www.edlnews.co.uk/edl-news/edls-racist-pub-landlord
    (shame, because last time I visited, it was a great pub)

    In this case, we have strong evidence of sustained, unrepentant and overt hatred, which adds up to a good reason to boycott the business.

    In the Gelato Mio case, we have an isolated act of anger which the perpetrator now realises was foolish.

    I hope we can spot the difference.

  9. Great post. We’re all only human, as you say, and it’s fairly unlikely that we’ll never make any mistakes, so the important thing is to do what we can to make up for our mistakes. It’s nice to see that some people, at least, have grown closer and learned from the experience. I’m really glad that you came down on this side of the topic.

    Considering the issue itself, I did a little thought experiment where I asked myself how I’d feel if the issue was, for instance, racial or sexual. After trying a few variations, though, I think that was doing the original case something of a disservice. Some variations would make Andy an unspeakable jerk who most of us would find difficult to forgive while others would make him seem like an impossible saint who most of us would find difficult to exceed. As you said in your *excellent* response to Sheesh, your views on this matter depend on the specific circumstances; one couldn’t recommend an identical approach if all other details were changed.

    I must admit, I was saddened when I read “I can think of many reasons why someone might have faith, but I don’t understand them because, to me, they seem illogical or hollow or simply weak.” Maybe my feelings are just another version of the phenomenon where one feels criticised when that which one holds dear is criticised. When I first read that line, I felt like I was being called illogical, hollow, or simply weak. However, after a moment’s thought, I expect that such feelings are unfair when one considers that our friendship is based on respect as well as affection. At the same time, for that very reason, I try not to attach negative values to the reasons you have for believing differently than I do. I think people can believe differently and stress the importance of one paradigm over another without one person necessarily being more logical or intelligent than the other.

    Anyway, I’d rather not end on that note. Great post overall. I feel better for having read it, even if I’m sad that some people are hardening their hearts against forgiveness because they prefer to hold a grudge. It’s not a beautiful human emotion and doesn’t serve any cause, particularly including humanism.

  10. Just an observation, doubtless made by any number of other folk by now: Andy didn’t break any laws, he didn’t write that Skeptics weren’t welcome (let’s ignore for a moment the fact that skeptics aren’t a recognised minority in the ‘States so, even if he had, it still wouldn’t be illegal), he write that Skepticon wasn’t welcome. In the words of a friend, that’s not like a sign saying “Blacks aren’t welcome” or one saying “Gays aren’t welcome”, it’s more like a sign saying “No stag nights or hen parties”. Problematic, by all means if you’re on a stag or a hen and you want to go in, but by no means discriminatory.

    I know that this only tackles the question of legality but that’s all I wanted to do as I’ve seen a number of flimsy moral arguments mutate into legal arguments as soon as they were deflated.

    • I’ve seen similar observations made on some other blogs discussing this, Tony, but many seem to feel that the fact that Andy then went on to describe his business as Christian negated the skeptic vs. Skepticon distinction. I think there is an amount of validity to the point (not a huge amount), but overall I don’t agree, since I think that describing his business proudly as “American” wouldn’t mean that non-Americans weren’t welcome.

  11. Every time I see the variations on “What if Andy had RAPED SOMEONE” or “What if his sign said NO BLACKS” I think that the person saying that is actually pissed that Andy apologized, and didn’t keep the sign up. Nothing sucks like getting ready to smack down a hater and having them commit the unforgivable crime of saying “Holy shit, that was stupid, I was stupid, it was inexcusable, and I’m really sorry I was so damned stupid.”

    Great, all raging and ready to go, and HE ACTS REASONABLE. WTF?

    You know what? He didn’t rape anyone. He didn’t “ban” black people. He had a stupid sign up for ten minutes, pulled his head out, took it down and apologized. “What If” was an interesting show in the 70s, but it is not a way to justify “Fuck him into the ground” and “if you’re any kind of atheist, you won’t eat their either”.

    That stuff is EXACTLY as stupid and bad as the idiot pastor who wants an Atheist registry and tells “good” christians that they shouldn’t patronize atheist-owned business. To all the folks joining s PZ’s little crusade, (the source for my quotes), congratulations, you’re now what you hate.

    I will also note that despite Skepticon being a multi-day event, none of these people who were there, and now rain down fire and thunder on Andy like Odin himself, *none* of them had the temerity, the courage, the *spine* to actually walk in and say “Dude, what’s with the sign?”. It is only when safely ensconced behind keyboard and monitor in their Lair Of Atheist Solitude that they suddenly find their outrage and bravery. “Internet Balls” is the phrase I use for them. It’s only after they are hundreds/thousands of miles away that they can properly dress down Andy for his UNFORGIVABLE BEHAVIOR.

    I guess they were too busy to actually address it in person.

    (cue the “personal safety” excuse)
    John C. Welch´s last blog post ..Another book update

  12. The fact that Andy owns up to his behavior and makes a genuine effort to make amends — that’s what it is by the way, no matter how much PZ and his Pavlovian monkeys shriek and rage and fling their shit all over the place — is a testament to his character.

    The nature of what happened goes without saying, but on some personal level, I’m glad he did it precisely because it offended the self-victimizers. Ruffle their feathers some and show the whole world how “rationalists” and “skeptics” behave when provoked: without dignity, without class, without restraint or regard for common decency. For you see, accepting it and moving on like NORMAL people is accommodationism, a treasonous crime punishable by the forcible insertion through one’s rectum of a deceased porcupine of unusual size!

    Skepticon’s speakers alone would have been more than enough to keep me away this year (Rebecca Watson and Greta Christina? YAWN, no thanks!), but this and Elevatorgate are enough to keep me away from all (ahem) “skeptics” events in the foreseeable future. I would find it unbearably difficult not to throw rotten fruit.

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