Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Pennsylvania Atheists and the Makings of a Proper Apology

It appears that the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Atheists not only needs lessons in graphic design and marketing. They also need a moral lesson on the makings of a proper apology.

Hint: "I am sorry that you are all such idiots" is not an apology.

Their apology referred to a billboard they put up that showed a black slave and the Biblical command, "Slaves, obey your masters." The billboard was taken by many to be an offensive statement against blacks. In light of the controversy that followed,

I want to say that I'm truly sorry that many people have misunderstood this billboard. It was never our intention to use race as our message itself.

(See: Atheist Billboard Controversy Stirs Racial Tensions in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)

This pretty much falls into the general category, "I am sorry that so many people misunderstood our message" fits in the category of, "I am sorry that there are so many idiots out there."

Here are the five elements of a proper apology illustrated with sample text:

(1) The apology itself.

I am truly sorry.

(2) A statement of personal responsibility. where the agent describes exactly what he or she did wrong.

We created a billboard that was so poorly designed that a casual observer could take it as an endorsement of black slavery when, in fact, it was meant to condemn slavery.

(3) An explanation as to why the action was wrong - demonstrating that the agent understands the nature of their mistake.

Slavery was a horrendous institution and the last thing we would want to do is give any impression that those horrors can be justified. That is actually why we decided to put up this sign. When the Pennsylvania legislature declared this the Year if the Bible, they effectively a book that contained this commandment to slaves, "Slave, obey your masters." They endorsed it. We opposed it.

For nearly the whole first century of this country's existence, Southern slave owners not only used this to justify slavery. They taught it to their slaves as a way of coercing those slaves into obedience even when their earthly masters were not looking. They told their slaves, "Even when I am not watching you, God is. When you do not fear me, fear Him."

We find it to be abhorrent that the Pennsylvania Legislature would make such an endorsement and sought to express our abhorrence with this sign.

However, we messed up. We messed up. We made a sign that, to somebody who encounters the sign without knowing its context, appears as an unpleasant reminder and a potential endorsement of the institution of slavery. It looks like a sign that some Southern plantation owner might have put up on the slave house wall. That is the last thing we wanted to do. That fact illustrates another fact that, in communication, context is important. We did not consider the fact that a lot of people who saw the sign would not know its context. I repeat, we messed up. I understand now - what I should have understood a month ago - how that sign might appear to somebody who saw it in a different context.

(4) A statement of the steps that will be taken to prevent similar events in the future.

We accept that it is our responsibility to make sure that our message is clearly understood. In the future, when we condemn those practices that contributed to and supported slavery - and we will continue to do so - we will make sure that we use a message that clearly condemns slavery. Unlike the Pennsylvania Legislature, we have no interest in even appearing to endorse those practices and institutions used in the defense of slavery. We will see to it that our future actions reflect that standard.

(5) A statement about how one intends to make up for the mistake.

In the light of these events, I am asking for a meeting with the leaders of the local NAACP and other leaders of the black community in order, first, to convey my apologies in person. And, second, to discuss how we may avoid similar mistakes in the future, and how we may better serve goals that are important to both of us - goals that include a fair and just treatment of all Americans regardless of race.

This is what a proper apology would look like.

Atheists are fallible human beings. We are not perfect. The practice of making an apology is well designed to reduce the damage that come from those imperfections and setting things quickly onto the right track again. When we make mistakes - as we certainly will - we should be quick to recognize them, and to put into practice those principles of apology that can quickly put things on the right track again.

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